Information Sheet # 20

January 3, 1989

WRITING BEYOND THE ACADEMY

[The following information is from Paul Anderson's "What Survey Research Tells Us About Writing at Work," published in Writing in Nonacademic Settings, edited by Lee Odell & Dixie Goswami (1985).  In addition to reporting on his research at Miami University, Anderson analyzes conclusions derived from over 50 other studies examining career-related writing.]

Anderson's own study sought to answer four primary research questions:

(1)  How much writing is done by alumni from 7 departments in the sciences, social sciences, & service professions.

(2)  How important to these alumni is writing in their work.

(3)  What are the primary features of their rhetorical situations at work:

                        --To whom do they write?

                        --What forms do they use?

                        --Why do they write?

(4)  What important differences can be found among graduates from different departments working in different types of jobs.

After obtaining data on 841 graduates, Anderson offered these conclusions.

1.  Writing is a major activity for most graduates.  "Regardless of their department, regardless of whether they are new or experienced employees, regardless of whether or not they have earned graduate degrees, the respondents reported that they write a very considerable portion of their time at work and that the ability to write well is important in their jobs."  Of the 841 alumni, 69% reported spending over 4 hours per week writing, 38% reported writing over 8 hours per week, and 15% reported writing more than 16 hours per week. 

2.  On-the-job writing is very similar for graduates from all seven departments.  Writing was a major activity for all subgroups of the sample, regardless of their undergraduate department.  Over 80% of graduates from all departments rated writing to be "very important."  In addition, Anderson discovered that "alumni who had been on the job for three years or more spent a significantly greater amount of their time writing than do those who have been on the job less than three years."

3.  Graduates from the seven departments write regularly to a variety of readers.  "These graduates regularly address readers who know more than they do about their specialities, but they also write regularly to readers who know only as much as they do, to readers who know less, and to readers who are completely unfamiliar with their specialities.  In addition, they write regularly to readers at their own level within their organizations as well as to readers at higher and lower levels.  Finally, many of the graduates write regularly to various kinds of readers outside their organizations."

4.  The graduates write in a variety of forms.  Of the eleven forms of writing listed in the survey, 50% or more "of the alumni from every one of the seven departments indicated that they write the fol- lowing five forms at least 'sometimes':  memoranda, letters, step-by-step instructions, general instructions, and preprinted forms to be filled out by the alumni."  Types of compositions less frequently used were (in order of decreasing frequency):  proposals for funding or approving projects, formal reports, minutes of meetings, scripts for speeches, advertising copy, and articles for professional journals.

5.  Graduates write about as much on their own initiative as at someone else's request.  "Ninety-two percent of the alumni write at someone else's request at least 'sometimes,' and 53% do so either 'often' or 'always.' Similarly, 90% of the alumni write on their own initiative at least 'sometimes,' and 59% do so either 'often' or 'always.'  Analyses of the responses from each of the subgroups of alumni produced similar results."

The second half of Anderson's report compares his results with 50 previous studies of non-academic writing, most examining writing habits of graduates from the sciences, social sciences, and business.  Anderson identifies many problems involved in comparing these research findings because authors often fail to describe their research methods.  Another problem is the fuzzy definitions of writing.  For example, does "writing" include the time thinking about a writing assignment, prior to writing words on paper?  Despite many difficulties, Anderson believes these reports can clarify our understanding of how writing functions in non-academic fields. 

1.  Writing consumes a substantial portion of the working day for almost all college-educated workers.  Over 20 surveys have found that the respondents spend "approximately 20 percent of their time at work writing."  In one 1979 study, the researchers studied 83 executives of companies with businesses in Iowa:  these businessmen reported averaging 28% of their time writing.

2.  College graduates highly rate the importance of writing and learning how to write.  One study "asked 133 upper-level managers to tell how often they use the specific knowledge provided by each of 62 college courses.  About 80% of the respondents put skill in business writing at the top of their list.  In a 1976 survey, business administration alumni who graduated from the University of Texas rated business writing as the second most important course they had taken, placing it behind accounting, with English rated third."  Other surveys have obtained similar results.

3.  Writing ability appears to affect a worker's prospects for advancement.  Several researchers have studied how writing ability affects a person's chances for advancement.  "All reach the same conclusion:  it does.  For example, in a survey of 245 people listed in Engineers of Distinction, 96% of the respondents said that the ability to communicate on paper had 'helped' their own advancement, and 89% reported that the ability to write is usually an 'important' or 'critical' consideration when someone is being evaluated for advancement."  Similar statistics were obtained in studies of graduates from Berkeley, Southern Technical Institute, and Miami University.

4.  Workers devote a substantial effort to the three stages of the composing process:  planning, drafting, and revising.  In a study of 265 professional employees in research and development organizations, the respondents reported spending 22% of their time in organizing, 42% in drafting, 22% in revising, and 15% in procrastination!  A 1982 study demonstrated how "respondents adjust their composing processes to the task at hand.  When preparing documents longer than ten pages, they spend substantially more time prewriting and revising than they do when composing shorter documents.  Also, when preparing longer documents they are more likely to treat prewriting and revising separately from writing."

5.  Many workers collaborate when they write.  Studies focusing on this issue have concluded that about 20% of on-the-job writing is produced collaboratively.  In one study, 10% "reported that in the previous two weeks they had asked people to critique their drafts; 60% indicated that in the previous two weeks they had been asked to critique drafts prepared by others."  In another study, engineers reported spending 30% of their time "working with the writing of others."

6.  Many college-educated workers believe that the writing done in the workplace is of poor quality.  In every survey studying this issue, a substantial percentage of respondents have expressed their dissatisfaction with the poor quality of writing in the workplace.  A 1984 study of new accountants recorded that 70% of the employers gave the recent graduates the lowest rating ("inadequate") for all six kinds of writing.  The research also indicates that new employees have a higher estimation of their own writing abilities than do their managers.  In a 1979 study of accounting majors working in CPA firms, 63% of the recent graduates rated their own writing as "effective," but only 32% of their employers did so!

7.  Workers recommend that a wide range of writing skills be taught in college writing courses.  "Ranked highest by workers are the skills needed to write clearly, write concisely, organize well, and write grammatically.  Workers suggest that writing courses should teach skills in writing a variety of kinds of documents; chief among these are letters, memos, and reports."  Those surveyed also suggest that writing instruction needs to focus on "general writing strategies that students can apply in a variety of work-related rhetorical situations.  Career-related writing courses should teach students how to write communications that people in the workplace will perceive to be clear, concise, well-organized, and grammatically correct."  Students can benefit most from writing in a variety of forms and for a wide variety of possible readers.


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