Over the course of my working life, I’ve been asked to write countless things. Once I write something, I generally remember how to write the thing again, but in lots of cases, I didn’t actually know how to write the thing that had been assigned to me. Like, a report for a board of trustees. A piece that would help potential donors understand our work and pave the way to having them give us money. A performance evaluation. Or, a longer piece about an approach to an incredibly complex set of issues (like achievement gaps in education, or climate change) that synthesizes people’s views, the current and past legal and policy landscape, and findings from various research studies.
When I was given these new-to-me assignments, it helped that I had a pretty decent grasp of language and grammar and sentence construction, built through great writing teachers in middle school, high school, and college. But those skills were not always sufficient when it came to tackling the new-to-me writing tasks. Somehow, I had to figure out how to get to the end of a finished piece. Sometimes (definitely not always), a kind and wise colleague would give me guidance on the goals and audiences for the piece. I would also ask if the assigner had examples to share—either pieces that the organization had previously produced that showed a clear sense of their brand, mission, and how they communicated about their main subjects, or pieces from other organizations that the assigner liked.
If neither examples nor guidance were available from the assigner, then I’d go on a hunt-and-forage expedition to look for good examples or ideas. Thank goodness the Internet came along, because that made these expeditions so much easier (and thank goodness it took organizations a while to figure out paywalls). Eventually, I’d find my way towards producing a draft. And even then, the draft itself sometimes became an integral part of learning how to write something, because sometimes, I’d fail with the first draft. By now, having achieved this respectable age, I have a pretty established reputation as a good writer, but not infrequently, I get a first draft all wrong. I get the tone wrong, the level of detail wrong—in part because I misinterpreted what the assignment was about, and in part because sometimes, people figure out what they want a thing to be only when you give them what they don’t want.
So the first point I wanted to make in this piece is this: people in the workplace are expected to write a lot of things. But it feels like they’re not given a lot of support or guidance to actually learn how to write these things! And I don’t understand, other than the trial-and-error approach I’ve applied over the years, how people are supposed to learn how to write these things. It feels like there’s some sort of mismatch going on between what people are expected to do as a part of their jobs and what they’re actually being taught to do.
In the past several years, I have helped my almost grown-up offspring with so many pieces of work-related writing. I’ve helped them write cover letters. I’ve helped them with their resumes. I’ve helped them with emails, and with thank-you notes. I’ve even helped coach them on talking points on what to say to their supervisors or colleagues. I think my kids are actually decent writers and communicators. I think they’ve picked up some skills from their teachers, from their lives, and from me. But I’m also sympathetic to the fact that no one in the jobs they’ve held, so far, has been interested in teaching them these things. As long as I don’t find myself in the position of actually writing these things entirely for them, then I feel like I’m probably well-positioned to continue teaching them how to write for workplace assignments. (Extended family and close friends have also asked for this assistance.)
So my second point in this piece is to managers in the workplace: FFS, figure out a way to get your employees some help. Yes, some of the employees on your team may come to you with advanced writing skills but chances are, most will not. Don’t be a jerk and ding these people for not having skills that they may not have had the privilege to develop. As I just said, I often need guidance and help in learning how to write in a format that’s entirely new to me—and I am the product of a fancy, fully-paid-for educational system and lots of good coaches and mentors. So, managers, I hope you are not bringing unreasonable expectations to your employees who are struggling with writing. Figure out a way to get them the help and the coaching they need. It is not easily available, but at the very least, you can create a space in which your employees feel comfortable admitting that they need this support. At the more than very least, you could help them access this support through a writing coach, a writing class, etc. (And the employee should not have to pay for it out of their own pockets.)
