The “Skill Set” Pigeonhole

The phrase “skill set” has always irked me. It brings to mind the many conversations about hiring in which I’ve participated, whether on the employer side or as a prospective candidate. If you haven’t previously done exactly the kind of work someone needs you for, freelance or otherwise, the conclusion often is “the skill sets don’t match.” As if they’re shopping for a ball bearing for a Toyota — or a donor of a kidney.

This inappropriately narrow selection process is a mutual one. Candidates usually market themselves, in part, by making mind-numbing lists of items in their employability repertoire, in the hope that the hirers will find the desired skill in there somewhere. The search for the right employee — or the right job — thereby becomes less of a dynamic hunt than a wild-goose chase, except that the searchers tend to kid themselves that they’ve found the elusive bird. It’s a fool’s errand.

In a freelance context, the immediate consequences of the “skill set” approach to searching are obvious. Everyone gets to check off the requisite boxes, and whether the match will really work is left to little better than chance. That’s because both sides have essentially just queried, rather than interviewed, each other. Not knowing what you’re getting is bad enough when you’re aware that you’re in the dark — it’s even worse when you mistakenly assume you know exactly what you have.

But that short-term pitfall is only the half of it. Multiply this myopia by the millions and you end up with a freelance labor pool that’s been ghettoized into highly specialized niches. Work in one narrow area begets more work in that same area, and all the birds nest comfortably in their pigeonholes. Sure, specialization breeds expertise — but only to a point. In time, roles become overspecialized, which leads to complacency and stagnation as expectations solidify and everyone involved begins to value predictability above all else.

With the hired birds stuck in their pigeonholes instead of using their wings, it’s quality that starts to go south. Quality of the work, quality of life, and quality of the exchange between the freelancer and the people who pay her.

If, instead, freelancers are permitted to venture beyond their nests and reflect a bit on their work from a perch, they have the potential to offer the hirer a valuable independent perspective (see “Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant”). And those who hire contractors can actively foster such contributions by providing thoughtful feedback. That kind of dynamism keeps everyone sharp, and it can prevent the misunderstandings that silence often creates.

When skills are allowed to set, they tend to go stale. A feathered nest isn’t so comfortable if the quills are stiff and brittle.

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They Write for a Living, but Can They Write?

For more than 15 years, I’ve worked with authors from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines, many at the top of their fields. I do ghost writing, developmental editing, copyediting, and other work that doesn’t fit neatly in those categories. Most authors just want me to “make it better,” but a fair number seek to improve themselves, which gives me the opportunity to use skills from my other career — teaching.

I find that, in general, the people most amenable to learning from an editor are those who don’t consider writing to be at the core of what they do: the renowned doctor, the finance whiz, the clever engineer, the concert pianist. Because writing is not their domain, if they are one of the subset who care enough to improve, they are highly receptive, even wide-eyed. They recognize the value of effective expository writing and want to unlock its mysteries, just as I am intrigued by the mysteries of their disciplines. The mutual interest is not mysterious at all.

The authors who, in contrast, make me scratch my head are those for whom writing is an essential component of success in their field yet who are breathtakingly poor at it. I’m not talking about creative writers, but rather the folks whose professions, by definition, require mastery of exposition and the persuasive argument (or so you’d think): the humanities professor, the policy advocate, the sociologist, the public relations specialist, the lawyer, the journalist, and so on. Verbal expression is their bread and butter, their way of ascending to prominence, their professional lifeblood. Of course, many people in these professions write exceedingly well, even brilliantly. But there seem to be much larger numbers who write with such lack of logic, clarity, and voice that at times it leaves you aghast — and almost always confused. Yet, in most cases, they’re not interested in improving.

Incidentally, by good writing I don’t mean good grammar. Important as that is, interest in its minutiae frankly qualifies me as a freak. (And, of course, we all make grammar mistakes that need to be corrected.) But grammar is by no means my primary interest, nor is it the central issue in the writing deficiency I’m describing. Think instead of basic paragraphing skills, fundamental logic, a sense of audience, consistency of point of view, the ability to detect ambiguity, an ear for language.

To be sure, this widespread deficiency in writing is in part attributable to the culture of turgid prose that academia breeds — a phenomenon discussed eloquently by psychology professor Gail A. Hornstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. But academic culture doesn’t explain everything, given that plenty of people in writing-dependent careers outside academia also seem to be afflicted with mediocre skills (I mentioned some above). The bottom line is that we have a large class of professionals, in both academic and non-academic arenas, who have succeeded in fields that depend heavily on writing yet who do not write effectively. What business do you have claiming the title Professor of Communications, for example, if you’re not a good writer?

Let me pause here to say that every writer needs a good editor. We can’t expect the esteemed professor or the great reporter or even the writing teacher to produce golden prose right out of the box. The very best writers need a set of fresh eyes and ears, and the rest of us require much more than that. If your goal is to publish something that’s supposed to legitimize you professionally or that you expect people to use for important purposes, you simply must meet a high standard in the end. Otherwise, please don’t bother. There’s enough noise out there without yours.

