Don’t Edit, Teach: Strategies for Mentoring Writers from a Writing Professor

By Jessica McCaughey

A few times each month, I get a familiar call from an unfamiliar organization. The person on the line offers some variation of the following statement: My employees can’t write. Sometimes it’s framed as a minor issue, as in, “Some of my staff have a few kinks to work out in their writing.” Other times, it’s harsher and less appropriate: “These guys couldn’t write their way out of a [explicative] paper bag.”

I teach first-year writing at a university in Washington, DC, and I also facilitate professional writing workshops for private sector and government clients. Some days I split my time between local office conference rooms in the morning and my classroom in the afternoon. In the evenings, I might comment on student papers for a couple of hours, and then shift to evaluate the writing in government reports or inter-office memos. It’s an odd situation, residing in both the academic and the corporate world, especially as I consider the writing that happens in each. What is most striking to me as I shift back and forth is how many of the issues managers see in their employees’ writing mirror those I see in the college writers I teach. The writing they’re doing is often very different, but the tasks and techniques that these writers in the workplace struggle most with are surprisingly similar. I often find myself responding in similar ways to both groups.

Editors are, in many ways, by default, the “teacher” when it comes to employees’ writing. They “assign” writing, provide feedback on their work, and can “pass” or “fail” the writing that lands on their desks. And as each of the managers and editors calling me about their staff can attest, that role can be a tricky one. But there are things they can do to be better teachers and managers.

View Writing as a Process

Every good writer knows that the first draft of any piece of writing rarely resembles the polished, final version. (I often suggest that my new college writers read Anne Lamont’s wonderful book Bird by Bird, especially the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” to really drive the point home.) Writing is iterative, and a text reaches its full potential through multiple drafts, feedback, revision, and editing. In first-year writing courses, the process is built-in. Students are often required to show their pre-writing work, such as notes and outlines, to submit multiple drafts, and then to return to them and revise in order to get into the habit of understanding writing as the process that it is, rather than a one-time event.

In the workplace, though, we often feel so crunched for time that the idea of process goes out the window—and the result is usually less than stellar writing. Even though your employees’ projects may not always allow for a leisurely, unconstrained feedback and revision loop (okay, they never do), you can help them build the writing process into any project, whether that means starting earlier, having a colleague read through their work, or, at an absolute minimum, asking your staff to step away from a full draft of a piece of writing for a half hour before returning to it. If you emphasize revision with your staff, the results will be obvious to both you and them, as well as to the outside audience that the piece ultimately reaches.

Know Your Context

Most writers know this, but it’s easy to forget, especially when a professor isn’t constantly reminding you; every piece of writing has specific parameters that are determined by its rhetorical situation. People talk about this term in different ways, but I tell my students, at the most basic level, that the writer, the audience, and the purpose should be clear before they ever sit down to write—and that these three elements that make up the context of a piece of writing will dictate just about every decision they make as the writing develops, such as tone, style, format, and the ways in which they makes argumentative appeals. It’s your job to remind your staff to learn and consider the rhetorical situation before they sit down to write.

Be Clear About the Prompt

When a student or two is really struggling to produce a successful piece of writing, I meet with them one on one, but when the whole class is? I revisit what I asked of them. I try to pinpoint what they’re not getting, and then I figure out how my own writing and explanations in the assignment sheet can be clearer. Employees who aren’t meeting your standards should be given the same benefit of the doubt. Are you making assumptions about prior knowledge the writer might have about what form or tone the piece should take? If so, think about ways you can more clearly state the requirements. For new employees, those who speak a first language other than English, or those who struggle with writing for other reasons, no level of detail is too specific.

Know What You Value—and Be Sure You’re Valuing What’s Actually Important

On the first day of my writing courses, I explain the difference to my students between higher-order issues, which include concerns of argument and organization, and lower-order issues, like grammar and punctuation. They are initially pleased to hear me say that I care way, way more about their higher-order concerns (I’m teaching them to develop a written argument, so their critical thinking skills, thesis, and evidence are front and center)—then they realize that these are way more difficult to master than where to place a comma. When many managers complain about the quality of their employees’ writing, they’re actually talking about their grammar and usage. These are important, as anyone who’s ever been distracted from a report by the writer’s improper use of apostrophes can attest, but they’re far less important than the actual substance of a piece of writing. As a manager, you need to make that distinction and coach your employees to improve based on what their actual issues are.

