Is it really a writing problem?

Rachael Dullahide Writing process

Some people are naturally good writers; others are not so good. Yet, as with most skills, if you are trained in writing techniques, and you keep practising, you can usually improve what you produce.

Sometimes, however, poor writing at work is just a symptom, not the actual problem. Long flowery sentences, muddled thinking and an illogical structure may indicate the writer has a problem with their analysis. And, unfortunately, writing training alone cannot address a fundamental analytical deficiency.

So, as a manager, how can you tell whether a team member has a writing problem or an analytical problem? It’s pretty simple usually. Ask the person to write about something non-work related. The topic can be anything—their favourite hobby, what they did over the weekend, their last holiday destination.

Set some rules:

  • The piece must contain three or four paragraphs, with each paragraph containing at least three sentences.
  • The piece must be persuasive—that is, it has to convince readers to do or think something related to the topic.
  • The person has 30 minutes to write the piece ‘off the cuff’.
  • The person must also produce a skeleton structure, to show how they ordered their points/arguments.

Reading the piece, look for whether (1) it is logical, (2) it flows well and is easy to understand, (3) it has an obvious ‘call to action’, and (4) it is persuasive. If the piece ticks all these boxes, then the person’s writing is not the problem.

In other words, this exercise shows the person knows how to write when they are familiar with the subject. So, at work, their problem may be that they don’t know how to break down a complicated issue, identify an underlying problem and/or analyse possible solutions.

Or maybe the writer is just not confident with the content. This can happen when a topic is unfamiliar or complex.

If a fair to good writer can’t produce decent text, what can you do? Well, it depends. If the writer is a junior member of staff, you may be able to build their content knowledge and/or develop their analytical skills over time, using a mix of on-the-job and external training. This investment may be worthwhile in the long term.

It’s not so simple if the writer is a senior member of staff (yes, it happens). Your organisation needs to decide what investment is necessary, and how quickly it will see a return on that investment. The best outcome for everyone may even be for the staff member to move to a different section or organisation—one that better suits their skill set.