Now, as I presumptuously clear my throat to explain what’s behind the glaring underperformance of an “overclass” of writers, I have to admit the obvious — that this is not my domain but that of a sociologist (one who can write, I hope). But as a middling, unaccountable blogger, I’ll take a stab at it. The sociologists, if they ever see this, can call me a fake.

Ahem . . . A temptingly easy explanation for widespread writing deficiency among high achievers in the world of words is grade inflation run amuck: A and B students who should be C students, moving from school to career and bringing unchallenged mediocrity along with them. That simple explanation, to my ear, sounds like the stuff of a reactionary’s bitch session — elitist, whiny, a dead end. Undoubtedly, the underlying causes are instead multiple. But there’s one cause that I view as at least part of the mix, and much more persuasive as an explanation than pandemic grade inflation.

You see, rigor — no matter what the domain, including writing — is hard. And social pressure is pretty much the only thing that will force most people to do the work. Without academic and other institutions — and their leaders — building a culture in which that pressure becomes part of the air that everyone breathes, most people will improve their writing enough to get by, but not much more. “Besides,” they’ll argue, “the content is what matters.” Well, Professor of Communications, the words are your content.

So how do the bulk of our esteemed professors and other respected wordsters get by with mediocrity? And what’s to prevent my neighbor who hauls dry ice for a living, and can’t write well either, from doing what’s required to become a professor? Is it just a matter of degree: bad writer vs. really bad writer? Of course not.

In most cases, the person who went on to become the professor couldn’t have imagined himself hauling dry ice for a living, so he learned how to operate in the world that allows you, eventually, to become a professor. That world demands certain types of rigor, but it usually doesn’t demand great writing. It does, however, require communicating in a way that signals to other academics that you’re a legitimate member of their tribe. That type of social system takes root much more easily than a merit-based culture of good writers, but it’s just as effective at indicating who’s in and who’s out.

As for my neighbor who hauls dry ice, he’s out — but he’s a party to his own exclusion. He may not really want to haul dry ice, but enough people in his social arena are willing to accept him in that role that he’ll take it. Who wants to be a stuffy old professor anyway?

Whatever the reasons for the writing mediocrity we’ve come to accept from people who write for a living, the obvious question is “What’s the solution?” Again, the answers are multiple. One element, as I already suggested, is academic and other leaders’ willingness to demand good writing in the professional spheres where it matters. But it also takes resources. Most academic journals, for example, push articles through the publication process with a couple of peer reviews for content and a meager copyedit, with little or no developmental editing for structure, logic, voice, and the other essentials. And many news outlets (print, online, and broadcast) now produce content so quickly that it’s often more impressionistic than edifying.

Again, each of these topics is worth much longer treatment. And many other people have wrung their hands about the diminishing appetite of consumers to pay for high-quality content. It’s frankly hard to imagine a reversal in that trend anytime soon. So, naive as it may be, I look to the power of social pressure for a substantial part of the solution — but, in this case, pressure that’s aimed at achieving rigor rather than avoiding it.

How do you apply that kind of pressure? Well, when you read something, allow yourself to be elevated or irritated enough by the quality of the writing to say something specific about it. People usually submit a letter or an online comment to an editor only when they’ve been either buoyed or offended by ideas or facts. That’s fine, of course, but have you ever written in to praise or complain about the writing — not in general terms, but in detail about why something did or did not work? Granted, those are not the types of letters and comments that get published, but most of the time if you submit them via the right avenue and express yourself coolly and intelligently, your remarks will make it to the responsible party.

It may not seem sexy to tell a writer, for example, that he presented the parts of his article in the wrong order — and to explain why — or to analyze the details of a particular passage that was unclear or left a misimpression. But if he’s worth anything, the writer will listen to that type of feedback. And if enough of that feedback comes in, the sheer volume (it doesn’t actually take that much) gives it influence. Editors at academic journals also tend to read intelligent comments about how their content was presented. It’s one of the few remaining levers that readers have. The publication’s staff often need a reminder that you really care about the writing and that you’re savvy enough to distinguish between what’s good and bad — and to be able to explain the difference.

People tend to perform when they know they’re being watched. I often get the sense that folks who build their careers on mediocre writing assume that no one is really watching, or at least not watching in the way that will prompt them to improve as communicators, not just as purveyors of content. Watch them like a hawk, I say.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’re undoubtedly watching me carefully, and you probably have something to say about this topic, whose surface I’ve barely scratched. I hope you’ll let your voice be heard in a comment right here.

For Big Projects, Try a Cone-Shaped Schedule

Procrastination is one of the most discussed topics in freelance circles. Tips on combating dread, getting started, and powering through abound. Some of the advice out there has value, but the very focus on procrastination is often misplaced. I’ve found that, in terms of productivity, there’s more to be gained from shaping your project’s trajectory than from shaping your anticipation of the work. That holds true whether you’re working for yourself or for someone else.

