December 7, 2004
What Corporate America Can't
Build: A Sentence
By SAM DILLON
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - R. Craig Hogan, a former university professor
who heads an online school for business writing here, received an
anguished e-mail message recently from a prospective student.
"i need help," said the message, which was devoid of punctuation. "i am
writing a essay on writing i work for this company and my boss want me
to help improve the workers writing skills can yall help me with some
information thank you".
Hundreds of inquiries from managers and executives seeking to improve
their own or their workers' writing pop into Dr. Hogan's computer
in-basket each month, he says, describing a number that has surged as
e-mail has replaced the phone for much workplace communication.
Millions of employees must write more frequently on the job than
previously. And many are making a hash of it.
"E-mail is a party to which English teachers have not been invited,"
Dr. Hogan said. "It has companies tearing their hair out."
A recent survey of 120 American corporations reached a similar
conclusion. The study, by the National Commission on Writing, a panel
established by the College Board, concluded that a third of employees
in the nation's blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses
were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.
The problem shows up not only in e-mail but also in reports and other
texts, the commission said.
"It's not that companies want to hire Tolstoy," said Susan Traiman, a
director at the Business Roundtable, an association of leading chief
executives whose corporations were surveyed in the study. "But they
need people who can write clearly, and many employees and applicants
fall short of that standard."
Millions of inscrutable e-mail messages are clogging corporate
computers by setting off requests for clarification, and many of the
requests, in turn, are also chaotically written, resulting in whole
cycles of confusion.
Here is one from a systems analyst to her supervisor at a high-tech
corporation based in Palo Alto, Calif.: "I updated the Status report
for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry
file).. to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray
with incorrect information ... However after verifying controls on JBL
- JBL has the indicator as B ???? - I wanted to make sure with the
recent changes - I processed today - before Murray make the changes
again on the mainframe to 'C'."
The incoherence of that message persuaded the analyst's employers that
she needed remedial training.
"The more electronic and global we get, the less important the spoken
word has become, and in e-mail clarity is critical," said Sean
Phillips, recruitment director at another Silicon Valley corporation,
Applera , a supplier of equipment for life science research, where most
employees have advanced degrees. "Considering how highly educated our
people are, many can't write clearly in their day-to-day work."
Some $2.9 billion of the $3.1 billion the National Commission on
Writing estimates that corporations spend each year on remedial
training goes to help current employees, with the rest spent on
new hires. The corporations surveyed were in the mining, construction,
manufacturing, transportation, finance, insurance, real estate and
service industries, but not in wholesale, retail, agriculture, forestry
or fishing, the commission said. Nor did the estimate include spending
by government agencies to improve the writing of public servants.
An entire educational industry has developed to offer remedial writing
instruction to adults, with hundreds of public and private
universities, for-profit schools and freelance teachers offering
evening classes as well as workshops, video and online courses in
business and technical writing.
Kathy Keenan, a onetime legal proofreader who teaches business writing
at the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz, said she sought
to dissuade students from sending business messages in the crude
shorthand they learned to tap out on their pagers as teenagers.
"hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again," one student wrote to
her recently. "i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didnt get a
respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u
for ur cooperation."
Most of her students are midcareer professionals in high-tech
industries, Ms. Keenan said.
The Sharonview Federal Credit Union in Charlotte, N.C., asked about 15
employees to take a remedial writing course. Angela Tate, a mortgage
processor, said the course eventually bolstered her confidence in
composing e-mail, which has replaced much work she previously did by
phone, but it was a daunting experience, since she had been out of
school for years. "It was a challenge all the way through," Ms. Tate
Even C.E.O.'s need writing help, said Roger S. Peterson, a freelance
writer in Rocklin, Calif., who frequently coaches executives. "Many of
these guys write in inflated language that desperately needs a
laxative," Mr. Peterson said, and not a few are defensive. "They're in
denial, and who's going to argue with the boss?"
But some realize their shortcomings and pay Mr. Peterson to help them
improve. Don Morrison, a onetime auditor at Deloitte & Touche who
has built a successful consulting business, is among them.
"I was too wordy," Mr. Morrison said. "I liked long, convoluted
passages rather than simple four-word sentences. And I had a
predilection for underlining words and throwing in multiple exclamation
points. Finally Roger threatened to rip the exclamation key off my
Exclamation points were an issue when Linda Landis Andrews, who teaches
at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a workshop in May for
midcareer executives at an automotive corporation based in the Midwest.
Their exasperated supervisor had insisted that the men improve their
"I get a memo from them and cannot figure out what they're trying to
say," the supervisor wrote Ms. Andrews.
When at her request the executives produced letters they had written to
a supplier who had failed to deliver parts on time, she was horrified
to see that tone-deaf writing had turned a minor business snarl into a
corporate confrontation moving toward litigation.
"They had allowed a hostile tone to creep into the letters," she said.
"They didn't seem to understand that those letters were just toxic."
"People think that throwing multiple exclamation points into a business
letter will make their point forcefully," Ms. Andrews said. "I tell
them they're allowed two exclamation points in their whole life."
Not everyone agrees. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood of San Francisco, author of
a popular how-to manual on effective e-mail, argued in an interview
that exclamation points could help convey intonation, thereby avoiding
confusion in some e-mail.
"If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and
toss in some extra exclamation points," Ms. Sherwood advises in her
guide, available at www.webfoot.com, where she offers a vivid example:
">Should I boost the power on the thrombo?
"NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors, and IT
Dr. Hogan, who founded his online Business Writing Center a decade ago
after years of teaching composition at Illinois State University here,
says that the use of multiple exclamation points and other nonstandard
punctuation like the :-) symbol, are fine for personal e-mail but that
companies have erred by allowing experimental writing devices to flood
into business writing.
He scrolled through his computer, calling up examples of incoherent
correspondence sent to him by prospective students.
"E-mails - that are received from Jim and I are not either getting open
or not being responded to," the purchasing manager at a construction
company in Virginia wrote in one memorandum that Dr. Hogan called to
his screen. "I wanted to let everyone know that when Jim and I are
sending out e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am
wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to the e-mail.
Its important that Jim and I knows that the person, intended, had read
the e-mail. This gives an acknowledgment that the task is being
completed. I am asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says "ok",
"I got it", or Alright."
The construction company's human resources director forwarded the
memorandum to Dr. Hogan while enrolling the purchasing manager in a
"E-mail has just erupted like a weed, and instead of considering what
to say when they write, people now just let thoughts drool out onto the
screen," Dr. Hogan said. "It has companies at their wits' end."
Copyright 2004 The New York
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