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A (Very) Simple Way to Improve Your Writing
- Mark Rennella
It’s called the “one-idea rule” — and any level of writer can use it.
The “one idea” rule is a simple concept that can help you sharpen your writing, persuade others by presenting your argument in a clear, concise, and engaging way. What exactly does the rule say?
- Every component of a successful piece of writing should express only one idea.
- In persuasive writing, your “one idea” is often the argument or belief you are presenting to the reader. Once you identify what that argument is, the “one-idea rule” can help you develop, revise, and connect the various components of your writing.
- For instance, let’s say you’re writing an essay. There are three components you will be working with throughout your piece: the title, the paragraphs, and the sentences.
- Each of these parts should be dedicated to just one idea. The ideas are not identical, of course, but they’re all related. If done correctly, the smaller ideas (in sentences) all build (in paragraphs) to support the main point (suggested in the title).
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
Most advice about writing looks like a long laundry list of “do’s and don’ts.” These lists can be helpful from time to time, but they’re hard to remember … and, therefore, hard to depend on when you’re having trouble putting your thoughts to paper. During my time in academia, teaching composition at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I saw many people struggle with this.
- MR Mark Rennella is Associate Editor at HBP and has published two books, Entrepreneurs, Managers, and Leaders and The Boston Cosmopolitans .
Improve Professional Writing Skills: Top 12 Proven Tips
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced writer, these tips will help you improve professional writing skills.
I wrote a short ebook for a marketing campaign during my first year as a professional copywriter. I sent the ebook out to the team for review. The editor said the ebook was good, but she asked, “Can you make it sound less dry and formal?”
She was worried the ebook was too hard to understand and most readers would skip it. We rewrote and edited the ebook so it was easier and more engaging to read, and the results generated thousands of leads.
Many new business writers make the mistake of assuming professional writing should be overly formal and use complicated language. Good professional writing is clear, concise, and engaging. It follows a consistent style that speaks appropriately and directly to readers. If you’re unsure how to get started, try these tips.
Top Tips To Improve Professional Writing Skills
1. spell check and grammar check, 2. read your work aloud, 3. use a dedicated grammar checker, 4. learn how to proofread, 5. check the readability score, 6. practice writing for the web, 7. watch for instances of the passive voice, 8. focus on word choice, 9. read a grammar book, 10. put your reader first, 11. take a writing course, 12. read great writing.
The easiest way to write something that sounds professional is to take a few extra minutes to spell check and grammar check your work. Don’t rely on the spelling or grammar checker inside your preferred app either. Instead, copy and paste the writing into another app and change the font. Sure, it’s an extra step, but you’ll spot some additional issues.
Also, remember that the rules of various spell checkers and grammar checkers vary by the operating system and sometimes application, so it’s up to you, as an aspiring good writer, to decide what to fix or ignore.
It’s also a good idea to ensure that you’ve set the English language preference of the app in question to the region you’re writing for, e.g., British English, American English, Canadian English, etc. Subtle differences exist between all these variations, but they can radically change the perception of a piece of writing.
Reading your writing aloud can be a powerful tool for improving your professional writing skills. When narrating, you become more aware of rhythm, pacing, and flow when reading a piece out loud. This process helps identify awkward phrasing, sentence structures, and other problems that may not be as noticeable when reading silently. It helps with self-editing and necessary revisions to improve the clarity and readability of a piece of work.
You could read the opening to a business case, a cover letter, or even a critical email. Consider recording yourself with a dictaphone or voice recorder . That way, you can listen back to your narration and identify even more issues. Listen for words and phrases that are hard to say or fail to convey the intended message.
A basic spelling and grammar checker is useful, but a dedicated grammar checker like Grammarly finds and fixes additional grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and other issues. You can use plugins for these tools that work directly in Outlook, Word, and other professional writing apps.
They should provide context behind possible mistakes with examples. That way, a good writer can fix their work and improve their knowledge of English grammar by doing rather than simply reading. Just remember that it’s up to you, the writer, to decide what to accept or reject depending on your audience, style guide, and the piece’s tone. Read our guide to the best grammar checkers .
Interestingly, Grammarly cites research claiming that its users often improve their verbal commutation skills are using the tool for some time. They subconsciously learn to listen out for verbal ticks and mannerisms that are confusing to readers.
Nothing screams unprofessional writing to co-workers like business emails, a business case, or a presentation packed with typos. Proofreading involves reviewing and checking your writing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style errors.
It also involves looking for inconsistencies or inaccuracies in reports, articles, or other types of professional writing. Software can’t tell if you typed out the name of a company product or terminology incorrectly.
When proofreading a business document, check it for the usual grammar and spelling mistakes. Then recheck for smaller errors like a name misspelled, incorrect figures, or terminology specific to the business or audience. These errors can undermine the credibility of your message.
Before pressing send, submit, or publish, take a few minutes to Identify the reading score of a piece of writing. You can score a piece using a grammar checker or online readability tool. Ideally, good business writing is written for an eighth-grade level.
Novice writers hide behind lengthy sentences, complicated words, and the passive voice because they either find self-editing hard or are afraid they will sound unsophisticated. However, professional writers aim to write something as clearly and concisely as possible, using the same words and phrases as their readers.
That said, some exceptions exist. An academic or technical writer could have to use academic terms or technical jargon, which lowers the readability score of a piece of writing. But they can still look for ways to simplify clunky sentences and awkward turns of phrase. Learn how to improve your readability score .
Writing for the web writing is an excellent way of improving your skills as it encourages clarifying your thoughts on a topic and developing a writing practice. It also promotes publishing work that’s easy to read. It requires communicating your message effectively and concisely-all skills critical to business writing. It’s also unlike writing literary fiction or prose.
Consider writing a blog post on LinkedIn . You’ll have to write a good headline and break a piece up with sub-headings, line breaks, and other formatting techniques. The headline captures the reader’s attention, and those formatting techniques will hold it. These skills translate easily enough to writing a business case summary or an email, i.e., you’ll need a good subject line, lead-in, and scannable summary.
The passive voice describes when the object of a sentence becomes the subject, and the subject is either omitted or turned into an object. In other words, a sentence focuses on the action rather than the person performing it. Read our guide to the passive voice to learn more.
For example, “The company-wide memo was written by the CEO” is an example of the passive voice, while “The CEO wrote a company-wide memo” is written in the active voice.
While nothing is inherently wrong with writing in passive voice, it’s sometimes hard to understand and almost always boring to read. It’s also less engaging than the active voice. Watch for verbs that end in “ed” or the passive voice and rewrite accordingly. A grammar checker can help you spot these written ticks.
Some exceptions exist if the writer deliberately doesn’t want to attribute action to a person. For example, using the passive voice in technical, academic, and legal writing is sometimes more appropriate than attributing an action to an individual, i.e., introducing blame.
The words you choose for business emails and other writings impact on how well readers receive your message. They determine whether your writing is clear, concise, effective or confusing, unclear, or ineffective.
For business writing, pick precise, descriptive, and appropriate words for your audience and purpose. Avoid abbreviating, shortening, or rewriting product names or terms when writing about company terminology unless that’s common practice.
If you’re in doubt, read or ask for the company style guide. Some small businesses may lack one. If that case, check a widely accepted version like the Associated Press style guide .
Bear in mind that the meaning of words, and or how they sound, varies greatly by geography and culture. Here’s one example. In Ireland, the word “craic” means to have a good time. However, in the United States, the word “crack” refers to a class A drug. Both words are pronounced the same but have radically different meanings!
Good writers keep some of the best grammar books near their desks or offices. First up, they’ll expand your vocabulary. You can pick the right words to express your thoughts and ideas effectively. A good grammar book will also help you understand how words are used in context with examples. Avoiding common grammatical mistakes will make your writing more professional and polished.
Additionally, studying grammar rules and sentence structure-many of these books pull examples from various media types-will help you write clear and concise sentences. I particularly like pairing a good grammar book with a tool like Grammarly as it enables me to learn by doing, i.e., I can see how a grammar rule applies to a piece of professional writing I’m working on.
Great professional writing doesn’t waste the reader’s time. It speaks directly to them and explains how what they need to know. Consider a cover letter for a job. Many new applicants ramble for a few paragraphs about who they are and what they do. But a great cover letter writer summarises this in a sentence or two and then quickly explains how they help the hiring manager or business achieve its goals. i.e., the letter is about the role, not the candidate.
The same writing principle applies to effective communication in business. Put your customer or reader first rather than rambling about who you are and what you do.
A good writing course is an excellent way to improve your professional writing skills. You can learn about elements of writing, such as structure, tone, voice, and style. You can also discuss different types of writing , such as persuasive, descriptive, and narrative writing, and how to apply these styles to different pieces.
A good writing course covers techniques and best practices, such as organising your thoughts, creating an outline, revising your work, and developing a writing process. It’s also helpful to network with other professional writers and receive feedback from peers.
I attended a writing workshop that lasted ten weeks. During each session, we critiqued each other’s pieces and provided feedback. I found this feedback invaluable.
Not every professional has time for an in-person creative writing workshop. You can still take a course on your own time. Malcolm Gladwell even teaches a Masterclass that’s suitable for those writing non-fiction. Read our Malcolm Gladwell Masterclass review .
By exposing yourself to high-quality writing, you can learn how professional writers use language to create impactful and memorable pieces.
You can learn how to write an effective business proposal, an engaging blog post, or a persuasive press release by reading examples of these types of writing.
Don’t stop there, though. Consider how authors use descriptive language, structure their sentences, and build an argument. Analyze how they use rhythm, pacing, and tone to engage readers. Consider how you can apply these techniques to your work.
Reading good writing can help you develop a critical eye, allowing you to identify what does and doesn’t work in other people’s writing and apply that knowledge to your writing. Start by reading popular business books by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and also how-to books by popular non-fiction writing teachers like Stein On Writing by Sol Stein and Draft No. 4 by John McPhee.
Meet Rachael, the editor at Become a Writer Today. With years of experience in the field, she is passionate about language and dedicated to producing high-quality content that engages and informs readers. When she's not editing or writing, you can find her exploring the great outdoors, finding inspiration for her next project.