The single biggest motivator in getting a project done — and done well — is a sense of progress. Sure, there’s an art to getting started (as I’ve discussed previously), but once you’ve begun, awareness of your forward movement is what carries you through. One way to achieve that is to spend less time on each step than you did on the previous one so that your schedule looks like a cone turned on its side — with the broad base on the left and the pointy end on the right. That doesn’t mean scheduling work sessions to artificially force earlier and earlier quit times; that approach just leads to a marathon “final push” right before the deadline. The cone-shaped method, in contrast, means observing these five, more organic principles:

1. Survey the entire geometry. To identify where the base of the cone is, you first need to look at your project in all its initially shapeless complexity. That allows you to see what you have, what you don’t, and how everything might fit together. You can’t possibly create an efficient plan without knowing which end is up — or, in this case, which end should be on the left and which on the right.

2. Respect the inherent properties of the work. Every project has its own deep structure that may not match how the people who ultimately see the work will experience it. In short, the beginning is not always the beginning. Sometimes, working backward from the intended endpoint for your user allows the earlier pieces to fall into place more easily as you develop them. Other times, the most substantive part (the part where you should start) is in the middle. Bottom line: your process and the end user’s experience are often two entirely different objects. Your audience need never see that you’re really just a conehead.

3. Make gross movements before fine-tuning. As soon as you’ve identified the heart of your project, start doing the heavy lifting. The first full-fledged work session should be your longest and most difficult. At that point, the project is likely to feel relatively new and fresh, and fatigue won’t be as much of a limiting factor. Besides, you’ll feel freer to move things around and take risks with the basic structure when you haven’t invested yourself in minutiae and aesthetics, important as those things are in the end.

4. Gradually narrow the window between sessions. As the cone narrows, so should the time between the periods when you sit down (or stand up) to do the work. A key to creating momentum on a project is having session duration decrease as the gap between sessions also decreases. That creates the illusion of speed — like you’re walking downhill rather than uphill. And, actually, it’s not entirely an illusion. You are, after all, moving toward the end at a faster pace. It’s just that you’ve deliberately structured your schedule to achieve that effect.

5. Take pleasure in the polishing. With the toughest parts behind you, enjoy the little pleasures of the tip of the cone — the niceties, the trim, the tassels. Imagine yourself sitting in the audience at your own play and appreciating the small things. Doing that can make a deadline feel like the celebratory debut it should be rather than the exhausting finale it often is. A cone tip is most pleasing when it’s sharp and shiny. Take your finger to it (gently) and see just how good it feels.

Are We Making Things That Last?

I teach, I edit, I write. To some that’s noble work; to others it’s a lotta BS. Words mostly, written in dust on a chalkboard, sitting idly on pieces of paper, or flitting ephemerally across a screen. Nothing you can touch and hold and use, at least not in the way that “useful” things are meant to be. Did you make anything today, Steve, other than some noise? Tomorrow you’ll make more of it, and that too will disappear.

Thoughts like those sometimes give me the urge to pick up a hammer and a nail or a needle and thread, or to go out and find what many people would consider a real job. Not a phony, patchwork freelance existence in which I get paid to put marks on a page and tap on a keyboard — and teach others to do the same. One in which I spend some of my time dreaming up mind candy for this blog, which doesn’t pay a cent.

Obviously, I see value in what I do, especially the teaching. And I’ve written about it many times. But there is something that gnaws at me — at us — as more and more of our time is spent making noise rather than making useful things.

If I were an economist, I’d be tempted now to launch into a boring lecture about outsourcing and the depletion of the U.S. manufacturing base. But there is a nugget of truth to the idea that making fewer useful things slowly guts a nation of its ambition, even its purpose. I think about all those people at the gym, most employed in service and office jobs, doing their “core” exercises and then, on the way out the door, passing vending machines filled with junk food fit for consumption in front of a high-definition TV. There are many ways to fill a void.

As a political junkie (yes, I consume even the TV junk), I wonder why speeches about the importance of developing green technologies don’t focus on an increasingly untapped desire to build and create tangible things rather than on climate change (an abstract concept to most people). “It’s time America gets back to making things that last!” I can hear a politician chanting. “In the 21st century and beyond, it’s green technology built with your hands in green factories that will last, that will make your paycheck last, that will last long enough for your children and your grandchildren to enjoy the fruits of your labor!” Politicians are in the business of making noise, though, so they probably don’t need my help.

My own noise is more muted, much less influential. It’s in the classroom, in my interactions with authors and editors, in this disposable little blog. I don’t know how long any of those efforts will ultimately last, useful as they usually seem to me to be. The best I can hope for is that my students will carry what they learn out into the world and make a living, make a difference, and actually make a few real, useful things along the way.

That’s the noise I’m generating in my own ear, at least today. Tomorrow I’ll make a different sound, and that too will disappear.