[Paleopsych] NYT: What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence

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What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence
NYT December 7, 2004

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - R. Craig Hogan, a former university
professor who heads an online school for business writing
here, received an anguished e-mail message recently from a
prospective student.

"i need help," said the message, which was devoid of
punctuation. "i am writing a essay on writing i work for
this company and my boss want me to help improve the
workers writing skills can yall help me with some
information thank you".

Hundreds of inquiries from managers and executives seeking
to improve their own or their workers' writing pop into Dr.
Hogan's computer in-basket each month, he says, describing
a number that has surged as e-mail has replaced the phone
for much workplace communication. Millions of employees
must write more frequently on the job than previously. And
many are making a hash of it.

"E-mail is a party to which English teachers have not been
invited," Dr. Hogan said. "It has companies tearing their
hair out."

A recent survey of 120 American corporations reached a
similar conclusion. The study, by the National Commission
on Writing, a panel established by the College Board,
concluded that a third of employees in the nation's
blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were
spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial

The problem shows up not only in e-mail but also in reports
and other texts, the commission said.

"It's not that companies want to hire Tolstoy," said Susan
Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, an
association of leading chief executives whose corporations
were surveyed in the study. "But they need people who can
write clearly, and many employees and applicants fall short
of that standard."

Millions of inscrutable e-mail messages are clogging
corporate computers by setting off requests for
clarification, and many of the requests, in turn, are also
chaotically written, resulting in whole cycles of

Here is one from a systems analyst to her supervisor at a
high-tech corporation based in Palo Alto, Calif.: "I
updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie
forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure
my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with
incorrect information ... However after verifying controls
on JBL - JBL has the indicator as B ???? - I wanted to make
sure with the recent changes - I processed today - before
Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to 'C'."

The incoherence of that message persuaded the analyst's
employers that she needed remedial training.

"The more electronic and global we get, the less important
the spoken word has become, and in e-mail clarity is
critical," said Sean Phillips, recruitment director at
another Silicon Valley corporation, Applera, a supplier of
equipment for life science research, where most employees
have advanced degrees. "Considering how highly educated our
people are, many can't write clearly in their day-to-day

Some $2.9 billion of the $3.1 billion the National
Commission on Writing estimates that corporations spend
each year on remedial training goes to help current
employees, with the rest spent on new hires. The
corporations surveyed were in the mining, construction,
manufacturing, transportation, finance, insurance, real
estate and service industries, but not in wholesale,
retail, agriculture, forestry or fishing, the commission
said. Nor did the estimate include spending by government
agencies to improve the writing of public servants.

An entire educational industry has developed to offer
remedial writing instruction to adults, with hundreds of
public and private universities, for-profit schools and
freelance teachers offering evening classes as well as
workshops, video and online courses in business and
technical writing.

Kathy Keenan, a onetime legal proofreader who teaches
business writing at the University of California Extension,
Santa Cruz, said she sought to dissuade students from
sending business messages in the crude shorthand they
learned to tap out on their pagers as teenagers.

"hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again," one student
wrote to her recently. "i had sent you the assignment
earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment
could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation."

Most of her students are midcareer professionals in
high-tech industries, Ms. Keenan said.

The Sharonview Federal Credit Union in Charlotte, N.C.,
asked about 15 employees to take a remedial writing course.
Angela Tate, a mortgage processor, said the course
eventually bolstered her confidence in composing e-mail,
which has replaced much work she previously did by phone,
but it was a daunting experience, since she had been out of
school for years. "It was a challenge all the way through,"
Ms. Tate said.

Even C.E.O.'s need writing help, said Roger S. Peterson, a
freelance writer in Rocklin, Calif., who frequently coaches
executives. "Many of these guys write in inflated language
that desperately needs a laxative," Mr. Peterson said, and
not a few are defensive. "They're in denial, and who's
going to argue with the boss?"

But some realize their shortcomings and pay Mr. Peterson to
help them improve. Don Morrison, a onetime auditor at
Deloitte & Touche who has built a successful consulting
business, is among them.

"I was too wordy," Mr. Morrison said. "I liked long,
convoluted passages rather than simple four-word sentences.
And I had a predilection for underlining words and throwing
in multiple exclamation points. Finally Roger threatened to
rip the exclamation key off my keyboard."

Exclamation points were an issue when Linda Landis Andrews,
who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a
workshop in May for midcareer executives at an automotive
corporation based in the Midwest. Their exasperated
supervisor had insisted that the men improve their writing.

"I get a memo from them and cannot figure out what they're
trying to say," the supervisor wrote Ms. Andrews.

When at her request the executives produced letters they
had written to a supplier who had failed to deliver parts
on time, she was horrified to see that tone-deaf writing
had turned a minor business snarl into a corporate
confrontation moving toward litigation.

"They had allowed a hostile tone to creep into the
letters," she said. "They didn't seem to understand that
those letters were just toxic."

"People think that throwing multiple exclamation points
into a business letter will make their point forcefully,"
Ms. Andrews said. "I tell them they're allowed two
exclamation points in their whole life."

Not everyone agrees. Kaitlin Duck Sherwood of San
Francisco, author of a popular how-to manual on effective
e-mail, argued in an interview that exclamation points
could help convey intonation, thereby avoiding confusion in
some e-mail.

"If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital
letters and toss in some extra exclamation points," Ms.
Sherwood advises in her guide, available at
www.webfoot.com, where she offers a vivid example:

">Should I boost the power on the thrombo?

"NO!!!! If you
turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors, and IT

Dr. Hogan, who founded his online Business Writing Center a
decade ago after years of teaching composition at Illinois
State University here, says that the use of multiple
exclamation points and other nonstandard punctuation like
the :-) symbol, are fine for personal e-mail but that
companies have erred by allowing experimental writing
devices to flood into business writing.

He scrolled through his computer, calling up examples of
incoherent correspondence sent to him by prospective

"E-mails - that are received from Jim and I are not either
getting open or not being responded to," the purchasing
manager at a construction company in Virginia wrote in one
memorandum that Dr. Hogan called to his screen. "I wanted
to let everyone know that when Jim and I are sending out
e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am
wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to
the e-mail. Its important that Jim and I knows that the
person, intended, had read the e-mail. This gives an
acknowledgment that the task is being completed. I am
asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says "ok", "I
got it", or Alright."

The construction company's human resources director
forwarded the memorandum to Dr. Hogan while enrolling the
purchasing manager in a writing course.

"E-mail has just erupted like a weed, and instead of
considering what to say when they write, people now just
let thoughts drool out onto the screen," Dr. Hogan said.
"It has companies at their wits' end."


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