Just Unbelievable

Michael Skapinker, writing in yesterday’s Financial Times:

A few weeks ago I received an email from a US professor whose dean had reprimanded him for trying to teach his students how to write. The professor, who has been teaching business and law students at some of America’s top universities for 50 years, told an MBA class that clear writing would be essential in their careers.

Each week, the professor assigned the students to compose a one-page memo, which he would read and mark. The objective was to improve their skills at conveying information clearly and concisely.

The students complained vigorously to the dean, and the dean urged the professor to discontinue the memo-writing exercise. He (the dean) supported the view of the students that in business today, they did not need to know how to write…that with emails and tweets as the medium of exchange, the constant back-and-forth would provide an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear writing. Ultimately, the dean insisted that the writing exercise be made voluntary, with the result that by the end of the term only one student (a non-native English speaker) was submitting the assignments.

For those who think bad writing is okay because it can be clarified and corrected by emails and tweets, try sending a really badly-written sales proposal to a potential customer. You are likely to find that the sales opportunity has been blown in a way that will not allow for all those endless back-and-forth emails and tweets. Or, if your actual and apparent authority within the corporation are sufficiently high, you may find that you have unintentionally made a legally binding and potentially very expensive offer on behalf of your company.

The consequences of bad writing within a company can also be quite malign. If your proposal for an improvement to the Gerbilator product line is sufficiently confusing, it’s likely nobody is going to bother investing the time needed for all that back-and-forth to understand what you are actually trying to say. More likely, they will choose to devote their attention to someone else’s crystal-clear and well-reasoned proposal to spend the engineering and marketing efforts on something else entirely.

Skapinker notes that it is very odd that in an era when parents are seeking all possible advantages for their children (“exposing them to Paul Klee at the age of four…and teaching them to sing ‘Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes’ in Mandarin”) these parents do not pay serious attention to developing and improving the writing skills of the kids.


Both clear writing and effective speaking (with or without PowerPoint) are tremendous advantages in business, and surely in other types of organizations as well. Anyone who graduates from a university without developing these skills has been cheated…or (more accurately in most cases) has cheated himself with the university’s collusion.

22 thoughts on “Just Unbelievable”

  1. Bad writing skills go along with, in my opinion, the decline of reading. My youngest daughter, while a beautiful girl with many friends and considerable enthusiasm, does not write well. She also was not interested in the books I bought her when she was about ten. Her mother was content to let her watch TV. When she was in college, I tried to function a bit like that professor in reading and editing her papers for class. I think it helped but, as she majored in French, I got to the point where I was not much help.

    She has gotten a good job offer and has a couple of interviews with good potential jobs still to come next week. It may be that employers think like that dean but I am concerned that these kids will top out soon or have to do the learning after college. It is appalling that MBA students are complaining about attempts to improve writing skills but that is the world we live in now.

  2. In my post Readin’, Writin’, and the Business Shtick, I quoted an article in which a financial-services recruiter talks about the writing problem:

    “As part of his interviews with M.B.A. students, Darren Whissen, a financial-services recruiter in California, provides an executive summary of a fictitious company and asks them to write about 500 words recommending whether to invest in the business. At worst, he receives “sub-seventh-grade-level” responses with spelling and grammar errors. “More often than not,” he says, “I find M.B.A. writing samples have a casual tone lacking the professionalism necessary to communicate with sophisticated investors. I have found that many seemingly qualified candidates are unable to write even the simplest of arguments. No matter how strong one’s financial model is, if one cannot write a logical, compelling story, then investors are going to look elsewhere. And in my business, that means death.”

    I suggested that wise companies will protect themselves from inarticulate new hires: Whirlpool, for example, is requiring MBA job candidates to deliver a 10-minute oral presentation of their resume. (Good, but still subject to gaming if the candidate knows this policy and can prepare intensively before the interview. Should be supplemented with a 10-minute oral presentation on a subject not announced in advance, with 1 hour of preparation time.)

    The financial recruiter quoted above said “No matter how strong one’s financial model is, if one cannot write a logical, compelling story, then investors are going to look elsewhere.” I would go further. If an individual can’t write a reasonable clear explanation of an investment opportunity, then I question whether he is likely to be able to develop a meaningful financial model of that opportunity. Writing and thought are definitely connected.

