Five Ways to Apply Writing Skills You Learned in College on the Job
“When will I ever have to do this again?”
The student’s lament, often uttered in response to the essay assignment in composition class (or worse yet, the dreaded research essay). Maybe you won’t have to formally outline and develop an entire essay on the job. But, there is a thing in education called transfer of learning, meaning it’s not the form the writing takes in developing an essay that is important. It’s the skills required to develop that essay that can serve you in the workforce long after college is over.
Here are five ways you can apply those writing skills learned in college on the job, whether you are writing emails, letters, reports, or any other communications you may need to develop.
Make a point
Remember that thesis statement and those topic sentences? Oh, the fun you had with them, no?
No, you don’t need them, but you do need a clear focus and a clear point or set of points you want to share with your reader. Don’t waste people’s time. Nobody likes the mystery email that requires multiple follow-up emails for everyone to figure out what’s going on.
If you were like most students, you couldn’t wait to dig into that outline. Or not. Probably not.
Outlines are really helpful, though, especially if you’re working on a longer document, like a proposal. You don’t have to get all formal with Roman numerals or even multiple levels, but it is important to take a few minutes to plan what you’re going to say. Jot down your main points and organize those ideas in a way that makes sense for your audience. Nobody likes a stream of consciousness except maybe Proust fans, and that fever usually breaks after college.
Use words that work
Your big vocabulary—you know, all those fancy words that are left over from your ACT/SAT prep—may make for great party tricks, but those kinds of words can make you sound like you’re trying too hard.
Big words can come across as pompous and stuffy instead of engaging your reader. Plus, if your reader has to grab a dictionary (or maybe we should say pull up a dictionary) to look up words all the time, your message is likely to get lost. Instead, choose simple words that help you convey your meaning quickly and easily. In the words of George Eliot, “The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.” There’s elegance in simple.
Mind your tone
Do you need to write in third person? Only when talking about yourself. Just kidding. Don’t do that.
The key is to be consistent and appropriate for your audience. It’s really about tone, and writers need to be aware of the impact point of view can have on a reader. Too much “I” and it’s all about me, baby. Too much “you,” and you might seem to be pointing in the reader’s face, or even worse, attributing characteristics to the reader that the reader finds off-putting. (For example, a student writing about crime once wrote, “When you are robbing a bank….” Me: “What on earth makes you think I would rob a bank, precious?”)
Third person can be really stuffy and pretentious. English professor Walker Gibson referred to that third-person language of academia and government (“officialese”) as “the rhetoric of hollow men.” If you find yourself writing long, contorted, flabby sentences in passive voice to avoid first or second person, just give in.
We’ll come back to tone again in another post, but for now, just think of your reader. Put your work away for a little while and then come back and try to read from the perspective of the person you’re communicating with. Think about how the message might impact that reader. One of the hardest things for us writers to accept is that it’s not about us; it’s about the reader.
Make it meaningful
Writing is about conveying information. It’s about engaging your reader and making connections.
If ideas aren’t clear, if meaning isn’t conveyed, then there is no point in writing at all. The most important thing is clarity and meaning. You don’t have to have the writing chops of Margaret Atwood. And in the world beyond college, you don’t have to worry about perfection. No one is going to smack your writing down with the red ink pen of death (well, probably not).
I tell my students the most egregious errors are those that interfere with meaning. You’ll succeed when your reader—whether that reader is a colleague reading your email or a boss reading a report—comes away feeling informed and not irritated.
Yeah, never write “in conclusion.”
In today’s world as we spend more and more of our time conveying information and connecting with others online, writing has become even more important. And in the business world, time is money. We’re all busy, so it’s important to be respectful of others’ time in general. Dust off what you learned in college and transform those skills for your current situation. Taking a few minutes to focus on your intended message, organize your ideas, and present them concisely and clearly can help you ensure you are getting your message across efficiently and effectively.
Interested in books about style? We recommend these:
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
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