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How to List Writing Skills on a Resume: Best Skills and Examples
What are writing skills?
Why do employers want to see writing skills in a resume.
- Best writing skills to include in a resume
How to list writing skills in a resume
Tips to improve writing skills.
Writing skills are valuable to have in any position within almost every industry. Examples of writing skills can include basic writing skills, professional and business writing, creative writing, content writing and editing. Learn about the top writing skills and how to effectively present them in your resume.
Writing skills are required in many different aspects of our lives. They allow you to communicate with friends, family, customers and colleagues in a clear manner. They can be used to write effective and professional emails, create presentations or develop content for marketing, websites, blogs and social media. Good writing skills can also be advantageous to have when creating resumes or writing cover letters.
Writing is a form of communication that is used everywhere, whether in business or in your personal life. In business, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively in writing is essential. Employees often need to communicate with clients, coworkers and supervisors through letters, emails and memos, so employers are looking for candidates with strong writing skills.
Best writing skills to add to a resume
Here are some of the best writing skills to include on a resume:
Basic writing skills
No matter the nature or type of business, most employers want to hire candidates that have at least basic writing skills such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary.
Professional and business writing
If you’re applying for a job in which you’ll be communicating with clients, colleagues and management, then you’ll need to list professional and business writing skills such as your ability to write professional emails and letters and use Microsoft Office. Other professional writing skills include taking notes and memos, which may be useful during meetings, conducting research and analyzing information to be converted into written communication.
In a corporate position, you may be required to write and prepare multiple reports. Include report writing skills such as your ability to research, analyze and summarize information and data.
Copywriting and content writing
When applying to copywriting or content writing positions for a marketing department or agency, you should include copywriting and content writing skills such as blog and web content writing, research, proofreading and editing. If you have any experience with SEO, sales/marketing writing or writing for social media, this would be good to include in your resume as well.
Some positions may require you to create and develop presentations for meetings and other events. Include presentation skills such as PowerPoint or other presentation software you are experienced with. You may also want to include your ability to be creative, concise and persuasive.
Editing and proofreading are important steps in the writing process, so you should include these skills as well. Examples of editing skills include copy editing, fact-checking and making revisions.
You can use the following steps to list writing skills on your resume:
1. First, make a list of your writing skills
Start by making a draft list that includes all of your writing skills. Then, narrow down this list to include only the skills that you have the most proficiency in.
2. Second, position your best skills first
List your best writing skills, including those in which you are most experienced, first. This will help the hiring manager prioritize your skills and competencies accordingly.
3. Third, list the job-specific skills
It is critical to focus on the skills relevant to the job posting. For example, if you are applying for a job as a business analyst, you may want to highlight your report and article writing skills first. However, if your application is for a website content writing agency, it may be beneficial to mention your SEO writing skills first.
4. Fourth, avoid listing too many skills
Your resume should provide a quick glimpse of your best skills, therefore it should only list the most relevant and important ones. Include four to five writing skills that are relevant to the specific position you are applying to rather than an exhaustive list of all your writing skills to make it easier for the hiring manager to see which skills are most applicable to the job listing.
5. Fifth, prove your skills with achievements
Listing your writing achievements on a resume is a great way to demonstrate your skills and capture the attention of a hiring manager. Many candidates only list their work history and duties, but including your achievements will show a hiring manager how well you did your job. One way to do this is by including specific numbers. For example, you can describe how many articles you wrote in a given amount of time or how much traffic an article you wrote received.
6. Finally, proofread your resume
Your resume itself is an example of your writing skills and abilities, so it should be free of grammatical errors and typos. Before sending your resume to a hiring manager, make sure you read it thoroughly and proofread it for accuracy. You may also want to have someone else review it for you to ensure there are no mistakes.
Here are some tips to improve your writing skills:
One of the best ways to improve any skill is practice. If you want to improve your writing skills, write more and often.
Make proofreading a habit
Whether you’re writing an email, report or article, it’s important to always proofread your work. It can be easy to miss errors or typos, so read through your work thoroughly to ensure it’s perfect before submitting it.
Ask for feedback
In addition to proofreading your own writing, it can be beneficial to ask someone else to read it and provide you with feedback that may help you improve.
Join a writing workshop
Writing workshops can be a great way of improving your writing skills. These workshops tend to focus on group writing activities.
Some of the best writers are also avid readers. Reading on a regular basis can help you develop and improve your vocabulary and language skills.
Get formal training
You may want to consider enrolling in a writer’s training program. Writing professionals can offer effective tips and feedback to help you improve your writing skills. You may also learn different forms of writing that may be suited to your specific job interests.
Do an internship
If you are currently enrolled in college and want to prepare for a career in writing, doing an internship can help improve your writing skills and help you expand your experience as a writer. An internship may also provide you with on-the-job skills that you can include in your resume when applying to jobs after graduation.
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Strong writing skills are necessary for any career. Being able to write clearly, concisely, and effectively are skills that will serve you well for your entire career. Getting your thoughts down clearly can help with emailing, note taking, and record keeping. Writing is also a major form of communication in most workplaces.
Even if writing has never been your forte, there are certain writing skills that you can focus on to improve it. And if you write for a living, then there afre always opportunities to get better. If you’re looking to improve your writing skills, then this article will highlight important skills and give suggestions to improve them.
Some of the most important writing skills include correct grammar, conciseness, and writing for your audience and platform.
Outlining, good organization, and research skills are also important writing skills to have.
You can improve your writing skills by practicing, working with others, and reading.
The top 10 most important professional writing skills
How to improve your writing skills, how to demonstrate your writing skills to a potential employer, writing skills faq, references:.
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While there are many valuable writing skills, these are some of the most important ones to develop.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Grammatical or spelling errors can be caught by anyone, and will make you look lazy or incompetent. A strong understanding of grammar and spelling are important, but so is the ability to make use of spellcheckers and grammar checking tools.
Poor grammar and spelling can lose you opportunities. Many employers will reject resumes out of hand if they have too many spelling or grammatical errors because it shows a lack of attention to detail. Clients are also less likely to work with business that have typos or grammatical mistakes in their communications.
How to improve: For grammar, style guides are an excellent way to get better with it. Many of them will cover grammar, parts of speech, and how to use punctuation properly — even more obscure ones like semicolons and dashes. Reading and listening to the way that people structure sentences can also help.
For spelling, practice is the best way to get better. English spelling is anything but intuitive, but making use of dictionaries and knowing the roots of words can make it easier. Spellcheckers are also invaluable, as they’ll catch errors and typos.
Outlining. Drawing up an outline can be invaluable in a longer piece of writing, but it can help you organize your thoughts for a piece of any length. Outlines can have many benefits, including helping you organize your thoughts, allowing you to focus on the writing process when you write, and giving your writing structure.
It’s important to note that not every writer is an outliner. Some writers prefer to leave that to the editing process rather than creating an outline up front. If you struggle with organization, then making outlines could help tremulously. Even if you don’t, it’s likely worth trying — it could improve your writing. How to improve: Most people work on an outline from top down. Put in the big ideas first, then flesh out the sub-topics. However, there are many different ways to create an outline, and you should experiment until you find one that works for you.
Conciseness. Being direct and getting to the point are good skills to learn to be an effective writer. Remember that the person you’re communicating with has other demands on their time, and will likely be annoyed if your writing is too circuitous.
That being said, being too brief can make you seem laconic. There’s a balance between excessive wordiness and being brusque. It takes practice to get it right, but reading what other people write and reading back what you wrote to yourself can help you get the sense of how it comes off.
How to improve: The best thing to do to avoid being overly wordy is to focus on what it is you want to say. If your natural tendency is to add a lot of unnecessary words, you can cut those out. If you tend to be so direct that you leave out information, add some extra when you read over it again.
As with all communication, context matters. Who you’re talking to can change the way you’d put something, as well as the sort of news you want to convey. Sometimes being less direct is preferable. For most business communications, however, it’s considered polite to take up as little of the other person’s time as possible.
Word choice. While this may seem obvious, word choice is a key writing skill. The words you choose convey different tones and meanings, even if they’re synonyms. There are noticeable differences between:
I apologize for the inconvenience.
I didn’t mean to put you out.
Sorry about the hassle.
The delay was my mistake.
I’m sorry for the trouble.
While all of these sentences convey an apology for a minor problem, the tone and connotation of the words make them all feel different. Some are less formal, some less genuinely apologetic.
How to improve: This largely boils down to practice. People typically have a particular voice when they write, just as when they speak. However, if you consider how you alter your speech patterns depending on the situation, that gives you a major clue as to how to alter your writing to fit the occasion.
Dictionaries and thesauruses are wonderful resources for this. If you want to find a different way to say a word, then the thesaurus will give you a list of synonyms — but each word has its own unique connotation. That means you can say exactly what you want to say.
Editing. Being able to edit is arguably the most important skills writers need to learn. Every writer will tell you that first drafts aren’t fit to put out there. How do you get a first draft to become a polished pice of writing? Editing!
If possible, it’s best to return to edit your writing after letting it sit for a while. Of course that isn’t always possible, but at the very least you’ll need to reread what you’ve written. And if you make chances, you should read it again, as you can end up with some very peculiar sentence structures that way.
How to improve: Again, practice is the best way to improve your editing skills. That being said, reading is another excellent way to get better at it. Knowing how others phrased things or got their point across is a great way to learn.
Having someone else read your writing can also be invaluable, particularly if they’re a proficient writer themselves. But even if they aren’t, they can point out issues in your sentence structure or will notice phrasing or word choice that doesn’t come of the way you intended it to.
Tailor your writing to your audience. Always keep in mind your audience when writing anything for work.
This is important not just for maximizing the clarity of your writing, but also for making clients, managers, and stakeholders feel that you understand them and their needs.
Depending on the audience, consider the appropriate:
Tone. The proper tone to use depends on the audience and type of document.
For example, when writing to consumers, you typically want to communicate with a conversational tone that makes them feel like they’re talking to a real person.
If you’re writing to business-to-business clients or creating project proposals , on the other hand, then you should adopt a more professional tone.
Terminology. Consider whether all parties reading any document you’re writing will understand all the contained terminology.
