By Philip J Reed - April 2nd, 2015
You may not realize it, but your writing defines you. Your writing can be someone’s first impression of you. And even if someone already knows you, they may still judge your intelligence based on how well (or poorly) you write. Regardless of if you’re applying for a job or posting on social media, you want to be conscious of the impression you are giving others based on your ability to write and the words you use.
Certainly you’ve seen those people on social media who find it important to point out every spelling and grammatical mistake that they see. (You won’t see any mistakes in this article, of course. Unless you do, in which case let me know so that I can hide the evidence.) Just as certainly, you’ve seen some variation of “You know what I mean” as a rejoinder.
The difference between “it’s” and “its”, between “compliment” and “complement”, or between “breath” and “breathe” can seem academic at times. A reader may stumble over the mistake, but it doesn’t take much effort to look past a misused word or spelling error and move on.
The problem, though, is that language isn’t just a medium of communication; for better or worse, your linguistic competency is a perceived measure of your intelligence.
You Will Be Judged By How Well You Write
The importance of careful writing cannot be overstated, especially in the professional world. After all, your resume and cover letter will nearly always be a hiring manager’s first impression of you, and there will very rarely be a scarcity of applicants. This means that you’re in competition with fellow job-seekers long before the interview even begins. A poorly written resume or cover letter can disqualify you from the running before you even get a foot in the door.
But writing doesn’t stop being important after you get a job. In a study performed by the National Commission on Writing, it was discovered that “more than half of all responding companies take writing skills into account in making promotion decisions.”
The Commission also reports that salaried employees are 300% more likely than hourly employees to need strong writing skills. You may be able to find a job without developing your strengths as a writer, but will it be the job you want? Will it be secure?
Perhaps most telling is the fact that 35.5% of respondents said that fewer than one-third of applicants meet a level of writing skill valued by the company. To translate that into a real-world question, if you knew that strong writing would put you uniformly ahead of 35.5% of applicants, across all fields and professions, wouldn’t you pay more attention to it?
Writing isn’t just your ticket in; it’s your ticket up.
Your Reputation is Based on Your Writing
Your ability to communicate is one of the defining ways the world interacts with you. Intelligence, as we’ve discussed, is often gauged (involuntarily) by the way you express a thought. But your writing says even more about you than that.
Your credibility, for instance, is at stake. Strong writers are generally perceived as more credible, which makes a kind of logical sense; better writing goes hand in hand with more reading. The more one reads, the more one knows. It’s a fallacious conclusion, but one that people subconsciously reach.
You’ve done it yourself. In fact, you’re doing it right now. If this entire blog post were riddled with errors, wouldn’t you think less of it, even if every one of its main points were the same? At best, you’d think I was careless and negligent, failing to make effective use of your time as a reader. More likely, you’d conclude that I simply couldn’t be trusted to know what I’m talking about.
Let Your Personality Shine Through Your Writing
Your personality is also reflected in your writing. Everything you say or write, after all, comes down to word choice.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud” is evocative of the kind of person who would express himself in such a way. It tells you something about him, simply because of the way in which he expressed himself. “I was bored so I walked around a lot” is evocative of a quite different kind of person, even if they are, essentially, two equally-correct ways of expressing the same idea.
Your word choice, to a reader, defines the kind of person you are, and how you view the world around you. For instance, do you say that something is required, or that it is vital? Are you happy, or are you jubilant?
Charles Dickens described Ebenezer Scrooge as being “solitary as an oyster.” Would Dickens be remembered as fondly if he’d been the type of writer to describe Scrooge as “someone who wanted to be alone”? These paired examples express the same idea, but evoke entirely different images.
Writing is more than adhering to the (often confusing, sometimes conflicting) rules of the language. Writing is the result of inner negotiation, of hazy thoughts being translated to static words. It says a lot about who you are because it’s a byproduct of who you are. And, correctly or not, it often says more about your intelligence, your credibility, your competency, your reliability, and your personality than anything else.
Language is one of the only ways to let anyone else know the value of what’s in your head. Present yourself the same way you would visually: how you want to be seen.
Writing Makes You Smarter
Careful writing might not be the most thrilling thing in the world to you, but our alumni consistently say one the most beneficial things they got out of their degree at CSU-Global was an improvement in their writing skills.
This means that all that writing (and rewriting, and reworking, and editing, and deleting everything and starting again) actually helps you build your own voice, and find the best balance of professionalism, accuracy, and clarity in your message. You learn to outline key points and be persuasive. You learn to not only tell a story, but how to tell it well, and to back it up. Knowing when to provide evidence and how to cite sources gives credibility to your ideas and allows the reader to seek out additional information on the subject when desired. It’s not necessary in every email you write, and it’s only sometimes necessary when preparing a grocery list, but knowing how to cite properly is a very positive side effect of earning your degree.
1) Read. The more you read, the more you’ll understand how language can be effectively used. Reading anything is helpful, but reading a wide variety of things – journalism, fiction, poetry, or humor – can help you build a keen vocabulary.
2) Write. The more you write, the better you’ll get. You’ll also develop your confidence along with your skills. Keep a dictionary and a thesaurus (whether physical or digital) on hand, and look up words as you use them. In many cases, you’ll learn something new about the language you thought you knew
3) Edit. Before you send that email or submit that assignment, read over it. Even if your writing is grammatically correct, think about improvements. Ask yourself the questions that George Orwell asks here: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
4) Study. We offer APA resources to students, and they’re worth reviewing. Find a writer that you enjoy and read what they have to say about writing. Bill Bryson, Stephen King, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and countless others have written about their craft, so take the time to learn from the best. Buy a word-of-the-day calendar and challenge yourself to use every new word at least once.
5) Persevere. Writing correctly is difficult, and writing effectively is even harder. Because all of us use language, in some form, every day, we bristle at the idea that we have significant room for improvement. Keep working at it, though, and your writing will eventually meet your expectations…and then, satisfyingly, exceed them.
Philip is a technical writer for Colorado State University-Global Campus. In his spare time he enjoys reading and Hawaiian shirts.