How can a business train people in the skill of professional English writing?

It's commonly accepted that U.S. students today are less proficient as writers than had been the case two or more generations ago. I manage a law office, where writing proficiency might be presumed. We screen for writing ability in our hiring, but writing samples and cover letters aren't always representative of the candidate's true abilities.

Clear and persuasive writing is key to what we do. Lawyers who have not developed that ability are on a short career path, with us or with any firm. Sometimes the technical writing skills are there, but the basic rules of grammar, usage, sentence structure, and self-editing are missing.

I'd appreciate your ideas as to how to involve those who need training in this area in a training program, without making it appear punitive or degrading ("bonehead English," as they used to call it in school). For example, I was thinking of a couple of off-site one day sessions that would be open to anyone who wants to attend, but to individually ask those who most need the training to attend, so that there is no stigma to attending.

Any thoughts and recommendations will be most welcome. Thank you.


US41's picture

I am a writer. I am convinced that writing is not a skill. Writing is a talent. Some people have the talent, and some people do not. If you give eight people who are terrible writers a thousand hours of writing experience with red pen on everything they do, two will turn into skillful writers and the other eight will never improve.

Therefore, it is my recommendation that your business not attempt to train people in writing. Hire people who already demonstrate the talent. Implement testing for writing ability during the application process.

If you use training as your method, you will have to be prepared to fire a vast majority of your new hires.

rwwh's picture
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I disagree with US41 on this one! I know I used to be a terrible writer, in school I always got very low grades. But exercise can help. I will never become a great writer, but I've been told I can be convincing now.... and that is what you are looking for...

Very concrete: I did enjoy Barbara Minto's Pyramid Principle.


bug_girl's picture

I have seen radical improvement in my students' writing with coaching.

Some of it is clearly defining expectations--a lot of current students are used to the informal sort of chatting they do online with friends. (I realized yesterday, looking at one of my former student's facebook pages, that I didn't understand a single word in one of her chat threads. *shudder* )

You'll need to explicitly spell out what "good" writing is before you can point your new hires at it. They need to know what the standards are.

An easy place to start is spelling and word use. That's something you can clearly measure (# of misspellings and misused words).

One of my favorite papers from when I was still faculty was a 3 page paper on ADD: "Attention Defecate Disorder." Global Spell Check is not your friend :)

nachapman's picture
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US41 is right in thinking writing is a talent. But so is playing the piano to concert standard. Most of us who play just want to be competent at bashing out a tune, in time and hitting the right notes. Writing is similar.
I have made my living as a writer and editor. I try to coach whenever I can on what is good business writing.
There are a number of behavioural traits that can improve anybody's business writing skills. These can be taught. They also need to be adopted, like any discipline! Spelling, or at least learning how to use a dictionary; checking simple grammar rules; writing mainly short sentences, but adding long ones when appropriate so that there is a rhythmn to the prose.
Louie, I would encourage you to try out a professional training course. Some are better than others. I would work with the trainer to tailor it to meet your organization's needs and then encourage your trainees to soak themselves in the concepts, coaching them along the way.

louie's picture

This may post twice -- I accidentally cleared the screen.

Thanks for the comments, which I appreciate, and please send any additional thoughts/input.

Before my first posting on this, I had been dealing with the writing problem under the feedback model. "May I give you some feedback? [Yes] When you submit a draft that hasn't been carefully proofread, and that has the organizational and grammatical errors that I've circled here, it delays the client getting our final work product, and makes us untimely in the client's eyes. That hurts our chances to receive new cases." The model breaks down at the next sentence: "What can you do differently next time?" People who have not been trained to write well don't know how to change how they write. Only a real superstar would think, "Gee, I should look online for a writing class and take it after hours to improve my skills." So feedback alone isn't enough.

My quandry is how to offer the training in a way that clearly gets the people who most need it to participate, without it coming off as "You're illiterate." Again, any ideas/experiences will be appreciated.

ashdenver's picture

When you hit that "break-down" area of the Feedback model, I've been known to take a few liberties and launch into the Socratic Method -- question them into finding the 'right' answer.

The model breaks down at the next sentence: "What can you do differently next time?" People who have not been trained to write well don't know how to change how they write. Only a real superstar would think, "Gee, I should look online for a writing class and take it after hours to improve my skills."

If you're getting responses of "I dunno," I would use it as an opportunity to also expand their perspectives, in a way.

"Have you ever tie-dyed a shirt or changed the oil in your car?"

"I've done the (one) but not the (other)."

"If I asked you to go do (the other), what would your first step be?"

Example replies might be:
  • "I would check on Google for advice or a manual."
  • "I would call around to see if there are any classes for this type of thing."
  • "I would ask so-and-so who is an expert in pretty much everything."
  • "I would ask YOU if you could tell me how to do it!"

From there, you've got your actual answer to the question of "What could you do differently next time" and you can show them how to apply it to the writing sample.

"If you would check the internet for instructions on how to tie-dye a shirt, do you think there might be writing resources online?" (I happen to know that there are, btw.)

"If you would look for a class to learn how to change your car's oil, do you think a seminar or a continuing-education class could be of value to you for your professional writing?"

"If you would ask an expert, do you think a good professional writer here could serve as your proofreader?"

In other words, by asking a series of questions, you can still get them to answer the question effectively and have it seem like they got themselves there so it feels less punitive

ashdenver's picture

Oops - forgot to mention: don't forget the POSITIVE feedback any time they do great (or even just "better than before") with writing things. I've got a DR who tends to let emotions get into her emails and since I'm new to the role, I don't want to launch into adjusting FB right off so I waited til I found one that was essentially emotionless and quite professional in tone and praised her for the manner - even though there were still some nit-pickier punctuation issues.

