Public prose

State governments spend millions of dollars teaching writing skills to employees, says a report by the National Commission on Writing.

While two-thirds of (private) companies surveyed in the 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers, 100 percent of the 49 states responding to the anonymous survey said it was. More than 75 percent said they take writing skills into account when hiring.

. . . The report estimates the states spend $221 million annually on remedial writing training, sometimes sending workers to $400-per-employee classes.

The time lost rereading incomprehensible prose can’t be quantified.

About Joanne


  1. I’d be surprised if the issue wasn’t grammar as much as writing skills. I know of several California schools that don’t bother with grammar.

  2. A lot of places, grammar is dismissed as being too restrictive. Then people wonder why high school graduates can’t write coherently. Possible connection? Nah!

  3. 1)Writing skills are unquestionably important. A poorly-written sales proposal, for example, is likely to lose business that could have been won.

    2)I question how often these skills can really be improved significantly once a person has already graduated from college and developed bad writing habits.

    3)It’s not just writing skills, it’s also reading skills. I once asked an employee to review a letter proposal from a supplier–he was a smart guy at a fairly high level, and the supplier was a known bad actor. He (the employee) handed it back saying it ‘looked OK’, whereas a close reading would have found alarm signals in almost every paragraph.

  4. The time lost rereading incomprehensible prose can’t be quantified.

    I’m sure many people feel the same way about the texts they had to read for English while they were in high school.

    How do we teach writing to a workforce that graduates with B’s and A’s in writing and then gets to college needing remedial work? Less Shakespeare, more essays? What is the impact of outsourcing? Are those Chinese and Indian workers better writers than us? If not, maybe this issue isn’t that important after all.

  5. And I just caught this bit….

    Poor writing not only befuddles citizens but also slows down the government as bureaucrats struggle with unclear instructions or have to redo poorly written work.

    So *that’s* the problem! I thought it was the enormous labyrinthine system we use to accomplish even the minutest task at the state and federal level. Silly me!

    Next they’ll be blaming Microsoft….

  6. I have enjoyed this site for a while, but this is my first time to post a comment. I actually write legal documents for a state government.

    I spend most of my time trying to translate technical jargon into language that lawyers understand and approve and vice versa. Everything I write goes through a hierarchy of review and by the time it is reviewed many times, it barely resembles what I originally wrote.

    The main problem that I face is editing and the lack of time to review my drafts. Just last week, I made a last minute change to one my documents without checking the entire document and I wound up with a paragraph of nonsense (not the usual kind). I edit my documents so many times that the original flow and overall meaning can be altered by accident. Yes, I realize I should have checked the entire document more throughly, but I was in a rush and that was about the 15th time within a few hours that someone had requested that I make a small change to the document.

    I am still embarrased because so many people saw the mistake.

    The real problem is not writing skills, but that anything that is written by a state worker has to please a wide variety of people while at the same time not upset anyone important. It is an impossible goal to acheive. The true goal of a goverment document is not really communication.

  7. In other words, if the meaning is clear, someone won’t like it.