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.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

5 Responses to They Write for a Living, but Can They Write?

  1. talikatzman says:

    Hey,

    First I would like to apologize,I couldnt read the entire post,it was just too much for me 🙂

    However I did read the first quarter of it,about people who publish books though writing isnt their real passion in life.

    This subject kinda spoke to me.I’m a 17 year old aspiring writer,I have a true passion for it,when I write I feel like I’m somewhere else,a place with no worries about anything,I get this high when I write,like I’m on top of the world 🙂

    Anyway I’m very new to writing,only started half a year ago,but the passion was always in me.I was wondering if you could read my material,which is posted on my site,and tell me,on a proffecional stand point if my writing is something people would like,if it has that “extra” people look for when reading an amazing book.

    I’ll be happy to hear your opinion

    PS:If you like what I wrote and want to read more then here is my Email: thedragonmansion@gmail.com

  2. rachel says:

    Writing is not the core of what I do but I do like to write about my real core-being a food scientist, chef and microbiologist. I wish that the words could flow easily and beautifully and free of grammer errors but I struggle with every piece that i write-trying to make it seem effortless but of course it is not! I rely on the editors to help me with my flow. Its more important for me to spread the word of what I do in such a way that people will read it vs stubbornly produce something that could have been great but isn’t because it was not written in such a way that motivated people to read it.

  3. Stefano Galiasso says:

    Hi Steven, good post. I’m following you since HBR blogs and every now and then stop by your new blog to see what’s going on.

    As an Engineer, I fall into the “professional” category of writers who doesn’t write for a living but would like to improve it. Do you have anything to recommend? I don’t have plenty of time since I’m stuck in a 9-5 job and I’m building a small online venture on weekends, but effective writing would be extremely useful and interesting (like Asimov, Garry Kasparov – he plays with words as he plays with chess pieces, a real grandmaster – or the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy).

    Thanks for reminding us of the importance of communication.

    ste_360 (at) yahoo (dot) it

  4. Thanks for your comment, Stefano. Reading the work of great science and technical writers, as you seem to be doing, is an important step. There are also a number of regional associations for science and technical writers that offer forums, publish blogs, and post material that can be helpful. You might make your first stop nasw.org.

    That said, I think there’s no substitute for working one-on-one with a good editor on a real piece of your own. The next time you have to write something important at work or for your online venture, consider finding a good developmental editor to work with you closely, not just fix problems and then get your approval on the changes. If you develop a relationship with that person, he or she can become something of a mentor.

    I believe that you really need to get inside the head of someone who’s good at what they do so that you internalize the way they think. That’s been my experience in any case. I even wrote a blog post for HBR about this kind of dynamic (search for “The Art of Learning from a Colleague” at HBR.org). Granted, that post was about learning from someone with a relatively similar area of expertise, but many of the principles still apply.

    Rachel, as a food scientist, you seem to have respect for what editors help you do so that your message gets across. Do you find you learn from the editing process and improve? Or do you prefer to leave that work to others and concentrate exclusively on the science?

  5. Rachel says:

    I have both respect and envy for the editors that help me get my message across. I wish I could do it on my own but I recognize my weakness and try to focus on my strengths-my strength being a jack of all trades in my field. I do however pay close attention to the way my articles are edited, noting what parts of my sentences were deleted and what parts were adjusted or how transition sentences are interjected to create a smoother read. I try to improve and I feel that I have over the years. The painful process of organizing my thoughts and writing an article seems to diminish with each piece that I get published.

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