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Why Kaitlyn Can’t Write Well — No Matter Where She Went to School

Why Requiring More Writing Fails to Improve Writing Skills

Dig through statistics about employers’ biggest gripes about entry-level employees, and you’ll run smack against a paradox that confronts you at every turn. Throughout higher education, universities and colleges have hunkered down to the task of ensuring their graduates write well enough to pass muster in a competitive job market. 

Undergraduate and graduate programs alike have beefed up requirements to ensure students take compulsory writing courses or have assignments double-graded by an instructor and a writing coach. At the same time, open any study on the writing skills of graduates entering the work force, and you’ll discover organizations still complaining about the sub-par writing skills of their new hires.

The Problem Money Can’t Fix


We generally believe programs and curricula fail for lack of funding. Throw enough money at a problem, and you can at least diminish its size or scope. However, when businesses assess the skills of recent graduates, the largest gap looms between the writing skills employers need in new hires and the writing skills their new hires actually bring to the job. That dismal finding from a 2011 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers coincides with other assessments of graduates’ writing skills. A 2011 survey of accounting firms found that employers wanted — but failed to find — skills as basic as organized sentences and paragraphs. In one 2012 study, researchers calculated that a hypothetical company with 1,000 employees would lose $1.5M annually from poorly written emails alone:

So many courses and programs — and still such lousy student writing? What gives? The problem lies not in the requirements but in the approach to teaching writing. Uniquely, writing as a discipline lacks a core set of principles, shared understandings, or methodology. Instead, writing courses vary wildly in content and methodology. Few research faculty or even full-time faculty teach them. Instead, teaching writing falls mainly to underpaid, part-time adjunct faculty and graduate students, most of whom received degrees in fields ranging from history to sociology. At least that graduate student who taught your Intro to Calculus course actually studied math and drew off well-established methods for solving problems. That exhausted adjunct teaching your writing course just hopes practice and perhaps imitating good writers will improve your writing.

Writing Isn’t an Art — Writing Is a Science

Why do you need to reread some sentences twice but skip easily through others? Why do we finish reading some documents and find ourselves unable to recall their contents, only minutes later? The answer lies in your reader’s brain. Our brains process writing in highly predictable ways, based on some of the same mechanisms that we use to perceive the world around us. Moreover, psychologists, linguists, and neuroscientists have studied these mechanisms for over sixty years. We can improve our writing if we practice writing, using the principles these scientists articulated, including causation, prediction, and memory.

Some Science-based Takeaways for Writing

  • In studies of readers’ brains, readers demonstrate poor recall of passively constructed sentences. With passive construction, the outcome of an action acts as the grammatical subject, and the actor is often merely implied. In fact, readers not only read these sentences more slowly than they do active sentences, but they also agree to nonsense propositions in passive sentences nearly one-third of the time.
  • Gaps between sentences or lack of continuity accounts for the greatest slow-downs in reading speeds and fall-offs in readers’ comprehension.
  • We even “hear” words on the page during silent reading and perceive writers as accomplished or clumsy, based on how writers manage cadence via sentence structure. In studies of subjects reading silently, researchers were floored to discover that blood flow increased to Broca’s area, a part of the brain previously believed to be active only in understanding and forming spoken words.
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