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How Do You Spell Job Success

By Jean A. McDonough

The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Committee sponsored a workshop for students and faculty on March 7, 2001, featuring two speakers from the Rochester business community. Both speakers shared their personal and professional experiences about writing in the workforce.

The first speaker, Bob Janson, graduated from the MCC Nursing Program in 1976. In 1982, he earned a Bachelor's degree in Economics and an MBA in 1988 from the University of Rochester. He currently manages the law firm of Damon and Morey and says, "Writing is a very valuable skill, a skill that you're going to use everyday when you get out in the workplace." Janson spoke very informally about how our system of communication has changed over the years. "We basically communicate in two ways: we talk to each other and we write to each other. Until we invented the telephone, the primary form of communication was writing. You go back a hundred years, our business, our communication, was all conducted through writing contracts, letters. People lived ten, fifteen miles away from each other, they wrote letters…they were very effective at communicating [and] to some degree, we've lost that…ability."

Janson has had to write in every job he has ever had. When he left MCC, Janson became a nurse in a hospital where everyday he had to write. "You finish your shift and you write notes on your patients…and what you say and how you say it is critical…because the docs and residents…don't have time to find every nurse to ask, 'How's Mr. Smith doing.' They go to the chart. So what you say, the terminology you use, the information you present and how you present it, is very critical in that context."

Even though talking face to face is quicker, in today's business world, Janson reports that there is very little time to talk on an individual basis¾hence, the business meeting. However, these business meetings are usually supplied with prefatory packets of information-memos, documents, etc.¾to be read in advance in order to cut down on time. As a result, precision and clarity in business writing is of paramount concern to employers. It is important to be able to express yourself well, Janson says. Janson manages a seventy-attorney law firm and receives between three hundred and four hundred resumes every year for five or six open positions. "We narrow the resumes down very often on how they're written." Misspellings and poor punctuation don't make the cut, he says. In addition, when interviewing, candidates are asked to bring a writing sample. More often than not, says Janson, the writing sample is the deciding factor in who is chosen for the position. Janson has five managers who currently report to him and often they will come to him with an idea. "I tell them [to] put it in writing, give me a memo, and keep it short, two or three pages." After he has read it thoroughly, Janson develops questions and they sit down to talk. However, "if they don't do the memo correctly, they never get to step two."

Janson concluded his portion of the workshop with the following advice: "I guess the best thing I can tell you is that you're going to have to write wherever you go, and you're going to either do it individually or you're going to do it in teams. So I would encourage you to take all the writing classes you can get here…the more you write, the better you get at it…don't shy away from writing, hone your skills because you're going to use them, you're going to use them a lot."

The second speaker, Douglas Seward, received a Bachelor's degree in Business Education at Kent State University in 1966 and a Master's in Management and Marketing from the University of Michigan. He has served as Executive Director of the Rochester Tooling and Machining Association and Institute since 1992, and is a member of the Tooling and Machining Advisory Council for MCC. Seward meets with approximately two hundred companies in the Rochester area quite regularly and one of the things they talk about is the writing ability of employees. Seward spoke about the necessity of good writing skills for workers, engineers, and managers.

Seward states that "more and more workers are being pulled into matrix organizations. They're going to [have] to communicate both in writing and verbally with the people [who] are engineers, designers, buyers, purchasing people…so they have to be able to communicate clearly." Additionally, Seward says, "Two or three pages in industry isn't going to cut it, because no boss is going to read more than one page. So you better be clear, concise, and get to the point real quick." Seward gave a hypothetical work situation as an example. Suppose you have just been hired as a tool and die maker working the third shift and all of a sudden your machine breaks down. Are you going to just leave it there and go home for the night, or are you going to try to fix it yourself? If you fix it yourself, can you explain what you did? In addition, how do you explain to the boss the decrease in the amount of work you produced? If you can't write a clear explanation about what happened and why, the boss is going to think you "can't cut the mustard."

Seward speaks from experience when he says that engineers are notorious for their inability to write. As a marketing manager, Seward had forty engineers reporting to him. "They are geniuses… they can design anything…but can they write a proposal?" Engineers can typically provide the backups, drives, graphics, and anything else computer generated, but when they have to sit down and write the proposal they have a hard time. "If you're an engineer [who] can write…you're going to do very well in business today." Seward said several of the companies he works with have paperless societies-everything is done via email. In fact, managers are constantly being asked to generate material, information, and data. "And how is this communicated?" Seward asks. "Through business email. It's important to be able to explain your point, get it across, who, what, when, where, and why. Quickly, to the point, concisely." In addition, according to Seward, many times you will be asked to write a newsletter article for your company about the concepts of operation, or how things can be done more efficiently. "Whether you're a worker, engineer, or manager, somebody," Seward says, "has to write all those concepts of operation."

Seward concluded with some of his experience as an adjunct at Nazareth College where he taught International Marketing to fourth year students. For their final project they had to develop a presentation on international marketing to their Board of Directors. In addition, they had to write an accompanying paper just as they would be required to do in business today. "[But] I don't weigh the paper," Seward says, "if you can do the paper in one or two pages, God bless you. You've got an A for sure…[because] I look for conciseness."

The workshop concluded with an informal question and answer period. A staff member asked whether style and creativity were important in business writing. Seward answered that style was not as important as clarity, and Janson responded, "If you can speak well, you can write well. It just takes discipline." A student asked for recommendations from the two speakers for the problem of getting started with a writing project-he knew what he wanted to say, but had trouble beginning. Seward suggested that he start with the major topics and then "put the meat around the bones." Janson explained that it's all in the approach--brainstorm with others, free write, outline ideas.