If you’re an engineer writing a training guide for a piece of software, you’ll want to use more general language if the guide is meant for new hires than if it’s for existing team members.
How to improve: Spend time reading writing that is aimed at a particular audience. Work to imitate it, making sure that your writing feels genuine. The more you read and write to this particular audience, the more natural it’ll become.
Research. Being able to do research is another important writing skill. It’s important to establish credibility in your writing by knowing what you’re talking about — and not being caught using incorrect information. If you do your research, too, you can make use of:
Numbers. Statistics and numbers are highly meaningful and memorable, making them great rhetorical tools for conveying your points to others. Being able to quote numbers and percentages also makes you appear knowledgable and like you’ve done your research.
Testimonials. Human brains are wired to highly-value social proof. If you can demonstrate that your boss , colleagues, or previous clients trust you, that’ll make a strong, positive impression on the party you’re currently dealing with.
Citations. If you’re serious about your research, you should include citations to your research materials. While this won’t be necessary for most communications, if you’re trying to prove a point or sell an idea, citing reputable sources strengthens your position.
How to improve: Being good at research is another skills that takes practice, And, believe it or not, research. You need to gain the skills and knowledge to recognize a reputable source, and take information you’ve obtained and turn towards the point you’re trying to make.
Knowing when to stop. One of the hardest things for many writers is letting go. There’s only so much editing you can do before you’re no longer improving what you wrote, and instead just changing it.
How to improve: Take breaks from your writing. Many people will get stuck in a cycle of reading and rereading what they wrote and seeing anything that could be perceived as a flaw. Chances are when you return to it, it’ll be better than you thought it was.
Adapting for the platform. The writing techniques you use don’t just vary by audience, but by the platform as well.
If you’re tasked with writing an email, social media post, or blog post, make sure to research strategies and writing samples for that particular platform before you begin.
How to improve: Different platforms have different ways that their text is presented. Some have different styles as well, due to either limitations or legacy. Using the platform is a good way to learn about the differences in style and writing. Then you work to imitate it.
Organization and structure. Most people tend to dedicate 80% of their attention to the first 20% of any piece of writing they read.
This means that for business emails and documents, a disorganized and illogical structure could cause readers to miss important language.
A few helpful tips for structuring your writing are:
Put the important information at the front. Especially for business emails, most people will appreciate it if you get straight to the point.
Separate different thoughts. The smaller your walls of text, the more legible it’ll be and the more willing people will be to do more than just skim it.
After you write an email or document, read over it and identify where cohesive thoughts start and end, then simply separate them with blank lines.
How to improve: Improving the structure of your writing boils down to putting time into the structure. Remember how essays had a format you had to follow? Most professional writing is the same way. Making use of outlines and making sure that your thoughts are ordered is an excellent start. And don’t be afraid to rearrange things in an edit to make it more organized.
If, after reading this article, you feel that some of your writing skills aren’t up to par, there are a few ways you can improve them, including practicing, working with others, and reading.
Practice, practice, practice. The more you write, the better you get. If you have an idea for an article — even if it’s just a paragraph — write it down. Say yes to projects that involve writing, and keep a journal of your ideas or random writing projects. No one has to read it, so take the pressure off and just write.
Read your work out loud. Before you publish, submit, or send anything you’ve written, read it out loud first. This will help you see errors and awkward sections that your eye would’ve skimmed over otherwise, and it’ll help you start to notice your voice, bad habits, and strong points.
Involve someone else in your writing. Whether it’s asking someone to edit your work, taking a class, or finding a writing partner , getting someone else’s feedback on your work is invaluable. Even if they aren’t necessarily a writing expert , they can tell you where they’re confused or fully engaged, which is valuable in itself.
Read all you can. The more good writing you read, the better writer you become. You’ll start to subconsciously incorporate what you read into your own writing, and you’ll get a better idea of what voice and style you want to emulate. Even if it’s just 30 minutes a day, set aside time to read well-written articles and books.
Claiming to have excellent writing skills and showcasing them are two different things. However, if you’re looking to do so professionally, there are several different ways that good writers can showcase their skills.
Resume. If you’re saying that you’re a good writer, you’d better write a good resume. Resumes are how employers are introduced to prospective employees, meaning that they’re how you make a good first impression.
Cover letter. Be sure to include a cover letter when you apply for a job. As cover letters shouldn’t be any longer than a page , it’s an excellent way to show that you can convey the needed information concisely and clearly.
Thank you for your consideration email. While thanking recruiters for taking the time to meet with you is always a good idea, sending a well written thank you will up your stock as a competent writer.
What are good writing skills?
Good writing skills are the ability to be clear, concise, and engaging with your writing. Having proper spelling and grammar are also a must. Good writers need to be able to:
Get a point across clearly.
Edit their work.
Make use of research.
Choose the right words.
How do you demonstrate writing skills?
When applying for a job, writing skills can be demonstrated by the resume and cover letter. However, writing skills often don’t need to be directly demonstrated, as they’re shown in day to day communications.
MasterClass — 9 Crucial Skills for Professional Writers
Florida International University — 6 Ways to Improve Your Creative Writing Skills
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Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.
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Writing is an ability that is needed throughout all areas of life, including the workplace. And yet, the concept of communicating through the written letter is often left by the wayside, underdeveloped and underappreciated. Often the thought of writing well is either too intimidating to be properly addressed, or overlooked as a menial skill that has no measurable bearing on daily life.
However, the truth is that writing is one of the most important skills we can possess and is well worth the effort to take time to develop.
The Diversity of Writing
It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realize that not all writing is the same. Every time you put pen to paper or type out a sentence, it doesn’t need to be with the intent to create a novel worthy of the New York Times Best Seller list.
On the contrary, there are numerous writing skills you can leverage in the real world — many of which are simple and unimposing.
In fact, good writing is actually quite a bit easier to pull off than you might think. Whether you’re writing a resume for a job, a thesis in college, or a quick note to your manager letting her know that you need to leave early for an appointment, the important thing is to state your intentions clearly and concisely .
Why Writing Is Important
The quality of your writing is a critical component that can make or break an employer’s opinion of you, both in the hiring process and throughout your time at a company. In fact, the ability to write well is often worked right into a job posting. Take, for example, a description of an e-commerce manager position. It will include required skills like website design, hiring and training, project development, and communication, all of which require competent writing skills.
Similar writing requirements arise for positions like:
- Web developers
- Public relations specialists
The list goes on... The point is, the ability to communicate through writing is an essential element of many different jobs and careers, even if they don’t include “writer” in the title.
Writing on the Job
Writing in a career environment (also known as business writing or professional writing) is straightforward, concise, and pragmatic. It takes into consideration things like the recipient of the message and the core information that is required to communicate a message.
A quality piece of business writing should be direct and contain relevant information. It should be both clear and grammatically pristine. One useful option to help keep your writing short and pertinent is Hemingway Editor . This free online tool strips away unnecessary information and highlights sentences that can be shortened or restructured.
While there are numerous forms of business writing, here are a few specific examples of different kinds of writing situations that you might face in the business world:
One of the most important ways that an employee will use their writing skills on the job is through communication. While this was once straightforward, it now can involve a variety of options, including:
- Social media platforms
Another application of business writing that’s easy to overlook is its use in business plans . Encapsulating an enterprise’s goals, plans, and projections can be challenging in the first place.
Writing a business plan in a way that is both clear and compelling for internal personnel as well as stakeholders and potential investors is even more difficult.
Creating interesting, readable online content is a huge part of most companies’ online marketing strategy, and one of the best ways to do this quickly is with a blog — a vital consideration for entrepreneurs.
A company blog allows you to establish yourself as a source of authority and information and can boost your SEO as well. And, of course, decent writing skills are required if you’re going to attract and retain a readership.
Finally, there are also a lot of personal benefits to your career that can come from including writing in your job. It can help you organize your ideas and remember information. It can also help you process things and gain perspective.
Writing to Get a Job
Of course, writing is also a key element in getting a job in the first place. In our increasingly text-driven world — where we often don’t get face to face with a hiring manager until several steps into the hiring process — the ability to write well can be critical. This doesn’t just include filling out application forms, either.
In fact, there are many other ways that you can use writing to land a new job.
Social Media Profiles
Social media may seem like a part of personal life, but any savvy jobseeker knows that it can also be an important part of the job hunt. For example, hiring managers often investigate an applicant’s social media profile history in the vetting process in order to get a sample of their behavior and personality. Naturally, then, demonstrating well-written, respectful behavior on your social media profiles can be very important. Further, taking the time to do a 'spring clean' on your profiles — assessing and removing questionable content — is wise.
In addition, using tools like LinkedIn can be extremely helpful in networking and showcasing your skill set. And, of course, setting up a quality LinkedIn profile requires the ability to write well. It’s crucial that you take the time to craft concise, appropriate text for your headlines, summaries, background, job history, and skills on your career-oriented social media profiles.
Resumes and Cover Letters
The bulk of effort involved in your job search often boils down to your resume and cover letter. While filling out an application form well can be helpful, it’s often these documents that can make all the difference. A well-crafted resume should call out important facts, use statistics and numbers when possible, and incorporate details about the job posting. It should avoid things like excessive or irrelevant information, unprofessional fonts, and passive language.
A good cover letter , while in a sense easier, can be even more challenging. It’s important that you avoid simply regurgitating your resume in a different order or stating obvious facts. Focus on your interest in the position and the company itself. Display your enthusiasm for the work involved, and don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through.
Writing: A Life Skill for All
It doesn’t matter if you’re managing a warehouse, babysitting dogs, or building spaceships, the ability to write clear, concise, and relevant text is an ace in the hole for any professional.
It can help impress hiring personnel as well as maintain your reputation within a company once you’ve started working. The important thing is to appreciate the impact that writing can have on any career, then take the time to develop your writing skills for the long term.
About the Author
Magnolia Potter is from the Pacific Northwest and writes from time to time. She prefers to cover a variety of topics and not just settle on one. When Magnolia’s not writing, you can find her outdoors or curled up with a good book.
