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America Has a Writing Problem. How Do We Solve It?

“According to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 24% of eighth and 12th graders are ‘proficient’ in writing.”

America, we have a writing problem. Today’s employers—desperate for talented employees—consistently complain that job applicants are bad writers.

Need examples? Look at Long Island, where 70% of local CEOs note poor writing skills among job seekers, in addition to a lack of initiative and unrealistic expectations about pay.

Even beyond New York, the numbers do not lie, and they are not promising. According to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 24% of eighth and 12th graders are “proficient” in writing. And it does not get much better in college: While nearly 80% of college students rate themselves as “proficient” in terms of oral and written communication, north of 40% of employers say the same. Three in four employers want a stronger focus on written communication skills at the college level.

Writing simply is not prioritized enough, and a dearth of relevant research is a testament to this lack of emphasis. For instance, while Congress mandated NAEP testing for math and reading every two years, it will take decades to analyze national writing test results in a similar fashion. While the “most recent” NAEP data is startling, it comes from 2011—13 years ago. And the next NAEP writing test will not be done until 2030.

How does one solve a problem if he does not even know the extent of it in the first place? It is surprisingly difficult to find relevant data from the post-pandemic period.

Alas, the writing crisis does not bode well for American companies, which already report spending more than $3 billion annually on remedial writing training. Bad writing is very bad for the bottom line.

Think about it on an individual basis. Imagine reading a book with hundreds of grammar and spelling errors. Try deciphering an email with five run-on sentences. Bad writing makes reading a hassle.

To solve America’s writing problem, we first need to determine the extent of it. We must find ways to quantify it more regularly. Tracking the performance of high schoolers, college students, entry-level employees, and other up-and-comers will naturally reveal clues and trends related to people’s writing deficiencies. It will highlight educational issues—individual or structural. That way, it will become easier to develop applicable, actionable solutions.

Speaking of solutions, they will rely primarily on individual action: Writers identifying their weaknesses, turning them into strengths, and making their strengths even stronger. There is no “solution” without self-improvement.

Here are a couple of best practices for those aspiring to improve their writing:

  1. Read. It is impossible to improve one’s writing without reading, whether it is a news story, novella, or white paper. Try reading The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page daily, so one can establish a barometer for strong writing—a columnist like Peggy Noonan, for instance. If that is not of interest, try reading at least one chapter of a book on a daily basis, leaning on authors like Stephen King or James Patterson to get a sense of what resonates with millions of readers. To quote Patterson himself, “I learnt to love reading. And then I started scribbling stories, and I liked that even more.”
  2. Edit. Even the world’s best writers (and readers)—people like Patterson—would not be household names if they relied exclusively on first drafts. The first draft is meant to be a starting point for one’s scribble, turning thoughts into words. It is not the finished product. If one edits an initial piece of content two or three times, he will be amazed at how improvement becomes inevitable. More often than not, one will find ways to trim the word count, omitting phrases, sentences, and even entire paragraphs to make one’s writing more clear and concise.

It is important to remember that there is more to editing than proofreading, though both are important. Lower-level editing has to do with spelling and grammar, while higher-level editing focuses on big-picture themes like brevity. If I give myself two or three editing rounds, my writing will naturally become shorter and sweeter, without exception.

Case in point: I referenced “a couple of best practices” earlier. Why not just write “two best practices” and cut two unnecessary words?

If one is struggling with spelling and grammar mistakes, or even the big picture, keep The Elements of Style (by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White) on hand. There is no better resource on the basic principles of composition.

The key takeaway from Strunk and White? Proper writing is simple. One does not need to overcomplicate it to “sound smarter.”

With the emergence of artificial intelligence, it has never been easier to put writing on the back burner, allowing AI to do the hard work for us. But writers at all levels need to resist that temptation and stick to self-improvement. As a PR practitioner who writes for a living, I still try to find ways to improve as a writer. After all, there is always something new to learn.

One should shift his mindset. If he is already a good writer, he should try to become a great one. If one is a bad writer, he should try to become average—without ChatGPT. Starting with individual action, the writing problem will yield solutions.

Luka Ladan, APR is president and CEO of Zenica Public Relations.

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