    The CareerJournal writer and the University Relations guy at Whirlpool blame the prevalence of inarticulateness on the rise of e-mail and instant messaging. I disagree. I think it’s mostly caused by the abandonment by universities and K-12 schools of their liberal arts mission in exchange for stew of random and/or trendy courses–if the Internet had never been invented, things on the articulateness front would be just about as bad.

  3. My younger son, who was not very interested in reading when in elementary and high school, is now a fireman and reads constantly. Usually, he is waiting for the last book I have read until I finish it and can pass it along. My older kids are readers but are in their late 40s and predated much of the internet revolution although not TV. Maybe the spark will come in later years, like my son, but it is a handicap that could have been avoided. The parents who avoid TV have the right idea but it takes two.

  4. David Foster,

    Writing and thought are definitely connected.

    Seconded. This is central to the education we are giving our school age kids.

    I also second the idea that e-communications are at most tangential to the decline of language skills. I suspect the ubiquity of text and e-mail may simply be exposing the preexisting problem, in that many of today’s texters and Facebookers would be attempting no written communication otherwise, and therefore would not be displaying their ignorance publicly.

  5. What this university is doing is in my opinion FRAUD…morally if not legally, and maybe that, too.

    By offering an MBA program, they are effectively representing that they have some credible understanding of what knowledge and skills people need to succeed in business. I think they would have a real problem coming up with a preponderance of serious executives to agree with the proposition that “good writing doesn’t matter because of Twitter and stuff.” (The phrase “serious executives” does not include airhead fringe consultants and flippers of flash-in-the-pan media companies.)

    Worse, the dean chose to override the opinion of an experienced subordinate who apparently DID have some degree of understanding of the requirements of real-life business.

    Whether he did this based on his own ignorance or on a desire to placate other trendy administrators, we can’t say, but pretty bad either way.

  6. I agree this is nuts but you can’t really teach good writing. It’s what, and who you read that matter. A wide reading of great writers is really what is required, good examples carry a lot of weight.

    Not something you find much in schools these days though.

  7. He (the dean) supported the view of the students that in business today, they did not need to know how to write…that with emails and tweets as the medium of exchange, the constant back-and-forth would provide an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear writing,

    That business school dean is a fool. As much as possible, even in e-mails, the writer needs to communicate as clearly as possible the first time. Yes, mistakes can be made. But they need to be avoided. Imagine the potential damage done with an e-mail with misunderstood language that gets widely circulated. Would the dean assume that a student, once having had a poor job interview, would have gotten a second interview? So it goes with a poorly written business presentation. You very seldom get a second chance.

    Before high school, I liked writing. I developed a writing phobia as a result of bad experiences with writing papers for high school English and History classes. I therefore avoided taking courses at the college level that required writing assignments. In college took only three courses combined in English and History. My writing phobia also was a factor in choosing my STEM major.

    In the real world, I found out that anyone with a professional level job needs to be able to write in clear, concise language.[Consider Sociology-speak as the model to avoid, on pain of death.] I have since overcome my writing phobia.

  8. I’m not totally sure the dean was a b-school dean…he was apparently teaching both business students and law students, so it may be some sort of cross-department program.

    Quite a few comments on the discussion thread at the FT article.

  9. “you can’t really teach good writing”

    This may apply to style but much of what I see in young people’s writing today is an absence of the ability to write proper sentences. I still mentally diagram sentences as I write. I also edit medical students’ writing of medical histories and short papers on research subjects. Some of them may mentally be annoyed at my doing so but none have complained.

    Style may be hard to teach but it is a long way from the trouble I see. I am always thankful for the nuns that taught me to diagram sentences. I still have grammar texts from Catholic school 60 years ago.

  10. Know who could write a clear, crisp memo?

    Winston Churchill. There are many great examples in his 5 volume work on WWII. One classic example is his common phrase “Action this day.”

  11. Yes, Churchill’s memos provide excellent examples of good memo-writing.

    And example of a unclear memo, with disastrous consequences, was the order sent to the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. The order originated with the overall commander, who was located at a high point with excellent visibility, and said in its entirety:

    “Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French Cavalry is on your left. Immediate.”

    While Raglan’s intent was to keep the Russians from hauling away several naval guns that had been captured from the Turks..something entirely feasible of accomplishment…misinterpretation of the order by the officers on the spot led to the Light Brigade turning the wrong way and attacking a heavy and well-dug-in Russian force that was a mile away.