Continue to: Common Mistakes in Writing Using Plain English
See also: Writing Effective Emails | Presentation Skills Interpersonal Communication Skills | Good Email Etiquette
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In the modern workplace, everyone employs professional writing skills
A closer look at the students who enroll in Certificate in Professional Writing courses reveals a microcosm of Penn LPS Online as a whole: adults from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds pursue professional writing skills, including business writing, in these accelerated online courses. Developing good writing is a valuable asset in any career, and the Certificate in Professional Writing provides a flexible and accessible way to enhance these skills for a range of professions. Students pursuing the certificate learn alongside students who are completing the writing requirement for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree as well as those who are just taking an individual course to explore the subject matter. Any individual course may include seasoned professionals and career changers updating their skill sets, academic scholars seeking to communicate their research more effectively, and new or inexperienced writers in search of confidence and expertise.
In other words, anyone could benefit from instruction in professional writing because everyone puts these skills to work. “We sometimes unwittingly become professional writers when we're trying to set up meetings or to communicate an idea or event to others,” explains Valerie Ross, Faculty Director of the Certificate in Professional Writing. “The professional world is all about inducing cooperation in others. Professional writers—in the workplace and other organizations—are continually communicating in an effort to get things done.”
In addition to her role as faculty director for the certificate, Ross is the Director of the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing at Penn, which provides instruction and support for undergraduate and graduate students across the University. “Our program is very research-oriented, which is one of the things that distinguishes us from many other writing programs,” says Ross. “We do a lot of research on the knowledge domains that you have to master in order to be a good writer. We also hire people who have had not only academic but professional writing experience. We continually gather data and test our pedagogical strategies and their effects, and we have regular meetings of our multidisciplinary faculty to analyze and explore our findings.”
The Certificate in Professional Writing courses are taught by Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing instructors who can provide that broad view of writing expertise and the depth of their own experience—which is imparted to students through instructor feedback as well as lectures and readings. “They get a great deal of individual attention in our courses,” says Ross. “Instead of a long paper at the end of the course, we provide many short, frequent assignments that advance your writing skills, and provide you with feedback on all of these assignments, so that we are in nearly constant communication with our students.”
What is professional writing—and why is it important?
At its core, professional writing is any communication that helps employees exchange information; persuade and inform others; and build and document knowledge through various types of writing or what is often called “discourse”—internally, with colleagues and employers, or externally to customers and clients. All of this writing is focused on achieving a desired outcome and requires not only excellent grammar and vocabulary but also effective organization and style. That includes the types of text produced by professionals whose job title includes the word “writer,” such as blog posts and press releases, but also everyday communication like emails and text messages. “Genre is a key concept that we feature right from the beginning in our introductory courses,” says Matthew Osborn, Associate Director of the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing. Osborn teaches PROW 4000: Writing for Social Media , which examines different kinds of social media posts as genres. When students observe how a celebratory social media announcement differs from a crisis management response in form as well as content, they can more effectively communicate on those fast-paced platforms without mishap. In PROW 1000: Fundamentals of Professional Writing , students may be surprised to find themselves assigned to write a passive-aggressive text message. “That one that tends to be most transformative for students,” laughs Ross. “They really get a sense of tone, and how you can create tone even with the tiniest snippet of words.”
Many genres explored in the certificate courses fall outside of what we traditionally think of as writing—including charts, images, and formatting. Dana Walker, Lecturer in Critical Writing at the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing, tasks students in PROW 2000: Writing with Data with comparing how two economists presented their data differently in an academic article, a news article, and an Instagram post. “Same data, just writing for different audiences,” explains Walker. “Students are surprised at the rhetorical impact of a slight change in presentation of information in charts and graphs, or what needs to be done to make a table or figure accessible, or how informal or formal they need to be. Those are all choices that a writer makes, consciously or otherwise.”
The small, nuts-and-bolts assignments of the introductory courses lead up to bigger-picture concepts like storytelling, crisis communication plans, and branding or social media campaigns. “I try to shatter that myth of the creative writer who was born creative,” says Fayyaz Vellani, Lecturer in Critical Writing. “There are actual techniques and tools you can use to deliver a good story.”
In a recently added course, PROW 401: Composing a Professional Identity , students are encouraged to think about their career trajectory as a kind of story or campaign: “The new course brings together a lot of threads of other classes in our certificate: thinking about how you actually map out your career, how to put together a campaign about yourself that effectively tells your story,” adds Ross.
What can a Certificate in Professional Writing do for you?
With a wide range of genres to explore, including email and LinkedIn, there are as many practical applications for professional writing skills as there are professions—but you can count on practice and support as you develop your abilities in a few key objectives.
1. Make your case
“When we say writing, we’re talking about rhetoric: how you use symbols and words to inform and persuade people,” says Ross. “While there’s no bias in numbers as such, how you construct a table, the decision as to what to include or exclude, what to put first and second, even what colors to use, are all rhetorical choices that will shape how your audience understands and responds to it,” adds Walker. Becoming an effective communicator means understanding the range and weight of those choices and cultivating an awareness of your audience so you can make informed decisions about how to convey information.
2. Think on your feet
According to Ross, one of the defining characteristics of professional writing is that it usually happens on a deadline. “Unlike academics or creative writers, professionals don't have a lot of time to develop their work,” she says. “They have to be highly adaptable and responsive, able to write on the spot and do so crisply, quickly, factually, and persuasively. It's an impressive, seldom acknowledged skill set.” The best way to get up to speed is to become familiar with the relevant genres—and to practice so that you can think fast. One of Vellani’s students from PROW 3010: The Power of Storytelling happened to run into a cable CEO one day—and had a brief window in which to make an elevator pitch. “He got angel investor funding because he knew how to tell the story,” Vellani recalls. “Stories happen in doctors' offices. They happen in workplaces. They just happen.”
3. Connect to others
PROW students interact with one another as much as they interact with their instructors, which exposes them to other working adults who have unique insight or even professional opportunities to share. “People finding communities in these online courses, and using these online tools to communicate with each other, has been a feature of the classes that I’ve really enjoyed—and I think students have really enjoyed as well,” says Vellani.
As Walker points out, the online community is also a practice ground for connecting with professionals in other fields, experience levels, and even time zones. “Students learn a lot from each other. They have pretty different strengths and backgrounds, and that gives them lots of practice in communicating with others who do not share their expertise. That is the reality of most workplace writing: learning how to communicate with a wide range of individuals representing sometimes a vast continuum of expertise,” she says.
4. Expand your professional portfolio
While every exercise is designed to increase your fluency in professional writing genres and best practices, some students have turned their assignments into career opportunities: with experience and feedback on writing press releases and social media posts, professionals can make the case for contributing those skills to their own companies, volunteer organizations, or hobby communities.
For others, the writing assignments provide a taste of a potential new career path: envisioning the social media platform for your passion project or side business is the first step toward making it a reality. “There’s a sense that, now that your concept is on a Facebook page, you can actually do something with it—cultivate a following, take a small business online, or begin to develop a community around an issue or interest,” says Osborn. “The digital presence brings their ideas alive. It’s empowering.”
5. Have courage
Professional writing students encounter the concept of the affective domain when they explore how to appeal to an audience’s emotions. In reflective writing exercises throughout the courses, they learn how to understand their own. “The affective domain is such a pivotal piece of a skillful writer,” says Ross. “How much confidence do I have when I put my writing out there? How frightened am I of feedback? What do I do with these emotions I feel as I write or prepare to share my writing? These are important aspects of the affective domain for all learning, but they are really important for writing, because writing is the manifestation, the end product, if you will, that must be done for the work to go on.”
But for the time you’re enrolled in a Penn LPS Online course, you write in the company of a diverse, motivated community—and an enthusiastic support team. “Online turns out to be a really wonderful way to learn and teach writing, and the students are fantastic,” says Ross. “They earn their confidence.”
The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Professional Writing is open for enrollment. To read more about the benefits of Penn LPS Online certificates, visit our feature: “ What are certificates—and why do working professionals increasingly find them worthwhile? ”
Dive deeper into all the opportunities available through Penn LPS Online by visiting our homepage .
How To Improve Your Professional Writing Skills
By: Author The GenTwenty Team
Posted on Last updated: May 9, 2023
Categories Career , Productivity
This post is featured on behalf of Mike Hanski.
So, you want to write a book, a blog, or just write for fun. Or maybe you hate writing, especially after dealing with tons of academic assignments in school and college. Whatever your case, you wake up one day to the fact that writing skills are essential to your career.
But what can you do if your professional writing technique leaves much to be desired? What if your proposals fall flat, reports look dreadful, and business emails sound unprofessional? What if your writing just takes too long, becoming exhausting and demotivating at the end of the working day?
Lucky for us, this skill is less about natural talent and more about learning via doing. Yes , it requires patience; yes , you have to work hard and practice every day to polish it; and yes , you can improve your professional writing skills right now.
5 Ways To Improve Your Professional Writing Skills:
1. brush up on your grammar..
Knowing the basics of grammar and spelling is crucial, regardless of occupation. You’ve got to admit, it’s unprofessional to send emails, create reports, or maintain business communications online while your texts are riddled with elementary errors.
Better grammar is a matter of practice, so consider investing in the best books, online resources, and tools to check your work and learn how to write well.
First and foremost, keep a reference book on hand: The Elements of Style by William Strunk or Write Right! by Jan Venolia would be most welcome.
Try out online resources such as Grammar Girl and Daily Writing Tips ; download applications such as My Spelling Test and Practice English Grammar ; and don’t forget about dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster , to make sure your spelling is up to scratch.
2. Organize your writing flow.
To create effective business documents, you need to have confidence in your writing skills and find the perfect place to organize your ideas.
Regarding the former, consider online programs such as Grammarly or Hemingway App to review work, identify your trouble spots, and make sure your writing doesn’t sound weak or vapid. As a result, you won’t spend hours proofreading and editing your documents, time after time, uncertain if they flow well or not.
As for the latter, test out several places and find out where you write best. Some need music on their headphones, while others prefer writing in peace and quiet; some choose coffee shops, while others can work only if there’s nobody around.
The thing is, different places work for different types of writing. So don’t force yourself into using one sole location.
3. Develop writing habits.
Specific habits can help to improve your writing because they make it a regular practice, a crucial factor in shaping skills. Here are some examples of habits to practice daily:
- Write every single day , even if it’s just a 100-word note in your diary or a post on Facebook.
