Communication Skills: Writing

 

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
Francis Bacon

writing skills

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 and layout can be relatively quickly learnt but learning how to write good quality content takes much longer.

Structuring

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:

 

Writing in a style appropriate to the audience

All good communicators should think about their readers:

"A single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half."

 

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%).

For example:

 

"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."

Simplicity:

  • The four basic premises of writing are clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. William Zinsser
  • Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity. Plato
  • Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art. Chopin
  • Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading. William Zinsser
  • I am sorry for the length of this letter, but I did not have the time to write a short one. Blaise Pascal
    In other words writing improves in proportion to the amount of effort put in.

    As a careers adviser, I can tell within 30 seconds if a CV has been worked on for 1 hour or 10 hours!
    See our page on simplicity in CVs

George Orwell

Checklist

Look 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)

Style (the way it is written)

Content (what you are writing about)

Using language with precision

Correct 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:
  • administrator in a busty office
  • I have all the right qualities to make an excellent manger
  • I have a long-standing interest in pubic relations
  • I attended a fist aid course with St. John Ambulance
  • Studied for an A-level in Art & Design at Canterbury Collage
  • In my spare time I enjoy hiding my horse
  • I was responsible for sock control
  • I hope to hear from you shorty

 

We receive standardised letters from graduates which show no thought… They use text speak in covering letters...” Graduate Recruiter

The writing rules of George Orwell

 

"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

Application forms often ask you to write a piece of text in response to questions such as the following:

 

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:

In-tray/In-box exercises.

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

Case studies

“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.” 
(Marketing candidate)

“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”.
(PricewaterhouseCoopers)

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.

Function words such as pronouns and articles require social skills to use properly and this is backed up by brain research. Men were found to typically use articles ("a" and "the") more than women. Ignoring gender, people who use "a" and "the" a lot tend to be more organised, emotionally stable, conscientious, politically conservative and older.

Pennebaker found there were three main types of writing which related to personality:
  • Formal writing can be stiff, humourless, and sometimes with a little arrogance. It contains lots of articles and prepositions but few I-words, and adverbs. Those who score highest in formal thinking tend to be concerned with status and power and to be less self-reflective. They drink and smoke less, tend to are more mentally healthy, but also less honest. Older people tend to have more formal writing.
  • Analytical writing is about making distinctions. Analytical writers tend to do well academically, be more honest, and open to new experiences. They read more and tend to be more introspective.
  • Narrative writers are storytellers. Narrative writing uses lots of function words involving people, the past-tense and inclusive words such as "with" and "together". These writers tend to have good social skills, more friends and are more outgoing.


Also see:

Vocabulary.com www.vocabulary.com/articles/chooseyourwords great way to learn new words. Choose your words - over 125 easily confused words.

 

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