Getting Writing Right

Why do so many students write so badly? Katie Grant FRSA argues that this has become a general complaint amongst employers. She argues that the answer is relatively simple and suggests a way forward.

Students write badly because they are taught very little, if any, grammar and punctuation at school. Many do not read and because of the requirement for consistency, exam markers focus on fact, not writing style (in Scotland, for good reasons and bad, markers of Higher exams are advised to ignore poor grammar and punctuation in the Close Reading English Literature paper).

On arrival at university students are told to write in an ‘academic tone’. This last is the final nail in the writing coffin. The instruction may be followed by detailed explanation or no explanation at all. It makes no difference. Students believe that academic tone means long words, long sentences, jargon and an addiction to the passive voice; in short, the writing equivalent of porridge. The thicker the porridge, many students believe, the better.

In some subjects, for example education, students are encouraged in their porridge-making by the sources they must study. ‘An active role should be taken in the construction of positively perceived competence and the facilitation of a healthy motivational climate’ is only a slight paraphrase, and certainly not an exaggeration, of the style of writing students emulate as ‘academic’. The sources are clear: never use ‘help’ where you can use ‘facilitate’; never say ‘so and so argues’ when you can say ‘it is an argument made by so and so that…’; never use ‘pupil’ where you can use ‘learner’. Statutes, guidelines and policy documents drum home the message: clarity is for dummies.

Lest I am picking unfairly on education, here is an offering from a graduate who is now the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, quoted in the Scottish Review 2012: “It is important that Creative Scotland’s planning and risk management processes, (sic) anticipate and respond to any emerging issues; and that effective communications and stakeholder engagement is given early consideration to ensure on an on-going basis effective and early response to the concerns of the sector”. As the Scottish Review points out, the Cabinet Secretary may not have written this herself, but somebody did, and most likely somebody with a degree.

Persuaded to read their own writing aloud, most young people recognise both jargon and faults in sentence construction. But, in some subjects at least, with no decent style to emulate and complete ignorance of driving verbs, active and passive voices, prepositions and pronouns, they are denied both the vocabulary and the confidence to challenge or correct. The grim result is that, on graduation, only others in their specialism can understand them. Thus, teachers can speak only to teachers; economists to economists; business graduates to business graduates. Language, whose whole point is communication, becomes a barrier.

If, for employment, you stick to your subject specialism, the barrier may not be a problem except that it perpetuates poor practice and, in teaching for example, results in school reports that either bamboozle or infuriate. Move out of your specialism, however, and you’re sunk. If you can only write social science porridge, of what use are you to a company trying to win contracts in China, or at reporting poor conditions in your workplace? Worse, if young people cannot describe their own skills in direct and attractive prose, they may never get a job.

Writing is a soft skill that all employers value, and whilst it is true that many write hopelessly themselves, most need employees to do better. How can an employee do better if, through 15 years of education, their lack of writing skills is not directly addressed, and, in some subjects, the academic language they use for study at university makes a bad situation worse? There is a broader issue too. When professionals – doctors, lawyers, civil servants – are stuck in their own brand of porridge-speak, they cut themselves off from the very people they are supposed to be serving. This is hardly democratic.

Nobody wants to restore the Gradgrind school of learning. Nevertheless, it is a strange form of education that denies children access to the workings of the language on which their futures depend, and leaves young teachers as ignorant of style, grammar and punctuation as their classes. You would not give a child a flute and expect her to play without instruction, so why present a child with something equally complex and expect a different result?

We owe young people a chance to develop a clear written voice with which to communicate. I have a suggestion: a project which focuses on teaching grammar and punctuation in primary school, and a pilot resurrection of the Use of English exam in secondary school. Give children the tools and see how they use them. With luck, by the time they become students, and particularly student teachers, they will reject porridge-speak and use their university training to expand their communication skills, not restrict them.

We know why students write so badly. The real question is why there is still a problem when the solution seems so obvious.

  • Anne Nicholls

    Totally agree. I have worked as a press officer and communications manager for academic organisations and have been amazed how some well educated people can write in language that is total gobbledbygook. They fail to appreciate that phrases such as “a raft of measures”, “service users” or “curriculum framework” are meaningless to people who are not part of their small community. I have spent a lot of my working life trying to get them to explain phrases like this in common language. On returning to academic study for short time recently I was critcised for my journalistic style of writing (wrting as you might talk) for being too flippant. As soon as I started using words ending in “isms”, “ation” and “ize” my marks shot up – even thought I hadn’t a clue what the words meant.
    Anne Nicholls (RSA Fellow)

  • Olivia

    Ahem. I wasn’t taught grammar at school, but work as a
    professional editor. (So any errors here will make me look a complete fool.
    Sigh.) However, I write based on what ‘sounds’ right (I whimper when I have to explain
    why something is wrong.). On rare occasions knowing formal grammar would be
    useful – but only because my profession demands it.

    I suspect that writing has decreased in quality as much because spoken English
    isn’t corrected, and TV and films reflect more ‘realistic’ voices with regional
    slang. Not a bad thing, but it means that people never learn the music of
    correct writing.

    As an aside, I believe the skill of writing is undervalued
    by employers. Considering how rare a skill it is, it’s pretty low down on pay
    scale – either freelance or in house (for publishing in general, as well as
    advertising agencies).

  • Valerie Holden FRSA

    Glad to see I’m not alone in struggling with present use of English; but what’s to be done? I am frequently puzzled by ambiguities in newspaper stories, consultants’ reports and academics’ emails. For me it is not enough that I can usually work out the writer’s meaning by taking the context into account. This is because there is no need to cause confusion when our highly developed English language has all the tools we need to make our meaning clear. We all need to take responsibility for our communication and its consequences.
    I have sympathy for people who struggle with grammar; I read a lot as a child, then studied English and modern languages and then did A Level Latin and an LLB, so really have no excuse for poor English. Out in the world of work I confess to feeling affronted to find that my Local Authority CEO, literally could not string a sentence together. Of course it’s good to see people who just don’t “get” grammar being celebrated for what they can do, but I agree with Olivia; those who can communicate well should be used and rewarded. As for teaching English, I’m not sure there are many who could do it, now. My children’s English teacher (at an Ofsted-ranked “excellent” school) sent a note home which said “Mrs H – this is your’s (crossed out) yours’ (crossed out) you’res (crossed out). This is for you”. However, if it paid well, I have no doubt a number of linguists like me would love to do it. One for the RSA Acadamies?

  • Rachel Stead

    So good to read comments from likeminded individuals. I wholeheartedly agree with the gobbledygook being submitted at university, being a university student learning adviser. It amazes me sometimes the total ignorance of the basics (nouns, verbs etc.) but there are some of us out here who certainly can teach English – it’s a shame really that I would have to go back to school and do a PGCE and be taught by someone who probably couldn’t use English properly in order to be deemed fit to teach in our schools. I’m going to struggle to bite my tongue when my children start school. I refuse to let them grow up with such absymal language skills as I witness here at work on a daily basis.

  • Jay Jared Monaco

    Students have too much input and not enough output. Practice makes better; need more prac app.