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Hot on Campus | December 5, 2012

Writing in the real world

Education

Career counselors encourage students to hone their written communication skills before graduation

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Beth Hanson stands outside the door to creative writing Professor John McNally's office, far from her usual scene in the biology department.

As a sophomore science major at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hanson has her hands full with prerequisite classes for medical school. But amidst registration for next semester's classes, she has decided to take a gamble on a creative writing class-a risk worth taking, according to career counselors and employers.

Writing is a skill most often relegated to the literature whims of English majors. But when it comes to the business world, the ability to effectively communicate thoughts on paper-a skill found lacking in many of today's graduates-transcends all majors and career interests.

Today, 28 percent of college graduates produce writing that rates as deficient, according to Brain Track, a college and career search database. Basic capitalization and punctuation issues are among the most obvious problems.

For Hanson, honing her writing skills is a vital part of her education.

"Understanding proper grammar, being able to argue a point, and being able to support that point with details and evidence are really important for academic writing, especially with the lab reports and research papers," she said.

Caitlin Bush, a junior at Wake Forest, discovered the importance of writing when she realized she had to do it in every class, even her math courses.

"Writing is not just about being able to sit down and write an essay for English class, but it is about being able to convey a message thoughtfully and skillfully," she said.

Out of the top 20 skills that employers seek, written communication skills rank seventh, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Writing, as an integral part of a liberal arts education, is a skill worth developing, even for non-writing majors, said Ita Fischer, director of career services at Wheaton College in Illinois.

"In writing, theory and practice come together," she said. "The more you are required to write succinctly, articulately and well, the better you can communicate to any audience."

The kind of writing developed in college often does not translate into the professional world, said Tim Barton, managing partner of Barton Executive Search, a company that places presidents and vice presidents in consumer companies. But the ability to develop a strategy and sell a story or idea is arguably the most important skill that a person can have going into a professional role, he said.

"The challenge in written communication skills in the early stages and college is often that curriculums are built for creative writing and passive prose," he said. "In the business world or professional environment, a more fact-based analytic writing style is probably a far more productive style."

Although the gap between college writing and professional writing may be substantial, the writing skills gained in college are valuable, Hanson said. And the benefits of knowing how to write aren't limited to academics or career.

"One of the greatest values of writing in 'the real world' is that it gives me the ability to express my inner thoughts and feelings, even if it's just in a personal journal, something that I know no one else will read," she said.

Although Hanson is uncertain about what role writing will play in her career, she has no doubts that her ability to write well will prove important: "Maybe it will be an outlet for me when I'm stressed. Maybe it will become my career."