- Read the news regularly to encourage cognitive skills, learn from professionals, and get writing ideas.
- Practice freewriting on mornings: it stimulates brain activity and allows to free the subconsciousness. Try 750Words or Written?Kitten! for inspiration.
4. Analyze everything you read.
To write better, you should read. A lot. Reading expands vocabulary as well as helping to learn — from gurus, who demonstrate their know-how in practice. Reading inspires, teaches, and allows you to understand idiomatic expressions better.
However, to develop professional writing skills, you need to read critically :
- Pay attention to which words authors use.
- Copy–and practice–the best writing tricks from them.
- Take note of what language patterns, grammar constructions, or stylistic devices you can incorporate into your own writings.
Another trick is editing your early works . This helps you to develop a critical eye and focus on trouble spots.
5. Get comprehensive writing help.
If grammar is not your only problem, consider online courses, local classes, resources offering professional writing help, and one-on-one tutoring to polish your professional writing skills.
With this in mind, you might want to take a look at:
- online courses from Business Writing Center
- syntax training from Writing Tune-Up for document planning
- Email Excellence samples for better email writing
- tutorials from Purdue University’s OWL for creating reports
Also, try googling “non-degree” or “continuing education” courses to find business writing classes. Many colleges and universities offer them for free.
Writing is a skill. So if your goal is to hone this skill, then make sure to write as much as possible. Start a blog, evaluate how you write emails, compose meaningful posts on social media, or ask for more writing projects at work.
No matter what strategy you choose, the great news is writing skills develop with training.
All you need to do is get started.
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Career Tips , Tips for Online Students , Tips for Students
Here is How You Grow Your Professional Writing Skills
You’ve heard it before: “Time is money.” In professional settings, this statement often rings true. And, it’s just one of the reasons why professional writing is a key skill to hone. Professional writing is used for different purposes. When it comes to learning how to grow your professional writing skills, the good news is that it’s pretty simple to do if you’re dedicated to the endeavor.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is Professional Writing?
Professional writing is a big umbrella of writing that typically involves formal writing. It entails all the different types of writing for professional purposes, including business letters, progress reports, research reports , marketing, job applications, cover letters , work presentations, emails, and the like.
Professional writing is meant to be clear and concise. The goal is often to get across information in the most succinct and easy-to-understand way possible. One of the primary things you’ll need to know when writing professionally is your audience. Like all types of writing, you want to choose a tone that is intended for the reader.
Let’s take a look at the different types of professional writing, and then we’ll cover some tips for improving your professional writing abilities.
What Are the Types of Professional Writing?
The main types of business writing include:
As the name implies, instructional writing is meant to explain how to do something or provide directions (hence, instructions).
Informational writing doesn’t call for any action to be taken on behalf of the audience. Instead, its main goal is to share information, like reference materials or records for storage.
Transactional writing is a common form of professional writing that occurs on a daily basis. It can include emails, official letters, or invoices, to name a few.
Persuasive writing is mostly used in advertising and marketing as it seeks to persuade users or customers to buy a product of service. Persuasive writing is also used to build relationships with customers.
Tips to Improve Your Professional Writing Skills
Now that we’ve covered what professional writing is, the big question still remains: “How do I improve my professional writing skills?”
The practice of improving professional writing skills will differ for every person. It can depend on your natural writing ability, your experience level, your needs, and use cases, for example. However, for any person who wants to improve their professional writing skills, any or all of the following suggestions can be game-changing.
1. Read a lot
Sure, you’re looking to be a better writer, but to do so, you also need to be a better reader. Why is this the case? People who read a lot of professional writing examples can learn from them. You obtain a feel for sentence structure (also known as syntax), grammar, and stylistic elements. Another pro about reading a lot is that you may start to recognize mistakes. That’s when you know that you’ve leveled up!
Think of writing as you would think of running. The more you do it, the easier (and faster) you become. You can practice writing anywhere and everywhere. If there’s a certain type of professional writing from the categories above that you want to master, practice that specific type. Ask people for feedback once you’ve written some pages.
3. Be concise
Time is money, and in the working world, most people are always seeking more time. That’s why it can pay to be concise and to-the-point. Focus on the message you want to get across and remove all the unnecessary words around it. When you are designing ads, email newsletters, flyers, and the like, use design to your advantage. The well-thought-out combination of design and words can make all the difference in conveying a message successfully.
4. Leverage online tools
Thanks to technology, there are online tools that are specifically geared to help people make the most of their professional writing. For example, you can use Grammarly to check your grammar or word counter on the word processing tool of your choice to check your word count. Also, don’t forget about the bare necessities — spell check.
5. Be aware of the tone
As you know, writing on a billboard feels different than writing in a job application cover letter. What this comes down to is tone of voice. When you talk, you can sense the tone of voice based on your inflection and volume. Just like speaking, writing has a tone of voice infused. Write as you would speak. Of course, that will depend on who you are speaking to (audience) and what you are trying to say (message).
6. Edit and proofread
One of the most important things to do when writing, especially professionally, is to proofread and edit your work. Before you hit “Publish,” “Send,” or “Print,” you need to re-read what you wrote. A good way to check for errors is to read what you write out loud. Often, it’s easy to look over errors in your writing when you read it in your head because your brain fills in the missing word or omits the extra word. That’s why the reading out loud trick can be helpful because you may be more likely to hear the mistake.
7. Check facts
In professional writing, it’s really important to be honest with any facts. Your writing may be reflecting the business’ credibility and reputation, so you’ll want to add sources when relevant. Fact-checking ensures that people will continue to trust what you share.
8. Organize first
Depending on what type of professional writing you’re doing, it may make the most sense to create an outline or write notes for what you wish to accomplish. This is especially true when you are drafting newsletters, whitepapers, reports, and blogs, to name a few.
9. Grammar and spelling
As mentioned, proofreading and editing are crucial in professional writing. You’ll want to look out for proper grammar and spelling so that you can avoid making mistakes. Since writing is a process, you’ll likely have multiple iterations before you make it to an acceptable final product.
If you have the time and resources, it may be helpful to sign up for local or online writing workshops. You can type “local writing workshops” into Google to find out where there may be some offered around you. Another way to improve your professional writing skills is to enroll in a degree program online. Within the setting of education, you will undoubtedly practice your writing skills across different subject areas.
Professional writing can be fun, too. The headline above is a prime example of wordplay — did you catch it?
The more you read and practice professional writing, the better you will become. This type of writing is transferable across job titles and careers, so it’s always a beneficial skill to possess.
27 Writing Skills Examples
Writing skills refer to the array of abilities that allow an individual to create clear and effective written communication.
These skills encompass a multitude of elements such as grammar, syntax, vocabulary, storytelling, tone, style, and the organization of ideas.
Mastering these writing skills not only aids personal expression, but also plays a crucial role in academic, professional, and personal success.
Writing Skills Examples
1. Grammar Proficiency Grammar proficiency is the understanding and application of the rules that guide language use. It involves the correct usage of syntax, tense agreement, punctuation, and spelling in written communication . A strong command of grammar not only aids clarity in expression but also lends credibility to the writer and enhances readers’ comprehension.
2. Strong Vocabulary Having a strong vocabulary means possessing a broad and deep understanding of words, their meanings, connotations, and appropriate usage. It equips you with the ability to express complex thoughts and ideas more precisely. This skill differentiates an average writer from a compelling one, with the latter having the ability to captivate the audience with richly nuanced and evocative language.
3. Storytelling Storytelling in writing skills encapsulates the art of conveying a narrative or message through a structured plot. The ability to engage the reader emotionally and intellectually sets a successful storyteller apart. It involves creative techniques like character development, conflicts, resolutions, and an engaging narrative flow, ultimately leading to an impactful reader experience.
4. Adaptability To Different Genres Adaptability to different genres is the ability to adjust writing style and content to suit various types of writing. It may range from academic essays and research papers to creative works like poems and short stories. This skill helps you connect with diverse audiences and meet various writing objectives effectively.
5. Summarizing and Paraphrasing Summarizing and paraphrasing involve the ability to condense and rephrase someone else’s work, respectively. Summarizing requires extracting key points from a larger body of work, while paraphrasing involves expressing the same information in a new way. Both skills are crucial for understanding complex texts, writing literature reviews, avoiding plagiarism, and promoting effective communication.
6. Writing Concisely Writing concisely refers to the ability to express an idea or message in the shortest possible manner without losing its essence. It demands strong command over language and deep understanding of the subject matter. This skill enhances the clarity of messaging, holds the reader’s attention, and streamlines communication.
7. Use of Imagery and Metaphors The application of imagery and metaphors is a significant skill in writing that involves creating mental pictures and comparisons to enrich the readers’ experience. Imagery appeals to the reader’s five senses, while metaphors draw parallels between different concepts. This technique brings vibrancy to your writing, evokes emotions, and facilitates a deeper understanding of the subject.
8. Active vs. Passive Voice Understanding the difference between active and passive voice is essential for writing. The active voice makes sentences direct and energetic, with the subject performing an action, while the passive voice puts the focus on the action’s recipient. This knowledge helps you control the tone and clarity of your writing, making it more engaging and compelling.
9. Clarity Clarity in writing refers to the concept of presenting your thoughts and ideas in a clean, straightforward manner, eliminating confusion or misinterpretation. It involves the use of precise language, coherent structure, and logical flow. Without clarity, the core message can be lost, so this skill ensures that audiences accurately understand your intended meaning.
10. Cohesion Cohesion relates to the continuity and fluidity in writing. It includes the techniques that allow sentences and paragraphs to smoothly transition into each other. Good cohesion creates a text that reads smoothly, leading to an experience where concepts and ideas connect logically and seamlessly.
See Also: Cohesion Examples
11. Coherence Coherence in writing is the ‘logic’ thread that binds sentences and concepts together in a meaningful and organized manner. It’s essentially about making your writing intuitively understandable and ensuring each point is linked with the previous and the next one. A coherent piece of writing is characterized by a clear progression of ideas, aiding the reader’s understanding and absorption of the text.
