Column: Books and Writing

The write skills

by Estelle Tang , May 28, 201215 Comments

Photo credit: sami73

An article came across my desk last week that put a twinkle in my eye and a profoundly satisfying I told you so on my lips. Titled ‘Revenge of the Liberal Arts Major’, the article was about a recent survey of the recruitment intentions of 225 employers in the United States. The article opened with: ‘If you’re in college, or happen to be about to graduate, and you’ve been mocked for getting a liberal arts degree, here’s a piece of welcome news: You’re actually in more demand than those who are getting finance and accounting degrees’.

The report found that 98% of employers were looking for communication skills in recruits. Over 90% said that communication skills were the most difficult attributes to secure.

After the initial warm glow of hobby horse affirmation dimmed, what struck me most about this piece of ‘news’ is how damnably obvious it is. Of course people need to be effective communicators. Of course they need to be able to write well, which means writing fluently, coherently and persuasively.

Why, then, do we persist with our fatuous denigration of the degrees that are most likely to inculcate communication skills? Such denigration ranges from jokes of the ‘would you like fries with that?’ variety to snickering about the comparatively low entrance scores required for Arts degrees. It’s also present in the value-laden distinction between ‘soft’ skills (of which communication is one) and ‘hard’ skills.

At the heart of this, I suspect, is a belief that ‘communication skills’ are not all that difficult to acquire. It is as if they are an adjunct to ‘real skills’ like bookkeeping or bridge design that can casually be acquired, almost by osmosis, along the way. This assumption is bullshit of the first and smelliest order. After twenty-two years in the workforce and having managed hundreds of people, I’ve worked with a surprisingly small number who could write really well. By this I mean they could digest fat wads of disparate information, sniff out what was credible, discard the dross, distil the essence and repackage it all into a coherent, logical argument. Of those staff members, most have held Arts degrees.

At one time I was half-jokingly accused of running a sheltered workshop for Arts graduates. I did so unapologetically because despite whatever else you might bring to the table, if you can’t write, you’re no good to me. Picture this situation: you’re working to tight, merciless deadlines in a politically sensitive environment. Your staff are beavering away at producing briefs. The briefs land on your desk at 2pm and have to be turned around by 5. You begin to read, and there it is: that familiar sinking feeling about how late you’re going to have to work to turn this incoherent mush into tight, convincing prose.

The people who have produced the mush are often highly skilled, highly educated people who are light years away from stupid. They are economists who can chew up numbers and turn them into trends and lawyers who can kick a policy from here to the tea room for being ultra vires. But if they can’t communicate that in writing, they’ve only done half the job. Sometimes, when I delicately attempt to point this out I’m brushed off with ‘Well, just get an editor to look over it’ – as if it is not part of their job to drag the argument out of the word-jumble in which it has been lost.

I’ve instituted a recruitment practice designed to test a candidate’s writing skills before they get anywhere near a contract. All candidates are required to bring a piece of their writing to the interview. If they are called back for a second interview, they are given an exercise in which they have to produce a written briefing note within one hour. Our HR department humour me in this, as if it’s a quaint whim of mine.

It’s not. It’s a calculated exercise in time-saving. My time. I’m yet to see a job description that doesn’t have ‘communication skills’ as an essential criterion. It’s one of those ubiquitous terms that by dint of repetition has lost all its meaning. Let’s cut to the chase and instil ‘Arts degree’ as an essential employment criterion instead.

S.A. Jones is a Killings columnist, and the author of the novel Red Dress Walking and of numerous essays.


  • Julia T

    This is a great piece – I agree with everything you’ve said. I am an arts graduate, and now work as a government policy writer. People often ask me, “how did you manage to score that job, when your study was so unrelated?” This question baffles me, – I was hired to write policy because I know how to write!

    • S.A. Jones

      I know, I know. It’s like *headdesk, headdesk*

  • Sarah

    As a recent arts graduate I hate being asked: “Oh…so what can you actually do with that?”. Whatever I want. At least with this degree I’m not confined to one tiny box of a career. As I am abroad for the year I have yet to find said career but this article gives me hope :)

    • S.A. Jones

      Sarah – I’ve worked as a Ministerial staffer, management consultant, policy analyst, academic and project director all on the strength of two arts degrees. Don’t despair. The arts-grad revolution is coming…

  • gen

    I’ve gone from a standard Arts degree to a communications degree with a major in integrated media, and although I’m in my first year of study in this area I’m already paid for my communication skills.
    Despite my (medical professional-dominated) family calling my Arts degree a “bachelor of unemployment,” I’m gainfully employed in my chosen field while studying, and my paramedicine student sister lives on centrelink and her summer job savings. Ha!

  • Annabel Smith

    Huzzah for you Sarah! The writing, analysing and research skills I earned during my Arts degree have served me well in every job I’ve had in a diverse range of fields.

  • Simon C

    I’m an Arts/Law student, and I couldn’t agree with you more: many of the very bright people I study with struggle to write concisely and clearly. However, in defence of the more strictly vocational faculties, or at least the law schools, they are beginning to see the light. As part of my law degree I’ve written multiple research essays and several letters of advice, all of which have placed significant weight on clarity of expression. Obviously this isn’t quite as radical a change as requiring law students to read Strunk and White, as I would prefer, but it is a start.

  • Claire Corbett

    Great piece – I used to be a senior government policy adviser and can vouch for how true every word of this is. If you know how to write, then you know how to think. I’d much rather hire an Arts graduate for a whole range of roles rather than someone who specialised in something like marketing – that’s too narrow. I’ve noticed that some law and medicine grads haven’t necessarily been trained in how to think so it’s good to see Simon’s comment that this is being tackled.

  • DollyBoy

    Taken time off from an Occupy Movement to pen an article have we? Nice one Jones.

    • S.A. Jones

      Trolling much Dollyboy?

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