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The Value of Writing Well

The Value of Writing Well

The Value of Writing Well

    It’s that time of year again. No, not “the holiday season”. I mean, it is holiday time, but for professors it doesn’t start feeling like holiday time until final grades are in and the books are closed on another semester. No, for me, it’s paper-grading time, the time of year when I’m reminded over and over of the importance of good writing skills – and of their rarity.

    The ability to write well is not a gift. Sure, the special something that sets apart a Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Salman Rushdie or Isabel Allende is a gift, a talent born of disposition, experience, and commitment. But just to be able to communicate clearly with the written word takes no special talent; it’s a skill like any other.

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    Well, not exactly like any other. Because the words we use to write with are the same words we use to think with, learning to write well has ramifications that go beyond the merely technical. As we improve our writing ability, we improve our ability to think – to build an argument, to frame issues in compelling ways, to weave apparently unrelated facts into a coherent whole.

    And despite the recurring hand-wringing and chest-beating about the “end of literacy” and the “death of the printed word”, the reality is that we write more than ever these days. While it’s a rare person who sits down with pen and paper in hand and writes a letter to a friend or loved one, we pour emails into the ether at an astounding rate. We text message, tweet, instant message, blog, comment, and otherwise shoot words at each other in a near-constant flow of communication. We annotate group portraits, LOL-ify cat pictures, and tag… well, everything. At work, we write letters, proposals, PowerPoint presentations, business requirement documents, memos, speeches, mission statements, position papers, operating procedures, manuals, brochures, package copy, press releases, and dozens of more specialized types of documents.

    We are, it seems, writing creatures. Homo scribus, if you will.

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    It’s no wonder that businesses repeatedly cite “communication skills” as the single most desirable trait in new employees. The kicker, though, is that we are as a society incredibly bad at writing. Public schools do a piss-poor job of teaching students how to write well – they barely manage to instill the basic rules of grammar and the miserable 5-paragraph essay, let alone how to write with style and verve, how to put together an argument that moves steadily from one point to the next to persuade a reader of some crucial point, how to synthesize ideas and data from multiple sources into something that takes those ideas one step further.

    It’s not just the teachers’ fault. Teachers do the best they can with what they’re given, and all too often what they’re given is inadequate resources with which to teach classrooms full of unmotivated students who could care less about writing. Add to that the requirements of mandatory nation-wide tests that reward conformity, not creativity, and the threat of punishment for any school whose students fail to fall within the fairly rigid boundaries of the test’s requirements, and you’ve got a pretty bad situation all around for instilling in students the power to write well.

    That is, alas, a great disservice. Being able to write well vastly improves students’ – and others’ – potential for success, regardless of the field they find themselves in. As I’ve already mentioned, people who write well tend to be better able to think through problems and tease out patterns in outwardly dissimilar situations. More importantly, people who write well have the opportunity to make a mark in the world, because their best ideas aren’t trapped in their own minds for lack of a means of expression.

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    This is true whether you’re a CEO or a janitor, a marketing expert or an Emergency Medical Technician. The skills that make us better writers make us better explainers, better persuaders, and better thinkers. They are the skills that allow us to “sell” our ideas effectively, whether in giving a presentation to potential funders of our company, proposing a new project to our corporate leadership, or transmitting a new policy to our employees. Being able to write well lessens the chance that we’ll be misunderstood, and increases the likelihood that our ideas will be adopted.

    Writing well is not a gift reserved for the few but a set of skills that can be learned by anyone. The technical aspects can be learned in any of several ways: by taking a class, by studying books on writing, by working with a partner or a group and acting on their feedback. But while grammar and structure are an important part of writing, to write well also demands some effort to develop style. Style is what keeps people reading past the first sentence, and what keeps what you’ve written on their minds, impelling them to take action.

    Style is rather less teachable than the nuts and bolts of writing, but it is learnable. It demands patience, attention, and most of all practice, but it is possible for anyone who has something to say to learn how to say it well. To move from being merely capable to being a good writer, you need only:

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    1. Read: Reading is essential to good writing. It is how we learn the vastness of the language and the limits of the grammar – and how to push those limits. The more you read, the greater your understanding of language’s potential becomes.
    2. Write: Good writing takes practice. Unfortunately, unless we create opportunities to write, we get far too few opportunities to get that practice after we’ve left school. Start a journal, a blog, a newsletter, or whatever else you can think of to get you writing on at least a semi-regular basis.
    3. Read Again: Most people who fail to become better writers fail because they do not read their own writing. They don’t read it before they post/mail/submit/publish/otherwise finish it, and they don’t read it after they’re done with it. Which means they don’t see the awkward parts, the flat bits, the pieces that say something different from what was intended – and they never learn how to fix or, better yet, avoid those problems.
    4. Repeat: Writing is personal, and seeing your writing ill-received can strike a blow to the strongest of egos. The only answer for it, though, is persistence – the goal is to become a better writer, not to be perfect out of the gate. Pay attention to criticism, learn from it, but don’t internalize it – there’s no shame in writing poorly, only in failing to try to do better next time.

    Today’s world is a world of text; it is the lifeblood of the information economy. In Ancient Rome, it was the orators who ruled, those who could compel obedience, loyalty, and devotion with their spoken words. Today, the written word is dominant, not only because so much of the information that shapes our lives is written down, but because the habits that make us good writers are the same habits that allow us to flourish in the information economy. If you worry about your writing ability, commit yourself now to becoming a solid writer in the year to come. If you are already a decent writer, commit yourself to becoming better. And if you’re one of the rare few who write well, reach out to those around you and share your talent, so that others may learn from you. Let that be your gift this holiday season.

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    Last Updated on March 14, 2019

    7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

    7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

    Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

    For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

    Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

    1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

    A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

    It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

    It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

    How it helps you:

    If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

    Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

    2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

    Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

    Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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    How it helps you:

    Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

    Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

    If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

    Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

    3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

    Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

    Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

    How it helps you:

    This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

    For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

    Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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    A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

    4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

    To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

    A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

    How it helps you:

    One word: hierarchy.

    All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

    In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

    If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

    5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

    Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

    Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

    How it helps you:

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    Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

    If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

    This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

    6. What do you like about working here?

    This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

    Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

    How it helps you:

    You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

    Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

    Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

    7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

    What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

    As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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    How it helps you:

    What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

    First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

    Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

    Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

    Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

    Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

    Making Your Interview Work for You

    Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

    Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

    More Resources About Job Interviews

    Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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