Software

Tech pros: Don't forget to develop writing skills

If you think that because you're a tech pro, written communication skills aren't important, you're wrong.

I recently received an email from a career advisor who works with students in various technology programs. She said many of the students think their writing courses are a waste of time. She asked if I could weigh in on this topic. I would be glad to share my thoughts.

Let me begin by taking the point of view of someone who has hired many, many people over the years: If you can't communicate through the written word, then don't bother coming my way. Think that's a little harsh? It may be, but here are a couple of the business facts behind my attitude:

  • If I have to spend extra minutes of my already stretched time trying to decipher an email from you, then you are an impediment to productivity.
  • It is vital to me that other departments think of my department as capable. I don't want any of my employees embarrassing me in a poorly written memo or report.
  • It is, hands down, the most easily transferable job skill.

This is not to say I expect you to write like Hemingway. No one wants your emails to be spellbinding, but you have to be able to communicate with your co-workers and end-users. And, unfortunately, once you find yourself in the working world, you'll discover just how little of that communication will be face to face; it's mostly email or status reports in the form of Word docs.

But don't take my word for it. The National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges surveyed 120 human resource directors in companies affiliated with Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from U.S. corporations with combined annual revenues of more than $4 trillion. This is what the survey bore out:

  • One-third of employees in fast-growing service sectors have some writing responsibility (two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility).
  • The ability to present oneself persuasively and articulately on paper is a big part of individual opportunity in the United States.
  • Most of the new jobs in the years ahead will emphasize writing. If students want professional work in service firms, banking, finance, insurance, and real estate, they must know how to communicate on paper clearly and concisely.
  • Writing is a "marker" attribute of high-wage work.

Joseph Tucci, the president and CEO of EMC Corporation and chairman of the Business Roundtable's Education and the Workforce Task Force says: "With the fast pace of today's electronic communications, one might think that the value of fundamental writing skills has diminished in the workplace. Actually, the need to write clearly and quickly has never been more important than in today's highly competitive, technology-driven global economy."

Think of learning to write like learning to drive: You're really not going to be able to get anywhere without the skill.

Note: This blog post is also available as a PDF download.

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About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

37 comments
Gabby22
Gabby22

If your audience isn't happy with what you produce - and writing's a big part of that - they'll mark you down. This will reduce your value to current and potential employers. Even spelling and punctuation errors will count against you with many readers. Strangely I've found that many software developers write extremely well, but there are horrible exceptions. To me it comes down to care in your work. If you care about your product, you'll get the written stuff right. If your writing skills are low, I assume your care factor is low or at least only applicable to what *you* think is important - a danger signal in either case. The worst emails I get are from a CEO client. He *can* write well but when he flicks something to me it's often misleading or comes out as garbage. Sometimes this results in me doing the wrong work. He knows this but is prepared to take the risk. I forgive him - he pays regardless, and promptly, and comes back for more.

thezar
thezar

Please tell the TR dojo that misuse of apostrophes, getting the wrong word (even though it sounds right), etc. are just as (maybe more) important when you write for thousands of tech people as when you write to your boss or your customers (same group as the first, oh well).

denny1960
denny1960

Toni, Proofreading is also an important part of writing skills. Case in point: the last sentence in paragraph two of this article states "It may be, but here a couple of the business facts behind my attitude:" The word 'are' should be inserted after the word 'here'. Sorry, just had to point that out. Keep up the good work!

psquare11
psquare11

Hey Toni, re-read the third sentence in paragraph two. Proofreading seems to be the hardest writing skill to master.

rwparks.it
rwparks.it

I would also add that time constraints in the IT world can limit perfect grammar. Central point - understand your audience and write in their terms. One can be brief and communicate needed point(s). Also see: 10+ tips for keeping your writing sharp and professional.

Tik-Tok
Tik-Tok

Good article. Clear and persuasive writing is vital today, more than ever. Every IT project's success depends on clear project plans, requirements, design documents, meeting minutes, test scripts, and reports -- not to mention emails. I had years of writing and editing experience before working in IT -- first as a technical writer, and now as a B.A. My most important transferrable writing skills have been: * The ability to think analytically. * The ability to organize ideas logically. * The habit of trying to know my audience and crafting information to fit. My biggest challenge in moving into business and technology roles has been communicating *concisely* rather than writing in long, expressive paragraphs. I've learned to use bulleted lists, tables, boldface type, and diagrams as well -- whatever it takes to get the message across quickly. My busines writing won't win any Pulitzer prizes, but that's OK. The goal is to get the job done.