My third point is for employees who are struggling with writing: you need to learn how to ask for help and then you need to figure out how to get that help. This is not always easy. In fact, I kind of sucked at it in my younger years. I was so anxious to be a highly-productive, high-performing employee, I sometimes went down eternal tunnels of misery before I would try and clarify what I was supposed to be doing and how might I pick up tips on what I was supposed to be doing. I have gotten so much better at this in my older years. Like, I am supposed to write the first draft of an interview guide for in-depth interviews I and others will be doing as part of a project. I’ve never done this before. I’ve reviewed quite a few interview guides but I’ve never written one myself. But because I’m older and less anxious about my performance, I simply asked my colleagues on the team whether they had good examples to share. And they did—a ton of ‘em. While I still may struggle a little at drafting the interview guide, I know I’ll struggle a LOT less because I asked my colleagues for help.
So to summarize: employers, don’t have unreasonable expectations about your employees. I KNOW you put in the job description “excellent writing skills,” but we are all the results of the systems and environments that shaped us and what may be considered excellent in one context may not align with your expectations in another. I know you have a million to-do items to check off, but find the time to ask whether people on your team need help. And help figure out a way to get people that help.
For employees: ask for help. Don’t try to fake it until you make it. There is nothing that sends people into blind frustration more than reading a poorly-written document. Be honest about what you don’t know, and what would help you get to the finish line. If you continue to struggle with writing over the months and years—well, gradually, it becomes more and more incumbent on you to improve, over time. If you have the space and the opportunity to ask for help and figure out ways to get that help (and I know that all employees don’t), then build those writing skills. You won’t be sorry you did, I promise.
I will end on one note of vulnerability—my own. I used to believe that I could learn how to write anything and everything. Opinion editorials, blog posts, research reports, program reports, keynote speeches, board memos, scopes of work and requests for proposals—I thought I could do it all. Because I have written all those things, many times. And I will still claim a high degree of writing versality when it comes to describing my skills for prospective clients. (It is a really good idea to be able to speak clearly and concretely about what you can do and can’t do, as a freelancer and a consultant. Otherwise, your potential client may think you just want to curl up on a cushion nearby and dispense very expensive advice with no deliverables.)
However, despite my considerable experience in writing a lot of different types of things, I have found myself struggling a lot, lately, to finish the job. I still do finish the job—because I am hard-wired to be very anxious about timelines and deadlines. But I am struggling these days—like, I lose track of the narrative thread I’m trying to push forward in a longer piece, or I go back and read a page I’ve written the day before and I’m astonished at what shitty sentences I put together.
Part of the problem may be simply volume—I started out this year super-slow and then a whole bunch of projects clumped together all at once. I am responsible for pages and pages of writing, from a variety of projects, each week—I sometimes feel like I have to turn in an 8-10 page term paper each and every week, as if I’m in a college-level course on steroids. And, after turning in pages and pages on highly complex subject matter, sometimes, I want to lay down and have someone attach an IV to my arm full of good wine. (This is purely metaphorical, by the way. Too much wine gives me a headache.)
But the other part of the problem, I think, is that I am having days when I just don’t know how to be in the world. I get so exhausted and weary and angry about the news of the day—the news, every single day—that the firewalls I automatically put up in order to create the mental space to, you know, put words and thoughts together start to crack and wobble. Writing—even when you don’t have the byline, and you’re doing it on behalf of an organization, or a senior leader—requires that you understand your place in the world. Because you need a vantage point from which to describe what’s happening, and you need to be clear about what vantage point is. If you were trying to write a description of the Grand Canyon, for example (beyond “very large” or “breathtaking”), you would write different descriptions based on whether you were at the rim looking over and down, or at the bottom looking up and around. Lately, my vantage point is getting stress-tested. Like, I think I have a pretty good grounding in truth and facts and narrative but I can’t seem to get over my rage and despair at all of the lies and corruption that are dominating our discourse today.
Anyway, that’s a challenge I have not yet learned to solve, although I’m experimenting with longer news blackouts, or at least better-timed news blackouts around particularly grueling writing assignments. I’ve also learned to not only write during the hours of the day that I’ve assigned to writing, but to write whenever I feel mental clarity. (Of course, as a paid writer, you also have to push through to finish during times you DON’T feel mental clarity.)
But for the rest of the working world, for heaven’s sake: ask for help. Get help. Make help available. Because even for someone like me, writing is HARD; no one should have to struggle through it alone.