“GET IT IN WRITING”: New Survey Reveals Paradoxes About Workplace Writers

“GET IT IN WRITING” was written by Wilma Davidson and Thorold (Tod) Roberts, The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee

©2014, All Rights Reserved.

Additionally, a recent survey of more than 250 working professionals provides valuable insights into how they view their own writing. By suggesting pragmatic ways to improve the writing of emails, memos, and reports, the article also helps students strengthen their job skills as they prepare for their own careers.


Exactly what did the survey reveal? While you can see all questions and replies in the accompanying tables, the following responses provoked the most curiosity:

  • Around 68 percent of workplace writers have confidence in their ability to write but only 42 percent of them get started easily—leaving a notable fifty-eight percent of workplace writers still struggling to get started easily–leaving a notable fifty-eight percent of workplace writers still struggling to get started.
  • Almost 80 percent say they revise their writing, but only 37 percent believe they ultimately write what they need to in the fewest words possible.
  • Approximately 34 percent feel they know what content to include and leave out, but only 36 percent indicate they ever seek feedback from others about their drafts.
  • While 66 percent of workplace writers feel their writing works and 64 percent believe their readers are satisfied with their writing, only 52 percent of workplace writers are themselves satisfied with their writing.
  • Workplace writers indicate that 90 percent of the writing done in the workplace consists of emails, 47 percent reports, and 33 percent PowerPoint presentations, but only 5 percent of writing consists of proposals.
  • Almost 90 percent of workplace writers generate their business correspondence on the computer, but only 4 percent avail themselves of the technology accessible, literally, at their fingertips on the computer, iPad, and smart phone to dictate a draft that is converted into editable text immediately.

So what might all this mean? If you, like many of the students in our classes, want to know how to make yourself stand out as a writer, there’s much here to inform your chances and to reverse the dismaying and well-documented decline of writing skills in the workplace.

How can you as a future workplace writer increase your confidence and satisfaction with your writing?

Work on better evaluating your own work by analyzing your potential audiences, understanding your core messages, and drafting without being hampered too early by the critic or censor in your heads. Workplace writers’ high anxiety has been correlated with poor writing performance for years but not much attention has been paid to reducing that anxiety. Simply giving yourself permission to say it the wrong way in a first draft before you say it the right way in a final draft can ease the angst of writing.

How can a writer move quickly from a wordy, awkward draft to a concise, finished document?

Demystify your revision process. Workplace writers who write well have learned how to replace the writer’s hat with the editor’s so they can create messages for readers rather than for themselves. You can gain this understanding through such simple techniques as reading your drafts aloud, hearing an audio recording of a draft to spot weakness, asking a class mate to review your draft, and learning to use verbs, not nouns, to do the heavy lifting in your sentences. Use additional editors’ tips for finding and removing the classic symptoms of clutter from sentences and for replacing the almost-right word with the just-right one.(You can find an amusing how-to chapter on removing clutter in Business Writing: What Works, What Won’t.)

How can you distinguish between “nice-to-have” and “must-have” content?

The key here lies with solid audience analysis: anticipating what your workplace readers already know and need to know in order to make your hoped-for decision. How have the readers responded in the past? More experienced colleagues can lend a hand not only in explaining to youthe readers’ needs but also in choosing the hot-button words and phrases that will get the desired attention to a message.

Why do only slightly more than half of the survey respondents feel their writing “works”? And how would you answer that question about the present state of your writing?

In the workplace, or in a college class, a business, technical, or student writer can ask these questions:Has a manager or professor’s feedback been negative and discouraging? Does the writer have to follow up with additional messages because the first one didn’t get the job done? If this survey response reflects a similar feeling that you have “always been weak at writing,” take heart.  This is a common attitude that can often be traced to low grades on writing in school, or to being reluctant or embarrassed to ask another person to review and advise. And it’s entirely understandable because asking for help from another has often been viewed as cheating.

What role is played by the format of written documents?

The survey confirms that email has become the common communications medium for business professionals, and yet many users struggle to make their messages effective. While much faster and more convenient than documents transmitted on paper, email still requires a thoughtful understanding of your own message and of your reader’s expectations. Keep your reader’s expectations in mind when you enter the workforce.

Another frequently used medium is PowerPoint, a presentation tool that generates widespread criticism and yet has become indispensable to millions of business professionals. As with other media, a PowerPoint message is only as effective as the clarity and conciseness of its content and its focus on listeners’ needs, but very few companies provide even brief guidance in how to avoid rendering one’s audience comatose with boredom from too many slides that miss the mark. Learning to master this medium will also give you a competitive edge.

A surprising finding was the relatively low number of respondents who write proposals on the job. While the production of these documents is often led by a sales or marketing specialist, almost every student and employee can benefit from understanding the basics of how to structure, draft, and present a successful proposal. In fact, if new employees had such direction, they might feel freer to pursue proposals and new business initiatives. Here’s another form of writing to master to stand above the crowd.

Why do so many workplace writers immediately go to the keyboard but rarely to the “record” button?

With 30 to 40 percent of workers’ days spent writing, it is curious that they have not embraced the dictation of their messages more enthusiastically. The technology abounds: commercial dictation software on computers, iPads, and smart phones, along with free and inexpensive apps, is easily available. Even the iPhone’s Virtual Assistant Siri is a willing transcriber  — she’ll take dictation and transcribe it for your editing in a flash.