Englebert
Englebert

Some of the best techies I came across had the worst writing skills. One had to read their e-mails a few times trying to decipher what they're saying. Beyond the IT world, even reputable media make spelling mistakes, some of which are : . Mother load (s/b mother lode) . Devided (divided) . Comradery (camaraderie) . Cow-tow (kow-tow) . Concise manor (Concise manner) . Saavy (savvy) . Martial (marital) . Principal (principle and vice-versa) . Mediavel (medieval) . Leardership (leadership) . Discreet mathematics (discrete mathematics) . Impromtu (impromptu) And so on....

bus66vw
bus66vw

I have always had problems with reading support documentation. The turning of tech speak into an understandable documents and in many cases for me, the documents have been translated from another language which can and does make for additional errors. I have found I can interpolate the intended meaning of support documentation much more easily by working on and maintaining my writing skills. That does not mean everyone must be able to write a novel. I would much rather have a poorly written readable note versus voice mail that is unattainable.

IT-b
IT-b

ABSOLUTELY! Writing accurately, concisely and with good grammar is key to shortening the "Reply All" email chains. Questions and misunderstandings can be dramatically reduced by good writing. In addition to good grammar, spelling, punctuation...remember to use accurate terminology for the audience, and proper brand names. If your audience is not techy, don't fill your emails with technobabble. If they are techy, use the right technobabble. As for brand names - companies spend a lot of time on those. Spell them and capitalize them correctly. Thanks Toni!

rose1964
rose1964

I agree 100%! I hate poor grammer. It's funny, but you had a typo "i?s mostly email or status reports".

ddreibelbies
ddreibelbies

Thank you for the frank and accurate article.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

I argued against a class we had at work on reading body language. I agreed that words only constituted 7% of the information passed, but I said at work with e-mails, then instead of spending time teaching folks to read and modify their own body language, we ought to be spending time teaching people to read words well and also to write well. Two sides of the same coin. Writing is essentially telling a story. I think it would behoove the English and Business departments at colleges to come up with some new sorts of classes. Reading and writing Creative NonFiction was invaluable for me. Knowing the principles of fonts and color schemes and graph legends are also important. As with body language, there are presentation factors beyond the words themselves. The college classes currently available focus on making formal business letters dry instead of informative, making reports wordy instead of pithy.

Beothuk
Beothuk

I couldn't agree more. In my position I receive (and send) dozens of emails a day. I am constantly involved in document review. It bugs me no end receiving an email that I then have to waste valuable time trying to decipher what they are saying. The same applies to documents staff generate. Although we have standard formats, fonts etc, all set up in MS Word templates, many staff fail to use them correctly. In these emails and documents I routinely find poor spelling and atrocious grammar. I've sent some subordinates on courses to improve their writing skills. Several turned out to be a waste of money. A few turned out really well. With most I see some improvement that will, probably, improve with time and practice.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

I appreciate your zeal pointing out the typos in my article on Firefox keywords, but I think you're improperly equating an occasional keyboard slip with an inability to successfully convey one's thoughts through the written word.

huberl
huberl

As well! Although everyone makes occasional mistakes, one expects an article about writing to be better than average.

Gabby22
Gabby22

Proofreading is a separate skill (and a talent as well). If you've got it, then all you need is pride in your work and the time to turn it into something useful. But knowing what's right and good is essential in both good writing and proofreading. In a former life I was often subject to scientific reviewers, many of whom had their own preferences, often wrong.

truckingal
truckingal

. . .school, that is. I'm seeing writing and grammar mistakes at the supposed college level that should have kept the writer in third grade until he got it right. For some reason, our public school systems have decided reading and writing are expendable skills, as is math.This c/c/p should make the problem glaringly clear: "(name removed) I will be walking across the stage in a few months with a BA in Lang. arts elementary education, it feels so good to say I have to kids, 23 and I never gave up." So, she intends to teach English to children? All I can say is, I hope the elderly among us DONT RETIRE! It wont be pretty . . .

Tik-Tok
Tik-Tok

How often does "medieval" come up in a professional IT environment? :) Probably not as often as it should!!

heres_johnny
heres_johnny

I believe the 'martial' and 'discreet' errors may actually be Freudian slips; you could see how marital relations could quickly become martial, and Lord knows it's important to be discreet when doing math. No one wants to see equations lying around willy-nilly. ;-) My favorite malapropism is 'tow the line'. Do tell- where exactly do you intend to tow the line to? Do you need extra cables for that? I'd much prefer you 'toe the line', as in, follow directions or meet a standard. I must also disagree with Toni. I'd much rather people wrote like Hemingway, a man famous for getting to the point quickly. Just leave out the drinking, fishing, fighting, and f*cking, and we'll be fine.

