Communication Skills: Writing
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
The Recruitment and Employment Commission (REC) says that around half of all CVs received by recruitment consultants contain spelling or grammatical errors. Candidates aged between 21 and 25 are most likely to make these mistakes and graduates in this age group are, surprisingly, twice as likely to make mistakes as those who did not go on to university. http://careers.guardian.co.uk/cv-mistakes
Even something as basic as the name of an employer, or an individual recruiter, is often spelled incorrectly. The former Graduate Recruitment Manager at City law firm Mayer Brown found that 20% of applicants got the firm’s name wrong (one hopes that these people did not also apply to another law firm called Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP!).
Your covering letter is an important part of your job application, as it demonstrates your writing style better than your CV (which is usually more brief and factual). For advice on writing a covering letter see www.kent.ac.uk/careers/cv/coveringletters.htm
Written Communication involves expressing yourself clearly, using language with precision; constructing a logical argument; note taking, editing and summarising; and writing reports.
There are three main elements to written communication
- structure (the way the content is laid out)
- style (the way it is written)
- content (what you are writing about)
Here are the results of a survey of graduate recruiters at our careers fair on: "What are the key skills that students should be helped to develop during their time at University?"
Number of employers voting for each skill
Communication 9 Teamwork 3 Presentation skills 5 Enthusiasm/motivation 3 Work ethic: attitude for work 3 Leadership 2 Critical thinking/logic 2 Commercial awareness 2 Computing skills 2
Structure and layout can be relatively quickly learnt but learning how to write good quality content takes much longer.
A good structure will help you to express yourself more clearly, whether in a dissertation, an essay, a job application letter or a CV. The following tactics may help you to structure your writing:
- Clarify your thoughts and the purpose of your communication before you start writing. In business communications, clarity is more important than style.
- Identify the key points, facts and themes
- Decide on a logical order for what you have to say
- Compose a strong introduction and ending. The first will make an immediate and positive impression on the reader; the second will remain in their mind after they have finished reading
- Use short paragraphs and sentences rather than long, rambling ones. Keep to one idea per paragraph and put your point in the first line, then add the supporting information.
- Help key points to stand out by the use of headings, sub-headings and bullet points. This will allow your reader to quickly scan your message for the main points.
Writing in a style appropriate to the audienceAll good communicators should think about their readers:
A study by the University of Hertfordshire on over 500 companies found that poor spelling or grammar alienated 77% of the companies surveyed.
The greatest attractors for employers were relevant work experience (46%), followed by a "good work ethic" (43%).
- How much information and detail will they need?
- Should you use specialist terms or should you “translate” these to make yourself understood by a generalist reader?
- How formal or informal should your writing be?
- A scientific paper aimed at an audience of non-scientists would have to be written in simpler and less technical language.
- A report in the Financial Times would be written in a very different style from one covering the same issue in the Sun
- A lawyer giving advice to a client would not go into the same amount of details as to legal precedents and arguments as a law student would when writing an academic essay.
- Emails sent with job applications should be treated more formally than emails to friends and family!
"Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and (use) unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous."
ChecklistLook at a piece of writing you have had to do (i.e. an essay, report or job application) and check it against the following points.
Structure (the way the content is laid out)
- Is the layout clear and easy to follow?
- Do headings stand out (e.g. are they in a larger font size)?
- Is the information arranged in a logical sequence with a beginning (introduction), middle, and end (conclusion)?
- Does the introduction clearly state the subject and purpose?
- Does it briefly summarise the content?
Style (the way it is written)
- Does it look neat, and elegant?
- Is it concise, with an exact use of words and economy of style?
"If in doubt, cut it out!". Learn to be laconic!
For example instead of saying forward planning, just say planning - there is no such thing as backward planning! Words such as very, just, quite, perhaps, maybe and really should all be removed ( see "10 Words to Cut From Your Writing").
Microsoft's new CEO used 3,000 words to communicate what he wanted from his staff.
Bill Gates used 11 words: ‘To put a computer on every desk and in every home’.
- Is it simple, direct and lucid? (See table on right)
For example a bureaucrat would write:
Political organisation administered directly via the populace, intended for the employment of the general community, on behalf of each and every one of the citizens of the nation.
Abraham Lincoln wrote:
Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
See "Flush the buzzwords" for more about this
- Are paragraphs too long?
Paragraphs of less than 10 lines are easier to read.
- Is a blank line left between paragraphs to aid clarity?
- Are sentences too long? A sentence should contain just one idea.
Use single words rather than clichés:Let us have an end to such phrases as these: "it is also important to bear in mind the following considerations" .... "or consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect". Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word.
Some Kent student examples of how not to do it:
Within the workplace arena = at work
At this point in time = now
In addition to the aforementioned = also
Acquainted with = told
Effective practitioner = teacher
Sentences with more than 30 words should normally be split.
- Is the first sentence interesting/ Does it draw the reader in?
- Have you avoided unnecessary jargon? "I seamlessly monetized the leverage to our solutions management ecosytem via a high synergy ask"
- Is the style suitable for the intended audience?
A scientific report aimed at an audience of non-scientists would have to be written in simpler and more jargon free language.
- Are bulleted lists used where appropriate?
- Have you used short, concrete, familiar words rather than long, obscure, complex words?
- Use the active words where possible rather than the passive voice? "It is recommended ...." should be replaced by "We recommend" as this is simpler and more direct
- Have you kept wordy phrases to a minimum?
- Have you avoided repetition?
- The Plain English Campaign recommends
sans serif fonts (e.g. Arial, Verdana) such as this, as clearer and easier to read than
serif fonts (e.g. Times New Roman, Garamond) such as this.