See Also: Coherence Examples
12. Tone and Voice Consistency Consistent tone and voice in writing refers to maintaining stable patterns of expression and narration throughout the text. It ensures the work’s character and mood remain steady, which provides predictability for the reader. Inconsistent tone and voice can confuse readers or jar them out of the experience, so maintaining consistency helps your writing resonate better and strengthens your brand voice.
13. Transitioning Between Ideas Fluent transitioning between ideas hinges on the ability to move seamlessly from one thought or argument to another within your piece of writing. Smooth transitions guide readers through text, making your reasoning easier to follow. Particularly effective in academic or professional writing, well-executed transitions can strengthen the overall narrative flow and coherence of your piece.
14. Genre Selection Genre selection skill involves identifying the best type of writing for the intended message or audience. Selecting the appropriate genre is crucial to ensuring that your writing is well-received and achieves its intended purpose. This skill allows you to adapt your writing style and content to create a story that suits the tone, conventions, and expectations of your selected genre, whether it be suspense, fantasy, business writing, or an academic dissertation.
15. Persuasive Writing Persuasive writing is the ability to convince the reader of a specific viewpoint. This skill involves structuring arguments logically, using powerful and emotive language, providing credible evidence, and appealing to the reader’s logic, emotions, or ethical beliefs ( aka logic, ethos, or pathos ). Persuasive writing is commonly used in fields such as advertising, sales, politics, and law, where influencing the reader’s opinion is crucial.
16. Descriptive Writing Descriptive writing involves detailing a character, scene, or event in such a way that a vivid picture is formed in the reader’s mind. This skill requires attention to detail, the use of sensory language, and an extensive vocabulary. The ability to write descriptively enhances narratives by making them more immersive and emotionally resonant for readers.
17. Character Development Character development refers to the process of creating and evolving characters within a story. Good character development involves not just describing physical characteristics, but also detailing a character’s personality, motivations, and backstory. This skill brings a narrative to life, makes it memorable, and helps readers form an emotional connection to the story.
18. World-building World-building is the technique of creating and detailing a fictional universe. This skill involves crafting elements such as geography, history, cultures, and societal norms that are unique to that world. In creative writing, particularly in genres like science fiction and fantasy, effective world-building forms a convincing backdrop for the story and aids in character development and plot progression.
19. Narrative Technique Mastering various narrative techniques is crucial for compelling storytelling. These techniques might include elements of plot structuring, point of view, pacing, and flashback sequences. By developing a command over different narrative techniques, a writer can effectively draw readers in and guide them through the story, enhancing engagement and improving overall storytelling.
See Also: Communication Skills Examples
20. Research and Fact-Checking The ability to conduct thorough research and fact-check the information gathered is an essential skill for writers. It ensures the reliability and accuracy of the content, thereby building credibility with readers. Whether writing an academic research paper, a news article, or historical fiction, factual authenticity is crucial.
21. Editing and Proofreading Editing and proofreading skills involve reviewing and tightening a piece of written content. Editing focuses on improving clarity, cohesion, and overall quality of writing, while proofreading targets errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. These processes ensure that the final work presented to readers is polished, professional, and free from errors.
22. Sentence Structure An understanding of sentence structure enables a writer to craft sentences that are clear and engaging. This involves the tactical use of elements such as clauses, phrases, and punctuation. It’s crucial for enhancing readability and influencing the pace and tone of your writing.
23. Formatting and Layout Formatting and layout skills involve the proper arrangement of written content to enhance readability. This includes understanding how to effectively use elements like headings, bullet points, fonts, and white space. Proper formatting aids in guiding the reader through the document and making the information easier to understand.
24. Argumentation and Logic Argumentation and logic skills apply to persuasive writing and include the ability to present a point of view coherently and convincingly. This skill involves the use of well-constructed arguments, logical sequencing, credible evidence, and counterarguments . It’s most valuable in areas like debate writing, opinion pieces, and academic essays.
25. Storyboarding and Planning Storyboarding and planning are cornerstones of organized writing. These skills involve visualizing the narrative or flow of your writing and creating an outline or a storyboard. This process helps maintain coherence and flow, allowing you to see the bigger picture and ensuring that all elements of the writing piece serve the main motive.
26. Technical Writing Technical writing is the ability to break down complex information and convey it in an easy-to-understand language. It involves generating content like manuals, instruction guides, journal articles , and reports in specific industries. This skill is essential for communicating sophisticated concepts to an audience that may not be familiar with the subject matter.
27. Proposal Writing Proposal writing involves crafting persuasive documents outlining a plan, a project, or a research idea to seek approval or funding. Key aspects include clarity, a problem or goal statement, a proposed solution or method, and justification. Superior proposal writing can persuade your audience not only to understand your perspective but also to act on it or support it.
Writing skills encompass a broad assortment of competencies, each crucial in its own regard. Whether you’re an aspiring author, a professional in a field that requires good written communication, or someone who enjoys writing as a hobby, honing these abilities can significantly bolster your impact. These skills range from understanding grammar and sentence construction, to mastering the art of persuasive writing, and even to the application of storytelling techniques in character development and world-building. By developing and refining these skills, you can ensure your writing is effective, engaging, and insightful, regardless of the genre or purpose.
Chris Drew (PhD)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]
- Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/admin/ 5 Best Laminators for Teachers, Reviewed!
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How can writing help with self-development.
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Dominik Szot, Founder/CEO of MIA . Leadership coach, global entrepreneur, agile leadership mentor, focused on leaders' legacy.
The philosopher Jordan Peterson says, "The best way to teach people critical thinking is to teach them to write... Because there is no difference between that and thinking... You need to learn to think because thinking makes you act effectively in the world. Thinking makes you win the battles you undertake."
Writing As A Way To Help People Live Better
This is exactly the motivation behind my press articles, my first book and my posts on LinkedIn. I decided that with my writing I could help other people become aware of the powerful mental resources they already have. As an executive coach, I hope that my work and my writings will encourage top managers to achieve even better results than me.
If you write regularly, you may already have some understanding of the patterns that influence your life and the topics that compel you. You might think writing on the weekends is enough, that you can't write down every thought because you have thousands of them every day. But you should develop the ability to notice, remember and record the most important activities you did each day—the people you met, small and large events that caused emotional reactions, etc.
Keeping a journal or diary is great when you just want to write for yourself. Creating a blog or posting on LinkedIn or other social networking sites are the first steps to writing for a broader public.
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For me, writing has become a mission, organizing all my previously accumulated knowledge into a system. By sharing this knowledge, I can help other people become happier, more effective, calmer, healthier and more self-aware.
What aspects of your life do you want to explore through writing, and how can you start today?
Writing As Meditation
Every day, we mindlessly perform hundreds of activities. When we begin to write, we also begin to self-reflect, and we will be able to make more conscious decisions as a result: what to improve, what to stop, what needs to be reinvented from scratch to make it better and what can be maintained.
I have spent most of my life developing various organizations. Years ago, while I was gaining professional laurels and enjoying my achievements, my mind and body were growing stagnant. They were mindlessly subjected to various stresses in the form of unhealthy food, alcohol, tobacco, lack of exercise and proper hydration, and above all, insufficient sleep and rest. Because I decided to change all this, today these behaviors are in the past. And writing has been one of the foundations of this change.
There was a time when my company was in huge trouble, my private life was shaky and I had a growing number of problems. I knew I needed a sanctuary where I could safely calm down to sort things out and start winning my battles. Writing helped me find this peace.
I bought a book about writing books, and a few days later, I started writing the outline for my own publication. As for my own style, which I cared about, I didn't have it then, but somehow I knew that it would be acquired simply by writing. I am now turning the chapters of this book into articles, saving time and taking advantage of the valuable content that I have had the opportunity to think carefully about before I put it on paper.
How can you turn writing into your own meditation?
Writing As A Pleasant Daily Companion
In 2019, the A4 notebook became my morning companion. I became attached to it, and every day I wrote a whole page, describing a different topic that came to my mind. I chose a thick notebook with a cheerful, colorful and pleasant-to-touch cover so that I would want to reach for it. For the writing itself, among voice transcription programs, typewriters, computers, pencils, pens and other accessories, I chose a fountain pen because I have always liked writing with a pen. And... I started writing.
I've been getting up before 5 a.m. for a long time, so waking up half an hour earlier to write wasn't difficult. In this way, I found the main resource for writing a book: time. At this time of day there is total silence, which I consider to be the foundation of effective writing. The peace and calm let me immerse myself in my writing world. This has become my daily meditation. I still feel this state of peace today when I write.
Today, in addition to writing in my notebook, I also write on my smartphone—on average one article a month for the Forbes Coaches Council, and I am just as often quoted in the magazine's expert panels as an experienced entrepreneur. Every day of the working week I publish a short post on LinkedIn. I love it.
What time of day and writing style make you feel most connected to your thoughts and goals?
What Writing Can Be For You
Writing, when embraced as a daily practice, becomes a transformative force for self-improvement, mindfulness and sharing wisdom. It's a tool to unlock your potential and inspire others.
Whatever you write down regularly will start benefiting you immediately. The content you want to convey will quickly become interesting to your friends and family members. You will start to enjoy your first successes and see what potential writing has for you and those around you. The wealth that comes from developing your own writing, reflecting on your own personality and drawing conclusions should be clear by now.
Now it's your turn. What's the first step you'll take today to begin your writing journey, and how do you envision it enhancing your life and the lives of those around you?
Start writing and improve your life!
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A Coder Considers the Waning Days of the Craft
By James Somers
I have always taken it for granted that, just as my parents made sure that I could read and write, I would make sure that my kids could program computers. It is among the newer arts but also among the most essential, and ever more so by the day, encompassing everything from filmmaking to physics. Fluency with code would round out my children’s literacy—and keep them employable. But as I write this my wife is pregnant with our first child, due in about three weeks. I code professionally, but, by the time that child can type, coding as a valuable skill might have faded from the world.
I first began to believe this on a Friday morning this past summer, while working on a small hobby project. A few months back, my friend Ben and I had resolved to create a Times -style crossword puzzle entirely by computer. In 2018, we’d made a Saturday puzzle with the help of software and were surprised by how little we contributed—just applying our taste here and there. Now we would attempt to build a crossword-making program that didn’t require a human touch.