Ron K.
Ron K.

They often make one themselves. It's grammar with an a.

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

Fixed. (Although that was less of an issue of not being able to write as it was not being able to type well.)

zentross
zentross

There is a time and a place for everything and I am commonly mystified over the choices of communication and the *unexpected* consequences that the sender gets as feedback. It is not only writing and appropriate use of body language (they both do count for something), but the timing of their delivery. For instance, an urgent request is e-mailed in and expected to be acted upon within ten minutes. What if the recipient went for coffee, is in a meeting, or called in sick? The initiator would have been better served by just picking up the phone, but couldn't be bothered. I agree totally with the need to maintain proper grammar and spelling in written communications, but contend that the art of interpersonal communications is becoming mangled in many forms. Appropriateness, timing, and delivery are just as important as mastery with the mode chosen.

smankinson
smankinson

Become a pro at deciphering poorly written documents and you will always be needed.

dhearne
dhearne

Writing courses usually are a waste of time. Anyone who is intelligent enough to master a given subset of technical skills is intelligent enough to have a firm grasp of reading and writing skills in his/her mother tongue. That said, people working in a second (or third...or fourth!) language should spend some time in both speaking and writing courses. Further, unless you are POSITIVE you are doing it correctly, do not use colloquialisms in a foreign language. My personal peeve, "That is a mute point." The correct word is 'moot' not 'mute'

naveenmetta
naveenmetta

I see all good comments. However, no value added suggestion. Please add some tips and suggestion to help others and help our self. Let me start first: I use NaturaReader text to speech (there is free version) to read my e-mails before sending, to see how it sounds when some else reading my e-mail.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I'm more of a learn by doing, kind of person. The problem is that the majority of people don't even read, unless forced to. I'd recommend reading both technical and non-technical items and writing about anything.

AlexT01
AlexT01

It bugs me to read a sentence which I then have to waste valuable time truncating.

yadavshashi
yadavshashi

Well we all have our pros and cons regarding writing. Does anybody have any suggestion how to improve your writing skills?

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is, indeed, a separate skill. On account of letterpress printing, slugs of type locked into a block, secured by a chase, amounted to a galley. This was rolled with ink, and, in case you got any of that on you, you removed it with white gas. Then, a strip of paper was placed upon the galley, and it rolled. The impression, a galley proof, was then inspected by proof reading. Not for spelling, grammar, syntax, propriety, and such. That is [i]copyreading[/i]. So you kept the Linotype operator happy. You would mark only things like, "bf", or broken typeface; or, a scrunched-up " ~ " to indicate spacing. Lots of other funny marks. Each mark, though, had only to do with typography. The flagged slugs, composed of a low-melting alloy, were extracted and dropped unceremoniously into the melting pot to float and dissolve, ready for new slugs. The operator was never happy with me. Lots of copyreading remelts way into the wee hours of the deadline morning. Edited to add ___________________________ There is an old guy hereabouts who knows a hundred more times about this than I do. If he sees this, he is sure to correct one such as myself who stained himself from the editorial side.

Beothuk
Beothuk

All the time where I work. Usually when someone is describing the project management processes we have to use :)

zentross
zentross

There are key skills to develop that lead to a general improvement to writing in any language. Take time to evaluate your intended audience. Learning to recognize your intended audience permits you to lace your message with appropriate language that will be better received. For instance, addressing a room full of non-techies on the status of current infrastructure and lacing it with a high degree of technical references is likely to have your audience quickly looking for an interpreter or alternate source of information. Now, the message would be maximized in delivery by addressing their concerns. How much will recommended improvements to infrastructure cost? What kind of competitive advantage does the recommended upgrades offer? Can a potential increase in revenue be ethically given to show them an idea of their return on investment? Keep the message clear, but tailored to the specific needs of your audience. Grammar and spelling take time, effort, and practice. Try to write a 100 word piece a day and review it the next day. I did this by maintaining a journal. As you write and review your writing for mistakes, you will learn more about your weaknesses and be able to improve further. For English, I keep a Webster's Grammar Handbook, a dictionary, and a thesaurus as regular staples to my library. Dictionary.com has been a great online resource for writing while online. I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

Gabby22
Gabby22

I sit corrected and have changed the title accordingly.