Written Feedback from “The Teacher” Is the Most Useful Tool, Unless It’s Not…

Sometimes I receive writing from students that is simply a mess, just like some employee writing is. It’s disorganized and unclear. It’s difficult to follow and grammatically troubling. It lacks transitions (or, as in one very disturbing case early in my career, capital letters). Written feedback from the professor is crucial in helping writers develop. However, the art of providing feedback isn’t one that’s easily mastered. When I first started teaching, I covered the page with so many comments that my students felt overwhelmed. I made notes that they couldn’t understand. I had to make a devoted effort to improve the feedback I was providing. And in the years since, I’ve worked with many managers who, despite providing feedback to their writers, aren’t sensing any improvement. When I ask to see some of their written comments, I often find the same thing: Notes that provide no specific issue or clear inquiry, such as those that read, “Reword” or “Unclear.” Questions are key. While you may be tempted to write “This doesn’t make sense” in the margin, the revision is going to go a lot better if you write “Are you trying to say X or Y here? Or something else entirely?” Here’s what is easy to forget: This writing makes sense to the writer. So feedback needs to be specific. Pick and choose your issues—you can only ask a writer to process so many suggestions at a time. Maybe this means you’ll need to take a look at an extra draft and provide your lower-order concerns then. That’s okay, and it will be a better revision based on your focused, iterative feedback. (Also, try to avoid using a red pen! It brings many writers back to their dreaded high school days!)

Put Your Phone Away

Substantial, complex writing requires a sustained, deep focus that’s difficult to attain when one is distracted in the classroom—or the office. Urge your employees to set aside uninterrupted time for their more complex writing tasks. Urge them to turn off their ringer and disconnect the computer’s wifi temporarily. You might even consider offering up a conference room or other quiet space for “writing hours”—time that multiple employees can designate to get away from their desks and tackle a complex writing project. They’ll be more focused and you’ll be able to really demonstrate that you value the kind of strong writing that takes concentration.

Peer Review Works

Peer review—that is, having students read and provide feedback on one another’s writing—has been a staple of college writing courses for decades and is crucial to writers as they develop and practice writing for an audience. Student writers benefit immensely from peer review, so why don’t more managers implement a similar system in the office? Many fear that the writer will receive “bad” feedback and it will actually make the writing worse, but as we all know, learning what feedback to take action on and what to disregard is just as crucial a skill. And most often, writers receive genuinely useful feedback that improves the writing during the next stage of revision. Further, we find that even writers who struggle with their own work often give insightful, helpful feedback—and by giving this feedback, they learn to be better readers of their own work.

Talk One on One with Writers

My classes meet three times each week—twice in person and once online. I create intricate lesson plans for these class sessions that include a combination of interactive lectures, in-class writing, discussion, and partnered and group work. If I’m lucky, I leave feeling like the class was a success, but even on my best teaching days, there are students who don’t quite get it or need a little extra help. I require my students to meet with me individually to discuss their writing twice over the course of the semester. Those meetings take over my whole week, but I often see that students’ writing improves more as a result of those focused twenty-minute sessions than they do from a week’s worth of classes. I think of team meetings at the office a lot like class. A manager might run a heck of a meeting, but it’s often those brief, focused individual meetings that really push employees to improve. And this is especially true when it comes to writing. The more time you can find—even five minutes here and there—to discuss an employee’s writing with them, the more time you’ll save in editing and commenting down the line.

Collect and Distribute Resources

Despite my best efforts, every semester there are students who simply need more help than I can provide, and so I keep a running list of great websites, books, articles, and YouTube channels on specific writing-related topics. After a one-on-one meeting where a student and I have discussed a higher-order issue, for instance the evidence she is using, I might also have noticed that she is struggling with conciseness, so I’ll send her a link to some great online exercises to help her. You should do the same for your employees—and crowdsourcing them can help. Whether you can tell from their writing or not, your employees are likely doing the occasional Google search for help with various writing issues. Ask your team to send along any useful links they come across, and then you can use these to help other employees in the future.

The writing your employees create is obviously unique in many ways. There is a specific audience, purpose, and culture they are working within. There are branding and style issues to consider. Ultimately, though, the way you oversee and support the writing that goes on in your organization not only affects the quality of that written work, but also the development of those writers, whether they’re sending off a quick email or writing a complex report. If you say writing is important, show your employees that it’s a priority. They’ll thank you, and their writing will improve.

JESSICA McCAUGHEY (jessmcc@gwu.edu) is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she teaches academic and professional writing. She also developed and oversees a professional writing program at GWU that provides workshops and coaching to writers in the workplace. In her previous life, she worked as a copywriter, editor, and communications manager.

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