One of my friend’s (now former) bosses once sent the company a two page email that did something amazing—it said absolutely nothing. Our group of friends has since read it dozens of times trying to find one cogent point (it’s possible we’ve even done dramatic readings). But we can’t find one. It’s just two pages of vague abstractions and generalities punctuated with phrases like, “The big duh is…” and “It’s here like a really loud knock at the door.” It's hard to believe that the writer really expected anyone to appreciate or benefit from the message. And if you're going to say nothing at all, you’d be better off sending just that—nothing at all.
I’ve written before about the dangers of bad writing in business and college essays. But for high school students, here are a few more writing thoughts, whether or not you consider yourself a writer.
1. If you like to write, work hard to get great at it.
Writing is a strength worth maximizing. Do rough drafts of your essays and get your teacher’s feedback before turning in your final version. Enroll in a creative writing or business communication class at your local community college. Take the extra five minutes to write a good email that’s properly punctuated. Writing happens to be one of those strengths that gets regularly rewarded in both your personal and professional life. So why not maximize that strength?
2. If you don’t like to write, work to get better at it.
I think students should spend less time fixing their weaknesses and more time improving their strengths. But writing is just too important to be bad at it. You can’t get into college without writing an essay. You can’t get a job without writing a cover letter. You can’t communicate with anyone of importance without writing an email. It's usually not fun to work at something you struggle doing. But you have a choice. You can spend time improving your writing or you can lament the opportunities you miss because your writing wasn’t up to par. Here’s a recent post from Seth Godin with some simple rules for better writing, and one of mine on how to write a good email message.
3. Make sure your organization has great writers on staff.
When we hire anyone at Collegewise—from counselors to editors to assistants—we pay great attention to their cover letters (and we’re not the only company who does this). I think great writing is a sign of clear thinking as well as clear communicating. When we’re trying to decide between two potential hires at Collegewise, we always hire the better writer.
There’s no reason leaders in high school activities couldn’t do the same thing. Whether you’re in the student counsel, the Spanish Club or the National Honor Society, identify who the great writers are. If you don’t have any, recruit some. Run an announcement in the daily bulletin that the Spanish Club is looking for a good writer to join their ranks. Then put those writers to use, which brings me to…
4. Let your best writers handle your organization’s written communications.
If you’re going to send something out to your club, team, school yearbook staff, etc., have one of the designated writers handle it. If the message really needs to come from a specific person who isn’t one of the writers, have that person write the message and let one of the writers edit it. If you’re saying to yourself, “But that takes so much longer,” you’re right. You can have speed, or you can have great writing. But you can’t always have both.