When we’ve taken on projects like this in the past, they’ve had both a hardware component and a software component, with Ben’s strengths running toward the former. We once made a neon sign that would glow when the subway was approaching the stop near our apartments. Ben bent the glass and wired up the transformer’s circuit board. I wrote code to process the transit data. Ben has some professional coding experience of his own, but it was brief, shallow, and now about twenty years out of date; the serious coding was left to me. For the new crossword project, though, Ben had introduced a third party. He’d signed up for a ChatGPT Plus subscription and was using GPT-4 as a coding assistant.
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Something strange started happening. Ben and I would talk about a bit of software we wanted for the project. Then, a shockingly short time later, Ben would deliver it himself. At one point, we wanted a command that would print a hundred random lines from a dictionary file. I thought about the problem for a few minutes, and, when thinking failed, tried Googling. I made some false starts using what I could gather, and while I did my thing—programming—Ben told GPT-4 what he wanted and got code that ran perfectly.
Fine: commands like those are notoriously fussy, and everybody looks them up anyway. It’s not real programming. A few days later, Ben talked about how it would be nice to have an iPhone app to rate words from the dictionary. But he had no idea what a pain it is to make an iPhone app. I’d tried a few times and never got beyond something that half worked. I found Apple’s programming environment forbidding. You had to learn not just a new language but a new program for editing and running code; you had to learn a zoo of “U.I. components” and all the complicated ways of stitching them together; and, finally, you had to figure out how to package the app. The mountain of new things to learn never seemed worth it. The next morning, I woke up to an app in my in-box that did exactly what Ben had said he wanted. It worked perfectly, and even had a cute design. Ben said that he’d made it in a few hours. GPT-4 had done most of the heavy lifting.
By now, most people have had experiences with A.I. Not everyone has been impressed. Ben recently said, “I didn’t start really respecting it until I started having it write code for me.” I suspect that non-programmers who are skeptical by nature, and who have seen ChatGPT turn out wooden prose or bogus facts, are still underestimating what’s happening.
Bodies of knowledge and skills that have traditionally taken lifetimes to master are being swallowed at a gulp. Coding has always felt to me like an endlessly deep and rich domain. Now I find myself wanting to write a eulogy for it. I keep thinking of Lee Sedol. Sedol was one of the world’s best Go players, and a national hero in South Korea, but is now best known for losing, in 2016, to a computer program called AlphaGo. Sedol had walked into the competition believing that he would easily defeat the A.I. By the end of the days-long match, he was proud of having eked out a single game. As it became clear that he was going to lose, Sedol said, in a press conference, “I want to apologize for being so powerless.” He retired three years later. Sedol seemed weighed down by a question that has started to feel familiar, and urgent: What will become of this thing I’ve given so much of my life to?
My first enchantment with computers came when I was about six years old, in Montreal in the early nineties, playing Mortal Kombat with my oldest brother. He told me about some “fatalities”—gruesome, witty ways of killing your opponent. Neither of us knew how to inflict them. He dialled up an FTP server (where files were stored) in an MS-DOS terminal and typed obscure commands. Soon, he had printed out a page of codes—instructions for every fatality in the game. We went back to the basement and exploded each other’s heads.
I thought that my brother was a hacker. Like many programmers, I dreamed of breaking into and controlling remote systems. The point wasn’t to cause mayhem—it was to find hidden places and learn hidden things. “My crime is that of curiosity,” goes “The Hacker’s Manifesto,” written in 1986 by Loyd Blankenship. My favorite scene from the 1995 movie “Hackers” is when Dade Murphy, a newcomer, proves himself at an underground club. Someone starts pulling a rainbow of computer books out of a backpack, and Dade recognizes each one from the cover: the green book on international Unix environments; the red one on N.S.A.-trusted networks; the one with the pink-shirted guy on I.B.M. PCs. Dade puts his expertise to use when he turns on the sprinkler system at school, and helps right the ballast of an oil tanker—all by tap-tapping away at a keyboard. The lesson was that knowledge is power.
But how do you actually learn to hack? My family had settled in New Jersey by the time I was in fifth grade, and when I was in high school I went to the Borders bookstore in the Short Hills mall and bought “Beginning Visual C++,” by Ivor Horton. It ran to twelve hundred pages—my first grimoire. Like many tutorials, it was easy at first and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Medieval students called the moment at which casual learners fail the pons asinorum , or “bridge of asses.” The term was inspired by Proposition 5 of Euclid’s Elements I, the first truly difficult idea in the book. Those who crossed the bridge would go on to master geometry; those who didn’t would remain dabblers. Section 4.3 of “Beginning Visual C++,” on “Dynamic Memory Allocation,” was my bridge of asses. I did not cross.
But neither did I drop the subject. I remember the moment things began to turn. I was on a long-haul flight, and I’d brought along a boxy black laptop and a CD- ROM with the Borland C++ compiler. A compiler translates code you write into code that the machine can run; I had been struggling for days to get this one to work. By convention, every coder’s first program does nothing but generate the words “Hello, world.” When I tried to run my version, I just got angry error messages. Whenever I fixed one problem, another cropped up. I had read the “Harry Potter” books and felt as if I were in possession of a broom but had not yet learned the incantation to make it fly. Knowing what might be possible if I did, I kept at it with single-minded devotion. What I learned was that programming is not really about knowledge or skill but simply about patience, or maybe obsession. Programmers are people who can endure an endless parade of tedious obstacles. Imagine explaining to a simpleton how to assemble furniture over the phone, with no pictures, in a language you barely speak. Imagine, too, that the only response you ever get is that you’ve suggested an absurdity and the whole thing has gone awry. All the sweeter, then, when you manage to get something assembled. I have a distinct memory of lying on my stomach in the airplane aisle, and then hitting Enter one last time. I sat up. The computer, for once, had done what I’d told it to do. The words “Hello, world” appeared above my cursor, now in the computer’s own voice. It seemed as if an intelligence had woken up and introduced itself to me.
Most of us never became the kind of hackers depicted in “Hackers.” To “hack,” in the parlance of a programmer, is just to tinker—to express ingenuity through code. I never formally studied programming; I just kept messing around, making computers do helpful or delightful little things. In my freshman year of college, I knew that I’d be on the road during the third round of the 2006 Masters Tournament, when Tiger Woods was moving up the field, and I wanted to know what was happening in real time. So I made a program that scraped the leaderboard on pgatour.com and sent me a text message anytime he birdied or bogeyed. Later, after reading “Ulysses” in an English class, I wrote a program that pulled random sentences from the book, counted their syllables, and assembled haikus—a more primitive regurgitation of language than you’d get from a chatbot these days, but nonetheless capable, I thought, of real poetry:
I’ll flay him alive Uncertainly he waited Heavy of the past
I began taking coding seriously. I offered to do programming for a friend’s startup. The world of computing, I came to learn, is vast but organized almost geologically, as if deposited in layers. From the Web browser down to the transistor, each sub-area or system is built atop some other, older sub-area or system, the layers dense but legible. The more one digs, the more one develops what the race-car driver Jackie Stewart called “mechanical sympathy,” a sense for the machine’s strengths and limits, of what one could make it do.
At my friend’s company, I felt my mechanical sympathy developing. In my sophomore year, I was watching “Jeopardy!” with a friend when he suggested that I make a playable version of the show. I thought about it for a few hours before deciding, with much disappointment, that it was beyond me. But when the idea came up again, in my junior year, I could see a way through it. I now had a better sense of what one could do with the machine. I spent the next fourteen hours building the game. Within weeks, playing “Jimbo Jeopardy!” had become a regular activity among my friends. The experience was profound. I could understand why people poured their lives into craft: there is nothing quite like watching someone enjoy a thing you’ve made.
In the midst of all this, I had gone full “Paper Chase” and begun ignoring my grades. I worked voraciously, just not on my coursework. One night, I took over a half-dozen machines in a basement computer lab to run a program in parallel. I laid printouts full of numbers across the floor, thinking through a pathfinding algorithm. The cost was that I experienced for real that recurring nightmare in which you show up for a final exam knowing nothing of the material. (Mine was in Real Analysis, in the math department.) In 2009, during the most severe financial crisis in decades, I graduated with a 2.9 G.P.A.
And yet I got my first full-time job easily. I had work experience as a programmer; nobody asked about my grades. For the young coder, these were boom times. Companies were getting into bidding wars over top programmers. Solicitations for experienced programmers were so aggressive that they complained about “recruiter spam.” The popularity of university computer-science programs was starting to explode. (My degree was in economics.) Coding “boot camps” sprang up that could credibly claim to turn beginners into high-salaried programmers in less than a year. At one of my first job interviews, in my early twenties, the C.E.O. asked how much I thought I deserved to get paid. I dared to name a number that faintly embarrassed me. He drew up a contract on the spot, offering ten per cent more. The skills of a “software engineer” were vaunted. At one company where I worked, someone got in trouble for using HipChat, a predecessor to Slack, to ask one of my colleagues a question. “Never HipChat an engineer directly,” he was told. We were too important for that.
This was an era of near-zero interest rates and extraordinary tech-sector growth. Certain norms were established. Companies like Google taught the industry that coders were to have free espresso and catered hot food, world-class health care and parental leave, on-site gyms and bike rooms, a casual dress code, and “twenty-per-cent time,” meaning that they could devote one day a week to working on whatever they pleased. Their skills were considered so crucial and delicate that a kind of superstition developed around the work. For instance, it was considered foolish to estimate how long a coding task might take, since at any moment the programmer might turn over a rock and discover a tangle of bugs. Deadlines were anathema. If the pressure to deliver ever got too intense, a coder needed only to speak the word “burnout” to buy a few months.
From the beginning, I had the sense that there was something wrongheaded in all this. Was what we did really so precious? How long could the boom last? In my teens, I had done a little Web design, and, at the time, that work had been in demand and highly esteemed. You could earn thousands of dollars for a project that took a weekend. But along came tools like Squarespace, which allowed pizzeria owners and freelance artists to make their own Web sites just by clicking around. For professional coders, a tranche of high-paying, relatively low-effort work disappeared.
