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Writing As Thinking: Why Writing Is Still A Critical Skill In Business

Today’s industry leaders can empower their employees, themselves and their organizations by promoting this powerful skill. I believe those who do will elevate their own reputation and success in commerce and society.

I was a science kid in high school; I loved physics and mathematics. When I learned my senior year that I was assigned to the English teacher with a reputation as the most rigorous in school, I dreaded a year of struggle outside my strength areas. Unexpectedly, that class changed my life. She taught me how to think in a way that laid the foundation of my success not only in undergraduate liberal arts but also in science, business and leadership.

I leaned on that teacher’s instruction as I pursued my physics career and crafted peer-reviewed publications with complex research presented in clear, accessible storytelling. I leveraged rhetorical persuasion for grants. My colleagues noticed the edge that one high school teacher imparted — to communicate with sentences as powerful as my science. I was a scientist, but writing has been critical to my career in research, teaching and dissemination.

That writing — that thinking — is still at the heart of my work today as a university president. My physics background equipped me to position my institution for the Industry 4.0 revolution, but I still leverage those communication skills to make this complex connection accessible and compelling. Every day, I exercise those habits of order, structure, logic and rhetoric to create inviting sentences, lucid paragraphs and compelling stories.

The place of the liberal arts, in particular writing, in higher education has been debated as the ascent of STEM disciplines, data analysis, artificial intelligence and other, more obvious job-creating fields have commanded attention and resources. I’ve found defenders of the liberal arts have often resorted to a rearguard insistence that discrete skills imparted by their programs, such as clear writing and critical thinking, are highly sought-after in a tech-focused workplace.

Today’s industry leaders can empower their employees, themselves and their organizations by promoting this powerful skill. I believe those who do will elevate their own reputation and success in commerce and society.

As a leader, you can gain effective insight into your employees’ and applicants’ thinking skills by evaluating their writing. Precise word choices and well-structured sentences, for example, can help indicate clarity of thought. Similarly, a logical, easy-to-follow narrative flow could suggest an organized mind capable of critical analysis, including self-analysis. More generally, writing can provide a window into a person’s characteristic approach to tasks. Are they hasty or careful? Are they thorough or superficial? Are they attentive to how their work is received by others? Good writing requires reflection and openness to revision. It seeks to serve the audience, as the writer’s hard work makes the reader’s job easier. From my perspective, such writing means their communication with others on their team and outside stakeholders is likely to add significant value to an organization.

Leaders should also hone their own writing skills. Among other things, writing is a shortcut to rapid-prototype a new idea. That flash of insight sounds great in your head, but what happens when you try to commit it to paper? Writing forces a higher level of precision, consideration of broader impacts and attention to overlooked obstacles — or opportunities — that can affirm, modify, discard or enhance the idea. Similarly, writing elevates spoken communication skills. Thoughts come to mind in succession. Writing puts them all in view in one place, outside of you, so you can make an objective critique of their validity, cohesion and effectiveness.

Organizations should elevate the importance of writing skills for more effective communication both internally and externally. This attention is even more vital as we emerge from Covid-19, where modes of communication were altered in ways that I believe are likely to endure. At the same time, the rise of big data has called for more storytelling to translate complex analysis effectively.

Written words outlive the writer; we are still learning from the texts of people who wrote generations ago without benefit of a Q&A. An organization that values writing can reach for such a level of accessibility and audience comprehension in all its communication. More satisfied workers, stakeholders, and customers will spread the word so the organization will flourish.

Leaders and their teams can enhance their writing skills in practical ways. First, expose yourself to good writing. When you feel more informed or even energized after reading an article, go back and see how the writer did it. How did they draw you in? How did they guide you, step by logical step? How did they reward you for staying with them? Ask why you found the piece effective. Next, apply the same questions to your own writing, and practice the skill. Take the audience’s view. Would this draw them in? Is this easy to follow? Where would your mind wander if you were a stranger reading this? Did you state exactly what you meant to convey?

Writing is a vital skill and is crucial to your organization. No matter your field, role, industry or passion, effective writing can help sharpen critical thinking and position you to thrive in your environment. That’s what my once-feared high school senior English class did for me.

By Gregory Crawford I Forbes Councils Member, first published at https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/05/03/writing-as-thinking-why-writing-is-still-a-critical-skill-in-business/?sh=319f1bd9236e May 3, 2021

Gregory P. Crawford is President of Miami University of Ohio.