RobRedmond's picture

A couple of thoughts:

* 95% of manager success is in finding the right people. While someone who is not a talented writer can be coached up to acceptable, you are not looking for acceptable writers. Writing is the core of your business. I don't think people who fail to proofread their work or cannot put together logical arguments would be good hires for you.

* Feedback is a little tool for little jobs. Feedback is for small behavior corrections. Feedback is not for giving direction to people who do not know what they are doing. Feedback is most useful when asking people to not interrupt, or when giving specific praise over a new behavior that you want to see repeated. It's great for the little things. If someone does not know how to do something, then feedback falls flat. Modifying the feedback model? Not really the direction I would go. Just use coaching if you have already hired the person and are stuck with the people you have on hand. Then use feedback to comment on their behaviors while attempting (or failing to attempt) to succeed at the goals you set.

If you use feedback to deal with people when they don't even know what they are doing, you will not be able to give 90% positive feedback and be successful.

Coaching is a big tool. Coaching someone is a big job - use sparingly and with some systematic focus. Feedback is like tweezers - little tool - little job - use liberally.

I think if you try to use feedback on writing, you can make some improvements. For example, "When you start your email response with "NO" what happens is everyone gets ticked off before they even read the message. What could you do differently?" is a little tool being applied with precision to a little problem that is rapidly solved. "Stop saying No at the beginning of email." Done.

But teaching someone a skill - that is a training and for the manager a coaching experience.

People who are primarily logical argument writers and speakers in their jobs should not require training in that area.

That is a hiring problem.

-Rob Redmond

ashdenver's picture

Btw, it's been ages and ages since I've done any hiring or HR work and I'm ashamed to admit I haven't really kept up-to-speed on the legalities of screening practices but I do believe so long as the screening tool is used consistently (across all applicants or within a specific job type's group of applicants) and is easily measurable & quantifiable, you can use it.

As such, you may look into getting an impromptu writing sample from candidates. In searching for Payroll jobs, I've had prospective employers give me all sorts of goofy tests ... from "which form is filed at the end of the year: the 940 or the 941" to "calculate this person's gross-to-net pay using the attached table." These types of things are generally black-and-white where there is definitely a wrong answer which makes them easier to quantify and measure.

However, I'm thinking that putting forth a simple scenario and asking the candidate "Please draft a reply email to tell Bob Jones at ACME Corp that his order is delayed / his case is before the judge / whatever applies to your industry" and then maybe contract with a freelance copy-editor. Send the sample replies to an indepedent third party who can (with Track Changes activated) proofread it for grammar, spelling and punctuation. Set the bar for pass/fail at an appropriate level. Perhaps spelling is tops (worth 10 pts per instance), grammar is secondary (5 pts per) and punctuation is incidental (1 pt per). (Honestly, who here knows what a "serial comma" actually is - besides me?!) Mistakes noted by the third party are weighted accordingly and the marked up copy is then translated into a numerical score.

It's possible that such screening tools already exist and can either be purchased or used on an as-needed basis for your company (or even just your own group.)

* A quick Google turned up this link to a Canadian version:

Personally, following M&M's advice on the Thank You note after the interview, I use that as a form of secondary writing sample. People tend to show their true colors in that setting more often than they do in the cover letter which has usually been proofed by everyone they know. If the candidate chooses a handwritten note (as suggested) and leaves it with the receptionist or is postmarked the very day you talked with them, you can *really* see differences in style.

Oh, and in the good old days, the Lotus version of Word used to offer a writing sample analysis insofar as stating "This sample was written at the 7th grade level" or "This sample was written at the 12th grade level." (Did you know that the average newspaper is written to the 4th grade level?!) I want to say it was called Grammatik -

Hope something in this rambling of mine helps ... someone, anyone! LOL

fchalif's picture
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In addition to encouraging writing training and proof reading, encourage them to read. The MT book list is a good start as it relates to business, but novels can also be good as they can help the reader to get out of the writing as I talk weakness. Reading other people's writing exercises the brain to other people's writing and voice.

JPMasters's picture


I am writing a paper for an International Public Sector conference on "Writing for Government". The conference is in March, so I hope to have the paper and powerpoint presentation finished early March. I am currently reviewing some literature and interviewing senior government public servant and (hopefully) some Ministers and Member of Parliament on what they believe works well, their pet hates etc. Once I have posted the documentation on the web, I will come back here with a link.

Kind regards


jhack's picture

Thanks, Jason!

John Hack

davidperez248's picture

It sounds like effective writing is a required competency for your company. With this is mind, you should hire, and measure performance with this competency in mind, weighted appropriately. Communicating the importance of effective writing, and encouraging your DR's to take it upon themselves to be more efficient and effective with their writing is the first step. If you've hired good, smart employees, you should be able to let them run with it.

Also, I would recommend Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" as a must read for anyone who needs to write the English language professionally. You may also consider bringing in a professional trainer and inviting everyone to learn some general writing tips with an offer for follow-up coaching for anyone interested.

RobRedmond's picture


Writing and reading are separate mental activities using different areas of the brain. The only thing in common is that language is used. I do not believe there is a correlation between the two. I have published two books, I doubt I have read 300 books in the 35 years I have been able to read.

Likewise, listening and speaking are separate skills and do not overlap, either.

When I learned Japanese, I found that my speaking was excellent after five years of study and two years living in Japan. My reading was next. Listening came next. Writing last. Studying one did not help any of the other three skills.

To become a good writer - write. Write A LOT. And write to a critical audience that will pick on your grammar and spelling. Your skills will improve rapidly doing that.

-Rob Redmond