Content (what you are writing about)
Using language with precisionCorrect spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Use your spell checker but don’t rely on it completely: a spell-checker failed to pick up the following errors:
“We receive standardised letters from graduates which show no thought… They use text speak in covering letters...” Graduate Recruiter
- Have you carefully checked the spelling and punctuation?
- Have you thought through in advance what you want to say?
- Have you a clear objective?
- Have you listed the essential points you wish to make?
- Have you made these points clearly?
- Have you developed your argument in a logical way?
- Have you allowed detail to obscure the main issues?
- Is the content positive and constructive?
- Have you shown an interest in the reader by writing with warmth, sensitivity and friendliness?
- Have you edited it through several revisions, honing the text until it is just right?
- Have you left it overnight if possible: your mind will assimilate it better and you will come back with a fresh view.
The writing rules of George Orwell
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice (e.g. "Bones are liked by dogs") where you can use the active voice ("Dogs like bones").
- Never use jargon if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
"Cut every page you write by one third". Hillary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall
How will employers assess your written communication skills?
Your very first contact with a prospective employer is likely to be in writing. When employers read application forms, CVs and covering letters they are not just looking at WHAT you have to say about yourself, your skills and your experience but also at HOW you say it.
Application forms often ask you to write a piece of text in response to questions such as the following:
- "Please write about yourself in no more than 4000 characters [approx. 750 words].
- You may wish to mention any posts of responsibility held at school or subsequently, any regular employment or other work experience, any sporting or other achievements and any particular interests and personal qualities which are relevant). Please also state briefly why you are making this application”
- Describe a time you were faced with a particularly difficult situation or problem. What did you do? (200 words)
- What are your interests and hobbies? What have you contributed and what do you get out of them? (no word limit, but this is the only question on one A4 page of a paper form!)
EVIDENCE FOR WRITING SKILLS YOU COULD USE ON AN APPLICATION FORM
- Writing up a project or dissertation
- Writing for the student newspaper
- Writing a report for a course placement
- Essays, dissertations, project reports
- Secretary of student society
- Publicity materials for a charity
- Letter to raise sponsorship for an event
The strongest evidence will be the quality of the spelling and grammar on your application form, covering letter and CV. If these are full of spelling mistakes, sloppy grammar and poor presentation you are likely to be judged as having poor writing skills, whereas if your English is lucid, concise and to the point it will make a strongly positive impression.
Your English GCSE grade may also be taken into account here and larger organisations may give you a VERBAL REASONING TEST
See our competencies page for more about how to answer questions about your skills.
Structuring your answers, and choosing your words, carefully will help you to answer these questions effectively.
Where you have a very tight word limit, it is essential to be very concise in your answers and to avoid any non-relevant information.
Where you have a lot of space to fill, avoid the temptation to go into a lot of unnecessary detail simply in order to fill the page! Select what you are going to say, break down your answer into shorter paragraphs to make it easier for the recruiter to read and structure it into a coherent narrative.
There is further information about tackling application-form questions at www.kent.ac.uk/careers/applic.htm
Where written communication is the most important part of the job, for example in journalism, public relations or technical writing, you may also be asked to submit a piece of written work along with your application. Always send something that is relevant in style and content to the employer – academic essays and dissertations are unlikely to be the best example of your writing style in this situation!
Have your spell checker set to the correct language. These pages are written in British English rather than American English and there are subtle differences between the two. For example, UK English uses an s rather than a z in words such as summarise and realise whereas US English uses z (summarize, realize). For more about these differences see our spelling test
At the interview or assessment centre stage
There may be further tests of your written communication skills such as:
These are a form of role play in which you will be given a selection of letters, emails and reports which somebody doing the job might find in their in-tray or e-mail inbox first thing in the morning. Items may need a response such as drafting a reply to a customer complaint, writing a report, delegating tasks to colleagues or recommending action to superiors. For advice on handling these exercises, see www.kent.ac.uk/careers/interviews/intray.htm
“We like to include a written test as it gives candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the work by giving them a case study and then asking them to pull out the main issues, such as risk, analysis and planning ideas, legislative framework etc. You should never be tested on anything that is not included in the person specification for the job”.
(Social work recruiter)
“You will be presented with a file of papers which provide information from different sources on three fictitious projects, each of which is being considered by the government as a solution to a specific problem. Your task is to analyse the papers and prepare a note which builds a balanced and convincing case for one of the three projects. To do this you will need to compare and contrast the options, using the stated criteria, and explain convincingly the reasons for your recommendation”.
(Civil Service Fast Stream)
“I was given 15 minutes to read through what the employer described as “the world’s worst-written press release” (a fictitious example!), mark it up and note the mistakes.”
“You will have 30 minutes to read the exercise briefing materials and prepare a written report on the given subject. This exercise is designed to assess your ability to produce written reports to an appropriate standard. Your report will be assessed on the basis of your application of structure; use of clear, concise language; and logical and coherent presentation”.
See www.kent.ac.uk/careers/interviews/Marstairs.htm for more about case studies as part of assessment centres.
The connection between health, personality and writing
In his book "The Secret Life of Pronouns" (Bloomsbury Press) Professor James W. Pennebaker describes how the more people changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using other pronouns (we, you, he, they) in their writing, the better their health became. Their use of words reflected their psychological state. He also found that people who had a traumatic experience and kept the experience a secret had more health problems than people who talked openly. It was found that people who were asked to write about their secrets had improved health. Also, using words associated with positive emotions is also beneficial to health.
- Vocabulary.com www.vocabulary.com/articles/chooseyourwords 125 easily confused words.
- Written Communication: The Dullest, Most Vital Skill You Need to Become a Successful Manager
- Microsoft CEO's could learn from Bill Gates after 3,000 word memo