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​Writing 101

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Following is a quote that, while not verbatim, is pretty darned close to what I heard.

What is it with these kids today? They come out of school and they can't write. They can't put together a coherent thought. They barely know the language. I don't know what they're being taught out there, but it sure doesn't have anything to do with how to write.

Go ahead, take a guess where I heard this. Better yet, why don't you tell me where you've heard it before, how many times you've heard it before, and whether or not you've said something similar yourself. Such phrases as "These new hires can't write" and "They have no command of the written word" and "Their reports are impossible to read" and "Their reports have to be rewritten over and over" and "Even their workpapers are incomprehensible" are phrases we've all heard, said, or even received.

Let's return to my original, sort-of quote. It is not something I said, something said by a manager or supervisor I worked for, something uttered by a client looking at a rough draft, or something I heard from anyone in the business world. No, I heard this in 1972. And it was spoken by my high school English teacher, talking about the kids that were coming in from junior high.

The more things change, etc. etc. etc. etc.

None of us — no matter how precocious, brilliant, or wonderful we remember ourselves to have been — were hatched from the graduation-egg fully formed, writing in the exact style needed for business and internal audit.

Which raises this question. Why in the world, when a new employee has just graduated college, or come over from the business, or come from an external audit background, or even come from an internal audit background, do we assume they will instantly be able to write reports, workpapers, or even emails with the approach and style we expect?

They can write; they just don't know how to write the way you want them to write because you haven't told them how you want them to write.

Let's imagine a scenario. It's the new employee's first day. You've toured the building. You've introduced the primary characters/culprits/conspirators within the building. You've shared the location of the restrooms. (I always throw this one in because I forgot to do this for one of my new hires and, from that day forward, never forgot again.) You've gone through various organizational indoctrinations. And now it's time to explore the wild, wacky world of internal audit.

How much of any subsequent training includes report writing? Not how an audit report is constructed — background, purpose, scope, and so on — but the concepts of what the department expects in the writing of a report. And how much of that training is on-the-job (OTJ) versus classroom training — the former laying bare to the public every mistake, error, and misstep. I'll lay you dollars to documents that OTJ wins by a large percentage.

Here's a thought. Starting on day one, include training on the department's expectations regarding writing. Train new hires how to write like an auditor — how to write in the style and approach that is expected from any internal auditor within your department. In fact, take every section of training — testing, interviews, documentation, risk assessment, etc. — and have new employees use those exercises to practice writing, using every one of these opportunities to begin laying the groundwork of good writing skills.

And one more thought on all this. (And a scary thought it is.) To actually train someone in your style and approach, you have to know your style and approach. And that may be another problem. If you don't have that under control, then anything you do with new employees is a waste of time.

Of course, it's easy for me, sitting in my ivory tower — no, strike that, sitting in my rocking chair — to spout these seemingly simple solutions. And I know the real world is never as easy and uncomplicated as those of us sitting on the sidelines would like to make it. But this all makes sense to me. 

Accordingly, I'd love to know your thoughts. Am I crazy and there is no time for such an approach? Is it something you've already tried and it failed miserably? Or have you had success? Please share.

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