Why Highly Educated People May Struggle When Writing for Business

Corporations have a hard time finding people who can think and write at the same time,” said an English professor turned publishing consultant.

“Better to get a smart writer to write a piece and have an expert verify the accuracy, than have the expert write it and try to edit afterwards. An expert’s badly written piece basically has to be rewritten from scratch,” said a trade magazine editor.

“We tried hiring PhDs, but you’d be surprised how many of them can’t write. I can usually get smart writers up to speed well enough on the substantive content, but teaching somebody to write on the job just doesn’t work,” said the CEO of a consulting firm specializing in research.

And then there are the numerous people with advanced degrees who have told me, “We did not learn how to write in my program. If anything, my graduate program ruined my writing.”

What gives?

These writers aren’t having trouble with mechanics. They are not the people targeted in the plethora of articles about not mixing up “their,” “they’re,” and “there.”

These writers are struggling because they have been taught not to claim any authority. Following the academic models they’ve learned, they hedge, justify, beat around the bush, and dispense hypotheticals without saying clearly and explicitly what they think. And business writing doesn’t work without the voice of authority.

There’s a tremendous need in business for people who have formal skills in research, analysis, and evaluating evidence, and the ability to stake a position in writing. How can you get comfortable taking a stand on paper, so you can step into that gap?

Consider the following:

  1. Re-read your favorite nonfiction books as a writer. Notice how the authors earn your trust, and the techniques they use to shift from giving evidence to interpreting that evidence and declaring an opinion.
  2. Take an instructor-led journalism or creative writing class. In a class, you will learn alternatives to writing as if you were laying out a proof. Instead, you will be shown how to use stories, drama, sound, and emotion — features every bit as important in business writing as in literature or entertainment.
  3. Start or join a writing group. Break the habit of writing for a professor whose job is to judge whether you know what you should know. Test your work on readers with different taste, knowledge, and expectations.
  4. Hire a professional editor or coach. A experienced professional can identify your strengths and troubleshoot your work products, your process, or both, supporting you on a self-directed course of improvement.

Professional success today depends more than ever on critical and creative thinking, rather than the ability to carry out routine procedures. Yet people trained for thinking can have a difficult time applying those skills in ways employers value — especially writing.

For many of us, school failed to deliver the right training, but it’s never too late to learn.