We know a great way to make workplace writing easier and better. Maybe it can help you….
We met Becky at a writing training we did for a top global professional services company…we’ll call it POSH. Becky spent two years after graduating from a prestigious college earning a Master’s Degree in Public Policy (MPP); she told us at a coffee break that she did extremely well, loved it. Mixed her interests in economics, statistics, policy research, and environmental issues. Crossed disciplines, switching gears at a moment’s notice, always learning something new. Worked in groups, an activity she loved as much as the best artisanal gelato. She said she’d spent a semester in Florence—the bridges, red roofs, the cantuccini with Vin Santo. Visited the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi. Discovered Tuscany and loved its cuisine, especially the gelato (white chocolate with pistachio sauce).
After graduation, she landed a great job with POSH that offered to help her pay back her staggering student loans. She was ready to be debt-free and make the environment a better place one project at a time. One of the prime prerequisites for getting the job was “outstanding writing skills.” After six months on the job, she ended up at our writing training (which, by the way, is never intended to be either remedial or punitive).
As she described her situation, she had run into the “corporate writing buzzsaw.”
The report drafts she’d been writing came back shackled with tons of vague comments (“tighten this up” “cut” “???”) and track changes. The overwhelming number of supervisor comments persisted through several drafts. Sometimes, as she explained, the comments were about changes she’d been told to make in previous drafts—so the comments were now commenting on themselves. When she asked, her too-busy supervisor tried to reassure her, told her to keep trying, and declared that she’d know what she was after when she saw it. Also, a little irritated, the supervisor reminded her that, after all, she’d been hired in part because of her outstanding writing skills.
Instead of feeling every day that she was making progress in her work—making the environment a better place—Becky felt disheartened, chastised, and depressed by all the re-drafting that seemed to be getting nowhere fast. She found herself too often playing Candy Crush during office hours, looking at images of Florence on the web, and printing recipes for great Tuscan-inspired dinners.
Finally, Becky’s supervisor suggested that she take our writing training. We were glad to have her, but I’m not sure she was glad to be there. She told us she thought of herself as a great writer, an assessment based on the fact she’d gotten nothing but “A’s” on all her writing assignments from high school through grad school. In fact, she confided, she thought she had better writing skills than her supervisor, who kept commenting on her drafts and asking for endless revisions.
We begin our writing training by asking participants to talk about their workplace writing challenges. Becky had been told that her writing was too academic. Several other participants had been told the same thing. So we talked a little about that.
We wondered if “too academic” meant too many “big” words? No, that didn’t seem to be the issue. These participants had been told that they were “wordy.” So, we wondered, did that mean they took too many words to express a particular thought? And, again, that didn’t seem to be the problem. “Wordy” seemed to mean just too many words in general. So we decided that “level of detail” was an issue as was “what information to put in and what to leave out.”
The report Becky was working on required research. There was a lot to know. Her topic had to do with dwindling wild salmon populations in Washington and Oregon.
Becky created graphics to show the rate at which the wild salmon populations declined over the past 50 years and how jobs in the salmon-fishing industry in those states declined. She estimated the amount of revenue these states lost as a result. She even studied which kind of wild salmon were most affected in waters in Washington and Oregon: Bull Trout, Chinook, Chum, Coho, Sockeye, Steelhead were all listed as threatened in certain waterways, according to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Becky even supplied specific information about the ESA.
Becky asked if we’d be willing to read her most recent draft just to see what we thought of “the writing.”
From a college English teacher’s perspective, the writing was fine. She certainly provided plenty of information. Her thoughts seemed to us both logical and clear. Her sentences made sense. She used punctuation correctly and had even bothered to run “spell-check.” But the writing did strike us as “academic.” And, if forced to give a “real-world” grade to the report draft, we’d have to give it a D+.
