The De-Emphasis of Writing in the Workplace

Editor with red pen proofreading by laptop (manuscript created by contributor)
Editor with red pen proofreading by laptop (manuscript created by contributor)

I received an e-mail last week from an esteemed urban planning firm based in New York. It was a spring newsletter, well-designed, beautiful, actually, and graphically sound. But as I began reading the text boxes, my attention was derailed. The language was laborious, sleepy-sounding, almost, like the words themselves were being dragged out of bed. The grammar was faltering, the pros, uncreative, and then, bam -- my focus was back. Unfazed having grown so accustomed to seeing writing of this quality in the business world, my reading wasn't even slowed, but when I came upon "Spring Tidnigs!" my eyes stopped cold.

Spring...tidnigs? Really? An insignificant typo, maybe, had it been a brief email sent exclusively to the employees of the company. But this firm was reputable, amassing at least several thousand members on their contact list, making a typo in the concluding sentence of the seasonal newsletter a mistake of epic (and public) proportions.

But it wasn't just the typo. The entire voice lacked fluency, written by someone who clearly had not written much before (perhaps the Marketing Manager was on vacation?) And it wasn't the first time I'd seen this either. In fact, in my mere three years out of college, I had edited a number of thoughtlessly composed pieces. It frightened me not that there were this many errors in any given piece, but that in most instances, I was a lowly intern, disposable and unpaid, and if I and my writing background hadn't happened upon these internships (which, by the way, were not editorial positions), the press releases and newsletters and curatorial essays would have been submitted, as they were, no real credence or care given to their flippant construction.

I am currently reading "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson, and on page 39. H. H. Holmes' autobiography is referenced:

"It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health, but it proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately to cure me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later, a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession."

He writes of an experience with several classmates who discovered his fear of bones, locking him in a room with the skeleton of a recently deceased and plucked human being. I mention this not for the narrative, but for the writing. H.H. Holmes was a doctor by trade, a well-educated man schooled in medicine at the University of Michigan. He studied hard sciences, of course; biology and chemistry and physics, and yet, he was able to write engagingly, and perhaps most important, coherently. Yes, H.H. Holmes could have had a natural knack for the written word, but it's more likely that he was simply a product of his era, a time when well-roundedness was emphasized, outside tutors, common, and just as much attention given to the arts as the sciences.

So, what happened? Why has the professional realm de-emphasized the importance of this craft? Is it the business world's way of prioritizing certain skills, perhaps a product of the education system, or maybe a little bit of both?

In 1990, David Breneman wrote a piece on the degradation of the Liberal Arts School. In his mind, the qualities that constituted a liberal arts education included an arts and science curriculum, small student-faculty ratios, campus housing, and very little attention given to professional or vocational endeavors. Essentially, you went to a liberal arts school to learn, not necessarily to prepare for a career.

A followup study conducted by Vicki L. Baker, Roger G. Baldwin, and Sumedha Makker in 2012 found, however, that 22 years after Breneman's initial assessment, only 130 of Breneman's postulated 212 schools were in line with his criteria, however still identified with the liberal arts label. Some examples of these changes are off-campus work opportunities, undergraduate research, and study abroad programs. Though these deviations are not in any way bad, they do reflect a shift in educational values, as they seek to connect the insular college environment (once intentional and celebrated in most liberal arts schools) to the outside world, developing campaign sentiments like "real-world experience," or "connecting liberal education with real-world practice" (the Clark/AAC&U Challenge) and of my own Alma Mater, "Finances, Student Work, & Careers" (Carleton College).

The educational system is merely responding to a new series of standards set by the professional realm and thus, the economy. Fewer and fewer individuals are finding the prospect appealing to hold a liberal arts degree in philosophy or anthropology, while struggling after to find a job. Clearly, many of these students won't go on to be philosophers, least not during their first job out of college. Yet there is becoming more and more of an emphasis on having a career right off the bat. Floundering, working multiple jobs while figuring out what you want to do or how you want to do it is being less romanticized. People don't want to struggle, they want to make money right away.

The liberal arts education does still exist in contrast to vocational or professional schools and degrees, but it is slowly molding to an increasingly rigorous economy and competitive workforce, classes still emphasizing the importance of effective communication, both oral and written, but more apt to make concessions in areas of study that are more technical or number-based.

I suppose I'll just have to grin and bear the typos and grammar and awkwardly phrased sentences that no doubt have been born from an era of career-orientation, emoticons, and economic pressures. After all, if there was no bad writing, there'd be no opportunities for people like me to make it good.

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