Executive MBA Program Blog

Your future may depend on this basic skill: Writing.

Posted by Marty Lawlor on Mar 1, 2019 3:58:48 PM

To the short list of death and taxes, I would add the certainty that college faculty will regularly voice their concerns regarding the poor writing skills of their students. Having been part of those conversations for more than 15 years, it appears that the issue has not only not disappeared, but has become an even bigger problem. 

Along with faculty, employers are increasingly outspoken about the inability of their employees to communicate effectively—and with good reason:  Major corporations are spending more than $3 billion annually on remedial writing training, most of it on current employees. 

According to a major study of 120 CEOs of major American corporations[1], workplace writing has become a “threshold skill.”  Given the scale and real financial impact of the problem, companies are becoming more selective in their HR practices.  More than 80% of firms in the service, finance, insurance and real estate sectors, for example, consider writing ability during the hiring process, and more than 50% of employers now consider writing samples in promotion decisions. 

A separate analysis of employment ads conducted by Burning Glass Technologies found that “experience in writing and communications are the most requested job requirements across nearly every industry, even in fields such as information technology and engineering.”[2] (emphasis added). 

This is a long-standing problem, but not one that is easily addressed.  In 1994, the GMAT introduced the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) to test the writing ability of potential management and business students.  And by “writing ability” we’re not simply referring to the correct use of grammar and syntax, but more importantly to the ability to analyze an argument, think critically, use data or evidence in support of an argument, and to structure one’s thoughts in a logical and persuasive way.  What have we learned?  While a strong writing performance on the AWA tends to predict stronger overall MBA performance, the test fails to identify students who will write well in management courses or in later real-world employment situations.[3]

The problem is compounded by student perceptions that writing is not all that important, and by the reluctance of many faculty to hold their students accountable for writing well.  Despite all the hand-wringing and campus-based writing initiatives, one study found that “students did not exhibit significant improvement in editing skills simply by completing 4 years of college or even when offered feedback and guidance not tied to their grade in a course.”[4]  In other words, students need a grade incentive to take writing seriously (one study pegged this at 5% to be effective, though my own experience suggests it has to be significantly higher). 

Substitute “job promotion” for “grading incentive,” and it’s relatively easy to make that case that employees at all stages of their careers should work to improve their writing and communication skills.   Companies are actively screening for more effective writers, and there is evidence that employees with these skills tend to be compensated at higher levels.  Grammarly, the web-based communication application, found a strong correlation between writing skills, hireability, and pay[5].  If further incentives are needed, employees might consider the strong link between leadership and effective communication.  As one CEO remarked: “People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired and are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion.”

Why should you spend time improving your communications skills? Your future depends on it.


[1] Writing: A Ticket to Work… Or a Ticket Out.  A Survey of Business Leaders.  A Report of the National Commission on Writing. 2004

[2] Selingo, Jeffrey J.  Writing skills are rising on the list of job requirements – and falling in candidates.  The Washington Post.  Aug 2017.

[3] Rogers, P.S. and Rymer, Jone.  What is the Relevance of the GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment for Management Education?.  Management Communications Quarterly.  Vol 8, No 3., 1995

[4] Bacon, D.R., Anderson, E.S.  Assessing and Enhancing the Basic Writing Skills of Marketing Students.  Business Communications Quarterly, Volume 67, Number 4, Dec 2004.

[5] Safi, Marlo.  More than an art: Writing skills are life skills.  University Wire.  Apr 2016.

Topics: career growth, Management, Executive MBA