The Work-Essential Skill of Writing

May 13, 2014

On Sunday, I was enjoying one of the few quiet moments in an otherwise busy house, reading The Washington Post. At the top of the Jobs Section ran a headline that made my jaw drop: “Are writing skills necessary anymore?”

I was floored.  Are they nuts, I thought? The answer is so obvious. Pulling the section from the others, I shook it loose and offered my own incredulous answer with a resounding, “YES!”

I quickly sat down at the kitchen table and read the article and found that  the author had reached the same conclusion that I had. Indeed, writing skills are necessary (no kidding). The article led me to think about this time of year, when people across the country are graduating from various levels of schooling, many of which are about to enter the toughest school of all—that of “life.”

There are lots of skills a person needs to be successful in their chosen profession. Be it technical skills or mastery of a particular science, trade or discipline, or even how to dress for success and interact with people in different professional atmospheres, all require some measure of classroom time or one-on-one mentoring, as well as real-world experience. Effective writing is no different. Yet, it is a skill that seems to be increasingly at risk nowadays.

Some will undoubtedly blame the advent of texting and instant messaging to the abbreviated ways people address one another. Others may point to the lost art of letter writing in an era where a quick e-mail query or response is thought to suffice as a legitimate reply to a friend or professional peer. Whatever the cause, good writing is a craft that seems to be harder and harder to find in the professional world.  Today we have more words and content around us than ever before, but amidst all of those words flying across our computer screens and smartphones and in the pile of magazines stacked on our nightstands, finding words with meaning in thought and deed is tough.

That’s probably the reason why good writers—if you have them around—are such a value to an organization. Most anyone can talk in response to a question posed to them, but being able to put those words to paper (or computer screen) is a skill worthy of recognition. Likewise, solid verbal presentation skills are certainly great to have, but unless presentations are recorded and shared in some electronic format, no one hears them but a limited few. The written word, on the other hand, is limitless, particularly in our ever-more connected and digitized world. 

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with some extraordinarily smart people.  From PhD’s at some of the most notable educational institutions in the world to grizzled graduates from the school of hard knocks, each has brought something unique to the various work situations in which I have encountered them.  While there were lots of differences between those people, one of the things that always stood out for me amongst them was who could write (and who could not).

 More often than not, I’ve seen people pass writing assignments (big and small) to someone else.  Their reasons for doing so range from, “that’s someone else’s job” to “it takes too much time.”  The only excuse I consider plausible was that which I heard most often: “It’s hard.”

Good writing is hard work, and every successful writer—be they an author of a bestseller, an award winning newspaper columnist, or a prolific and well-trafficked blogger—will tell you they got there with a lot of hard work. The same holds true for people who write in various roles in the professional world.  If they are good at it, it’s because of the chances they took to pick up their pen (or keyboard) and put down their thoughts in writing. What is more, good writers never rest. They challenge themselves with different formats, tighter deadlines and often more difficult assignments. While the framework of “subject, verb and predicate” is the makings of a good sentence, being able to use them in different ways is absolutely necessary for personal and professional success.

Does everything they’ve ever written read like it came off the pages of Faulkner or Hemingway?  

Absolutely not but if it sounds like the point your boss was trying to make with a client or to their superiors, you just made yourself an essential part of the organization. 

The rarity of good writing is an opportunity for new graduates (and seasoned professionals) to make themselves essential to an organization. There are few greater or more important titles for a young person entering the workforce than “essential,” and every person I’ve ever met or worked with who could write found themselves in such a spot.

That’s probably why I found the Post’s headline so provocative.  With competition in the workplace at an all-time high for good paying positions, one way to truly separate yourself from others is having a solid set of writing skills. Without them, you’re just another non-descript cog in the wheel, rather than a gear that moves the organization forward.

The skill of writing does that. 

If new graduates looking ahead to more years of schooling or their first “real” jobs think they’ve got it made when it comes to writing, they’re kidding themselves.  Every educational and professional environment you enter is going to look for you to write a particular way.  If you have the core writing skills that enable you to adapt to that environment, you’re going to be just fine in that swim lane.  If you don’t, it will become very apparent how fast you will sink and that has never been “essential” skill celebrated in any workplace.

It’s an argument that I’ve made with my own kids with their writing assignments for school as well as work colleagues in the various places I’ve worked in the public and private sectors.  When you can write effectively, you truly make yourself “essential.” 

There are few better feelings to have in your career than to be needed. One sure way of capturing that feeling is to build the uncommon skills that make you invaluable. This potential to become essential to and successful in the workforce is the answer to the Post’s question of whether writing skills are necessary. They are necessary, if you want to succeed.