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Literacy: For Wise Words, Employ Your Peers

In a poll of employers, communication and writing skills were rated as more important than technical skills

January 21, 2014 | By:

Finding staff with good literacy skills can be a problem. Many are turning to older workers for roles where written communication is key, writes Martin Thomas of the UK's Institute of Directors

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We’re so write-on!

We live in a visual world. A world of selfies, infographics, Instagram and Snapchat. A world in which visual literacy is prized above all else. But where does this leave the power of the written word?

Are words important any more? Does the ability to write even matter in a world obsessed with the visual image, when the longest thing most people will write will be a 140-character tweet?

It is difficult to avoid coming across as a disgruntled old-timer. 

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However, a survey of more than 600 university lecturers by Cambridge Assessment in the UK identified writing skills as one of the main areas in which new undergraduates are under-prepared.

Professor David Abulafia of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, was quoted as saying: “People no longer know how to write. It is a society in which fewer and fewer people read. What they do write tends to be short messages in a sort of metalanguage, with meta-spelling, on Twitter and Facebook.”

But is he missing the point? Has the rise of text-speak replaced what we used to think of as ‘good’ writing? Has the culture of informality in the workplace obviated the need for a disciplined approach to our use of language?

Has the rise of the geek, immersed in the language of technology and computer code, made traditional writing skills redundant?

The evidence from the world of business would suggest otherwise. In a research poll of employers, conducted by Northeastern University in Boston, communication and writing skills were rated as more important than technical skills, “despite the recent focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees”.

The volume of written content has never been greater. Proposals, tender documents, reports, presentations, speeches, instruction manuals, emails, social media updates: the list is seemingly endless.

Also, it is difficult to argue that our ability to process this information has changed over time. We have always liked our communication to be, at the very least, clear and concise. It doesn’t have to be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, but it has to be comprehensible. Even a humble tweet has to make some sort of sense.  

Unfortunately, finding people with the skills to write clear and comprehensible copy has become a major problem for businesses and other institutions.  

“Where can I find a recent graduate who can write?” has become their desperate cry. Direct mail specialists struggle to find people capable of writing long-copy.

Website editors tear their hair out with frustration when trying to make sense of the garbled output from their hot, young writers.

Many businesses have come to the realization that they need to look elsewhere for the solution and have started recruiting writers and editors in their forties, fifties and older.

The adage may be that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, but don’t write off the authors of those thousand words just yet.