Her report draft was stricken by The Curse of Knowledge: it failed to consider and re-create the reader’s state of mind. The utter complexity of the report showed clearly that Becky had done her best to turn herself into an expert on the subject, and now she was trying to turn her reader into an expert, too. She had become trapped in the nuance and intricacy of this issue. But what reader interested in the depleted wild salmon really wanted to know that The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service manage most of the nation's 655 million acres of federal land. BLM is responsible for about 264 million acres of public lands, managed by 12 state offices that are responsible for supervising the operations of 175 field offices nationwide. The Forest Service is responsible for about 192 million acres of public lands, managed by 9 regional offices that are responsible for supervising the operations of 155 national forests. ???
We asked who her reader was. She thought there were many possible readers, starting with her supervisor, in-house lawyers, and upper management, as well as the general public, media, and any companies/agencies interested in the wild salmon issue. But we wanted to know to whom POSH would eventually send the report (who was paying for it?). And who was the person(s) responsible for agreeing or disagreeing with her assessments and implementing her proposed recommendations…or not?
About this, she was not 100% clear. She knew the report would eventually go to the Ranking Minority Member on the Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies and to the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives. But these were just oversight committees. After a little digging, we realized it would also go to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management and the Chief of the Forest Service. They would be the ones to agree/disagree with the conclusions and recommendations.
We also asked her what specific BIG questions her report was supposed to address. It turned out, buried in the cram, there were three specific big questions. But, after doing all her research, Becky had lost track of these questions and assumed that all the information she provided would be adequate to address those questions—as well as offering what she called “bonus information.”
We suggested that she create a one-page document to discuss with her supervisor. We asked her to list the three specific questions. Under each question, she should give a single-sentence answer along with a sentence-style outline of main points and sub-points that would be necessary to support the answer. We asked her to add a bulleted list of recommendations after each of the main questions and supporting outline. We also suggested that she write a single summary paragraph of no more than 200 words (double the length of this paragraph) that told the whole “story.”
A few days later, we checked her one-page document before she met with her supervisor. It looked okay as a “talking paper.”
After meeting with her supervisor, Becky told us the 30-minute meeting had been incredibly helpful. They had adjusted the wording and the order of the questions and had agreed on a bottom-line “story.” (Becky told us she’d met with her supervisor before but that the discussions had never been this directed and specific.)
Becky went on to write another draft. But we instructed her to tell her supervisor that the only comments she wanted were about the CONTENT and the ORGANIZATION of the draft. Becky’s supervisor’s previous comments had ranged from soup to nuts. For every potentially helpful comment on the content, there had been maybe ten comments on tone, word choice, and sentence structure.
Becky got back comments that were quite specific and very helpful. The “final draft” did undergo some wordsmithing, but Becky was totally excited that, at last, the whole writing project seemed to be making real progress. The draft was completed, vetted, and sent to its requestors. Becky told us she was able to “take an accomplishment” for having finished the report—we think that’s probably a good thing within the POSH office culture.
And what writing lesson did Becky learn? You have to “manage UP”! Instead of trading volleys of drafts and reviewer’s comments, headaches and anger-management seminars until the writing somehow gets done, it’s far more efficient to meet with all internal stakeholders to discuss a summary and outline before drafting begins.
From our point of view, it makes sense that without clear and carefully crafted questions, no workplace writing will ever go smoothly (or at least as smoothly as can be expected when several personalities are involved). It’s vital to get buy-in on message up front. Without it, the project is doomed. We described this to Becky as getting the editor to weigh in BEFORE the writing begins.
MORAL: We told Becky that, in our opinion, she had gotten confused. She thought of herself as a writer—just as she’d thought of herself as a writer in school, in college, and in grad school. But workplace “writers” are not actually writers; they are QUESTION ANSWERERS! Workplace writing won’t succeed, if it’s at all complex, unless all interested parties get on the same page at the very start and stay there.
So much “bad writing” and managerial frustration over the poor critical-thinking and writing skills of employees they manage is really poor writing-project management—the lack of a systematic, well-defined system for generating effective, efficient documents.
Becky should have practiced managing-up: 1) inviting her supervisor in for a bowl of white chocolate gelato with pistachio sauce, much, much sooner so they could “cuss and discuss” a well-developed planning document like the one-pager we suggested; and 2) requesting a CONTENT/ORGANIZATION review of an early draft before a discussion of style, etc.
Better luck next time, Becky. And buon appetito.