So why the reluctance to adopt this technique? Do only doctors and lawyers dictate their reports today? Why not try dictated text as a way to “talk your writing,” and imagine yourself more effectively addressing your absent audience, getting started more easily, and having a draft ready for massaging in less time than ever? After all, what is writing if not visible, literate speech? The best writing is not merely talk, but perfected talk. Our earliest language was oral—and there’s something to be said for getting back to it.

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell used cutting-edge technology, his “electrical speech machine,” to say, “Mr. Watson, come here—I want you.”  And the world changed as a result of his invention. It did so again with the advent of the computer.

We believe that “talking writing” has infinite possibilities for students of business and technical writing as well as for those already in the workplace. While it is not a panacea for the writing woes that stem from muddled thinking, incomplete knowledge of readers, and weak grammar, such a method of generating business messages may indeed help you get better and faster at imagining your audiences, at writing with the natural rhythms of conversation, and at finding writing a less onerous task.

Many managers complain frequently about the writing that comes across their desks, but few studies have asked workplace writers themselves to rate the efficacy of their writing and to share their perceptions. This survey attempted to elicit those perceptions and to infer what these comments suggest about how to improve your writing and your attitude toward it.

Can Technology lead the way to Improvement?

While our survey does not claim to provide an exhaustive view of the challenges faced by today’s workplace writers, it does offer useful suggestions that can make written communications faster, more concise, and more targeted to actual readers’ needs. The proliferation of computers and smart phones, with the ability to text and tweet has resulted in more people writing than ever before—but it has not resulted in better writers. Perhaps it’s time to revisit how people generate their messages. Dictating can be easily mastered and we encourage it as student and workplace writers strive to “get it in writing

Survey Demographics

The 25-question survey was completed by a random mix of professionals fitting this profile:

  • males and females
  • ages 22 to 60+
  • employed by their company from several weeks to more than 30 years
  • all college graduates (holders of bachelor, master, or doctorate degrees)
  • in middle to senior levels of management
  • all employed at global companies that range in annual revenues from 2 to 40 billion dollars, and fromsuch industries as consumer products, custom chemical products, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications
  • from almost every business function, including  accounting, engineering,communications, sales, marketing, finance,  human resources, training, research and development labs, and information technology
Table 1. All Survey Responses
All Respondents (N = 257) Never Seldom Sometimes Often Always NR Mean
  1 2 3 4 5 0 % O/A
I get started writing easily 2% 13% 42% 37% 6%   3.31
  5 34 109 94 15 0 42%
I have confidence in my ability 0% 7% 25% 57% 11%   3.72
  0 18 64 146 29 0 68%
I spend time planning what I write. 1% 7% 38% 46% 8%   3.54
  2 18 97 119 20 1 54%
I tell my readers why I am writing 2% 16% 29% 39% 13%   3.43
  6 42 75 101 32 1 52%
I adapt my writing style to my reader 2% 11% 29% 47% 11%   3.54
  5 28 74 121 27 2 58%
As I write, I think about what my reader may already know. 1% 8% 28% 50% 13%   3.66
  2 21 71 128 32 3 63%
I am sure of what to keep and what to leave out when I write. 2% 12% 52% 31% 3%   3.21
  4 32 134 79 8 0 34%
As I write, I determine a logical sequence for my information. 0% 3% 18% 54% 24%   4.00
  0 8 47 139 62 1 79%
I think my writing moves smoothly from one paragraph to another 1% 7% 38% 46% 8%   3.53
  2 18 97 119 20 1 54%
I write well. 1% 8% 38% 47% 5%   3.47
  3 21 97 120 13 3 52%
 I think my writing sounds natural, rather than stiff or formal. 0% 5% 38% 49% 7%   3.58
  1 14 96 126 19 1 57%
I can say what I mean in few words. 1% 15% 48% 30% 6%   3.27
  2 37 122 77 16 3 37%
I revise my writing. 0% 5% 18% 40% 38%   4.11
  0 12 45 103 97 0 78%
I think I make appropriate decisions about usage in my writing. 0% 4% 33% 55% 8%   3.68
  0 9 85 139 21 3 63%
I think I make appropriate decisions about punctuation in my writing. 2% 9% 27% 47% 16%   3.68
  4 22 69 120 42 0 63%
I use the standard spelling of words. 0% 1% 11% 48% 40%   4.26
  1 3 27 123 103 0 88%
I seek feedback/help from others about my writing. 5% 18% 41% 24% 12%   3.21
  12 47 105 61 32 0 36%
I feel satisfied with my writing. 2% 8% 33% 52% 5%   3.49
  6 20 86 133 12 0 56%
Readers seem satisfied with my writing. 0% 3% 32% 61% 3%   3.63
  1 8 82 155 8 3 64%
I think my writing works. 0% 2% 24% 67% 6%   3.76
  1 6 62 170 16 2 73%
I compose by hand. 27% 38% 21% 12% 2%   2.24
  69 95 53 29 6 5 14%
I compose by dictating. 66% 20% 10% 3% 1%   1.53
  167 52 25 8 2 3 4%
I compose by computer. 0% 1% 10% 52% 36%   4.23
  1 2 26 134 93 1 89%


Table 2. Majority of Workplace Writing by Percentage of Respondents

Workplace Writing Type % of Respondents
Email 98%
Reports 47%
PowerPoint Presentations 33%
Proposals 5%


Note:  Survey analysis conducted by Laura Hoffman, M.Ed., University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.