    The ambiguity of the order was only part of the problem, though, personal relationships also played a part. The Light Brigade commander, Cardigan, could not stand his immediate superior, Lord Lucan, and the staff officer charged with delivering the message, Nolan, thought they were both morons and was in a state of high irritation at what he considered to be the incompetent handling of the cavalry. Had there been anything like a decent professional relationship among these men, the order could have been discussed and clarified in a few seconds.

  12. As a youngster, I read of the travails of the Earthworm Tractor Company salesman Alexander Botts. I guess it stuck as an example of the need to be concise and accurate in writing. Maybe not.

    From LSU law school faculty….


    An example of fine letter writing and the missed messages of poor communication.

    Here’s a sample:


    You can muck things up exceedingly well if you work at it.

  13. Someone should modernize the Alexander Botts stories with a salesman working for, say, an enterprise software or industrial automation company.

    Imagine if Xerox PARC had hired an Alexander Botts type as a lead business development guy. They might have wasted a few million extra dollars…or they might have actually created a successful and history-changing business venture.

  14. The argument that “we don’t have to teach students to write clearly because of twitter and e-mail” is actually just one incarnation of an argument that is made with some frequency: “We don’t have to teach students to do X because of computers and stuff.”

    One version of this is that you don’t need to know any *facts* because you can always look them up on Google. See my post Thinking and Memorizing for the problems with this point of view.

  15. Learning to write coherent sentences and paragraphs is an integral part of learning how to focus your thoughts and arrange them in a logical order to convey information. There is no substitute for the boring drill of practicing this skill over many years of school, with higher expectations at each level, until the student is proficient.

    The current educational system in the US is a fraud, and is being further degraded by people like this dean who is more interested in pandering to the students than the infinitely more demanding role of being a true educator.

    I always focused on reading, as I was raised, and emphasized books at every stage of the kids’ development. They soon learned that cheap old dad, who could say no to all sorts of treats and toys, would always say yes to a book.

    I have edited their essays and papers over the years, and would often go over the flaws I found, explaining why I had marked something up the way I had. They didn’t always like it, but the finished product usually got a pretty good grade, and they learned something each time.

  16. veryretired: I appreciate your comment as my children participate in ‘boring drills’–actually, the practice is not so boring as one would think. Homeschooling. Writing each and every day for all of them. Reading, retelling, sequencing, memorization. It’s a beautiful thing. And not only does it produce excellent results, you get a very fulfilled, truly interesting, truly ‘enlightened’ person in the end.

  17. When I was in grammar school, the nuns would have us doing sentence diagramming on the blackboard and spelling drills where the student who misspelled had to sit down until only one was left. You can’t do that in school today because a child might not win every time.

    The only time a student can be chastised is at the college level when they object to some left wing orthodoxy

  18. David Foster @June 29th, 2013 at 3:17 pm
    One version of this is that you don’t need to know any *facts* because you can always look them up on Google. See my post Thinking and Memorizing for the problems with this point of view.

    Those Ed School denizens who claim that “thinking skills” should supersede knowing “facts” usually end up producing students who preface each statement with “I feel.” Which turns out to be the limit of their “thinking skills.”

  19. My favorite Winston quote is from an exchange with a general he was not happy with. At the end of his, less than gentle, message he put:

    “Pray arm me further by your reply”

  20. It comes to mind that if you cannot state your problem, thus your goal, clearely and concisely, you will spend a lot of time dithering about wasting resources until you finally discover what it is that you wish to accomplish.
    Sloppy thought processes and concomitant writing skill, IOW, put anything down on paper {or your iPad} and it is THEIR problem until they ask you for more information. Put of until whenever the effort it takes to figure out what you are doing. People of this caliber are EXCELLENT at being ‘meeting attenders’, and actually may have ‘perfect attendance’ but for what?
    My memory of Botts & Earthworm was that it was so humorous as I read the mis-communications 55+ years ago. The inattention to detail and the ‘slippage’ that occurred when communications ‘crossed in the mail’ was hilarious, until you had to pay the bill.
    “Teachers” today are taught that THEY should be ‘creative’ in their teaching methods, with new ‘lesson plans’ customized to their classroom, etc. I say creativity belongs to those who have shown expertise, not the new kid on the block. But, then again, I am old now, so have many experiences to draw on.

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