The response from the programmer community to these developments was just, Yeah, you have to keep levelling up your skills. Learn difficult, obscure things. Software engineers, as a species, love automation. Inevitably, the best of them build tools that make other kinds of work obsolete. This very instinct explained why we were so well taken care of: code had immense leverage. One piece of software could affect the work of millions of people. Naturally, this sometimes displaced programmers themselves. We were to think of these advances as a tide coming in, nipping at our bare feet. So long as we kept learning we would stay dry. Sound advice—until there’s a tsunami.
When we were first allowed to use A.I. chatbots at work, for programming assistance, I studiously avoided them. I expected that my colleagues would, too. But soon I started seeing the telltale colors of an A.I. chat session—the zebra pattern of call-and-response—on programmers’ screens as I walked to my desk. A common refrain was that these tools made you more productive; in some cases, they helped you solve problems ten times faster.
I wasn’t sure I wanted that. I enjoy the act of programming and I like to feel useful. The tools I’m familiar with, like the text editor I use to format and to browse code, serve both ends. They enhance my practice of the craft—and, though they allow me to deliver work faster, I still feel that I deserve the credit. But A.I., as it was being described, seemed different. It provided a lot of help. I worried that it would rob me of both the joy of working on puzzles and the satisfaction of being the one who solved them. I could be infinitely productive, and all I’d have to show for it would be the products themselves.
The actual work product of most programmers is rarely exciting. In fact, it tends to be almost comically humdrum. A few months ago, I came home from the office and told my wife about what a great day I’d had wrestling a particularly fun problem. I was working on a program that generated a table, and someone had wanted to add a header that spanned more than one column—something that the custom layout engine we’d written didn’t support. The work was urgent: these tables were being used in important documents, wanted by important people. So I sequestered myself in a room for the better part of the afternoon. There were lots of lovely sub-problems: How should I allow users of the layout engine to convey that they want a column-spanning header? What should their code look like? And there were fiddly details that, if ignored, would cause bugs. For instance, what if one of the columns that the header was supposed to span got dropped because it didn’t have any data? I knew it was a good day because I had to pull out pen and pad—I was drawing out possible scenarios, checking and double-checking my logic.
But taking a bird’s-eye view of what happened that day? A table got a new header. It’s hard to imagine anything more mundane. For me, the pleasure was entirely in the process, not the product. And what would become of the process if it required nothing more than a three-minute ChatGPT session? Yes, our jobs as programmers involve many things besides literally writing code, such as coaching junior hires and designing systems at a high level. But coding has always been the root of it. Throughout my career, I have been interviewed and selected precisely for my ability to solve fiddly little programming puzzles. Suddenly, this ability was less important.
I had gathered as much from Ben, who kept telling me about the spectacular successes he’d been having with GPT-4. It turned out that it was not only good at the fiddly stuff but also had the qualities of a senior engineer: from a deep well of knowledge, it could suggest ways of approaching a problem. For one project, Ben had wired a small speaker and a red L.E.D. light bulb into the frame of a portrait of King Charles, the light standing in for the gem in his crown; the idea was that when you entered a message on an accompanying Web site the speaker would play a tune and the light would flash out the message in Morse code. (This was a gift for an eccentric British expat.) Programming the device to fetch new messages eluded Ben; it seemed to require specialized knowledge not just of the microcontroller he was using but of Firebase, the back-end server technology that stored the messages. Ben asked me for advice, and I mumbled a few possibilities; in truth, I wasn’t sure that what he wanted would be possible. Then he asked GPT-4. It told Ben that Firebase had a capability that would make the project much simpler. Here it was—and here was some code to use that would be compatible with the microcontroller.
Afraid to use GPT-4 myself—and feeling somewhat unclean about the prospect of paying OpenAI twenty dollars a month for it—I nonetheless started probing its capabilities, via Ben. We’d sit down to work on our crossword project, and I’d say, “Why don’t you try prompting it this way?” He’d offer me the keyboard. “No, you drive,” I’d say. Together, we developed a sense of what the A.I. could do. Ben, who had more experience with it than I did, seemed able to get more out of it in a stroke. As he later put it, his own neural network had begun to align with GPT-4’s. I would have said that he had achieved mechanical sympathy. Once, in a feat I found particularly astonishing, he had the A.I. build him a Snake game, like the one on old Nokia phones. But then, after a brief exchange with GPT-4, he got it to modify the game so that when you lost it would show you how far you strayed from the most efficient route. It took the bot about ten seconds to achieve this. It was a task that, frankly, I was not sure I could do myself.
In chess, which for decades now has been dominated by A.I., a player’s only hope is pairing up with a bot. Such half-human, half-A.I. teams, known as centaurs, might still be able to beat the best humans and the best A.I. engines working alone. Programming has not yet gone the way of chess. But the centaurs have arrived. GPT-4 on its own is, for the moment, a worse programmer than I am. Ben is much worse. But Ben plus GPT-4 is a dangerous thing.
It wasn’t long before I caved. I was making a little search tool at work and wanted to highlight the parts of the user’s query that matched the results. But I was splitting up the query by words in a way that made things much more complicated. I found myself short on patience. I started thinking about GPT-4. Perhaps instead of spending an afternoon programming I could spend some time “prompting,” or having a conversation with an A.I.
In a 1978 essay titled “On the Foolishness of ‘Natural Language Programming,’ ” the computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra argued that if you were to instruct computers not in a specialized language like C++ or Python but in your native tongue you’d be rejecting the very precision that made computers useful. Formal programming languages, he wrote, are “an amazingly effective tool for ruling out all sorts of nonsense that, when we use our native tongues, are almost impossible to avoid.” Dijkstra’s argument became a truism in programming circles. When the essay made the rounds on Reddit in 2014, a top commenter wrote, “I’m not sure which of the following is scariest. Just how trivially obvious this idea is” or the fact that “many still do not know it.”
When I first used GPT-4, I could see what Dijkstra was talking about. You can’t just say to the A.I., “Solve my problem.” That day may come, but for now it is more like an instrument you must learn to play. You have to specify what you want carefully, as though talking to a beginner. In the search-highlighting problem, I found myself asking GPT-4 to do too much at once, watching it fail, and then starting over. Each time, my prompts became less ambitious. By the end of the conversation, I wasn’t talking about search or highlighting; I had broken the problem into specific, abstract, unambiguous sub-problems that, together, would give me what I wanted.
Having found the A.I.’s level, I felt almost instantly that my working life had been transformed. Everywhere I looked I could see GPT-4-size holes; I understood, finally, why the screens around the office were always filled with chat sessions—and how Ben had become so productive. I opened myself up to trying it more often.
I returned to the crossword project. Our puzzle generator printed its output in an ugly text format, with lines like "s""c""a""r""*""k""u""n""i""s""*" "a""r""e""a" . I wanted to turn output like that into a pretty Web page that allowed me to explore the words in the grid, showing scoring information at a glance. But I knew the task would be tricky: each letter had to be tagged with the words it belonged to, both the across and the down. This was a detailed problem, one that could easily consume the better part of an evening. With the baby on the way, I was short on free evenings. So I began a conversation with GPT-4. Some back-and-forth was required; at one point, I had to read a few lines of code myself to understand what it was doing. But I did little of the kind of thinking I once believed to be constitutive of coding. I didn’t think about numbers, patterns, or loops; I didn’t use my mind to simulate the activity of the computer. As another coder, Geoffrey Litt, wrote after a similar experience, “I never engaged my detailed programmer brain.” So what did I do?
Perhaps what pushed Lee Sedol to retire from the game of Go was the sense that the game had been forever cheapened. When I got into programming, it was because computers felt like a form of magic. The machine gave you powers but required you to study its arcane secrets—to learn a spell language. This took a particular cast of mind. I felt selected. I devoted myself to tedium, to careful thinking, and to the accumulation of obscure knowledge. Then, one day, it became possible to achieve many of the same ends without the thinking and without the knowledge. Looked at in a certain light, this can make quite a lot of one’s working life seem like a waste of time.
But whenever I think about Sedol I think about chess. After machines conquered that game, some thirty years ago, the fear was that there would be no reason to play it anymore. Yet chess has never been more popular—A.I. has enlivened the game. A friend of mine picked it up recently. At all hours, he has access to an A.I. coach that can feed him chess problems just at the edge of his ability and can tell him, after he’s lost a game, exactly where he went wrong. Meanwhile, at the highest levels, grandmasters study moves the computer proposes as if reading tablets from the gods. Learning chess has never been easier; studying its deepest secrets has never been more exciting.
Computing is not yet overcome. GPT-4 is impressive, but a layperson can’t wield it the way a programmer can. I still feel secure in my profession. In fact, I feel somewhat more secure than before. As software gets easier to make, it’ll proliferate; programmers will be tasked with its design, its configuration, and its maintenance. And though I’ve always found the fiddly parts of programming the most calming, and the most essential, I’m not especially good at them. I’ve failed many classic coding interview tests of the kind you find at Big Tech companies. The thing I’m relatively good at is knowing what’s worth building, what users like, how to communicate both technically and humanely. A friend of mine has called this A.I. moment “the revenge of the so-so programmer.” As coding per se begins to matter less, maybe softer skills will shine.
That still leaves open the matter of what to teach my unborn child. I suspect that, as my child comes of age, we will think of “the programmer” the way we now look back on “the computer,” when that phrase referred to a person who did calculations by hand. Programming by typing C++ or Python yourself might eventually seem as ridiculous as issuing instructions in binary onto a punch card. Dijkstra would be appalled, but getting computers to do precisely what you want might become a matter of asking politely.
So maybe the thing to teach isn’t a skill but a spirit. I sometimes think of what I might have been doing had I been born in a different time. The coders of the agrarian days probably futzed with waterwheels and crop varietals; in the Newtonian era, they might have been obsessed with glass, and dyes, and timekeeping. I was reading an oral history of neural networks recently, and it struck me how many of the people interviewed—people born in and around the nineteen-thirties—had played with radios when they were little. Maybe the next cohort will spend their late nights in the guts of the A.I.s their parents once regarded as black boxes. I shouldn’t worry that the era of coding is winding down. Hacking is forever. ♦
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