Management Development ForumVol. 1 - No. 2 (98)
Developing Writing and Thinking Skills
Elaine Handley and Robert Miner
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Elaine Handley and Robert Miner

Management competencies in writing and thinking are growing ever more important for managers in today’s global marketplace. This article recommends a model to help managers develop techniques for increasing competence in writing skills.

Much as machines may speed production and creativity, and much as systems reengineering may let things run with fewer handlers, the coming millennium of information is going to depend even more on certain uniquely human capacities: creativity, communication, and judgment.

Human resource managers will need to develop new techniques for the care and feeding of this indispensable human inventory. And another uniquely human capacity—writing—may hold a key to a significant, largely untapped, reservoir of that creativity, communication, and judgment.

Our experience teaching managers to write in college suggests that a relatively simple exposure to what has recently been learned about the process of writing can have significant value-added impact on the performance and productivity of people in business. This process is what might be called the three new Rs. For this new generation of increasingly rare, overworked, and indispensable human employees, these Rs are reflection, writing, and revision. All of them are the natural consequence of the relatively simple emphasis on the writing process.

This process, it must be emphasized, has been extensively road-tested under the most rigorous and demanding conditions. We are writing teachers who teach writing to middle managers pursuing bachelor degrees. Between us, we also have taught writing in prisons, nursing homes, high schools, public and private colleges—and with all sorts of consumers, from troubled to gifted adolescents to adults in community colleges and driven middle managers. The results make it clear that the writing process can be made accessible to anyone and should no longer be seen as a merely “academic” skill. It is time that writing skills, which are thinking skills (as well as being skills, if you do it right), become democratized, and that the enhanced capacities we know they have given other individuals be extended to individuals in business, too.

The writing process calls for people to see writing as thinking. This takes some retraining, especially for people geared to efficiency and results. We no longer advocate that people think about what they want to say and then write it down, rather we encourage people to do all their thinking on paper, from brainstorming to writing a draft and then revising. So by reflecting—on paper—people are encouraged to write freely and brainstorm what they know about a topic without being worried, too early, about the mechanics of writing. By learning to reflect without worrying about grammar, punctuation, and spelling, people think more freely and creatively—and, as a consequence, come up with the raw material for ideas of all kinds. Adults bring rich work and life experience to any job. It is rare for them not to have some useful knowledge of a topic. Reflecting by writing helps them discover the depth and breadth of their thinking on a subject, as well as identify what aspect of a topic they need to know more about.

So the first step in the writing process is to reflect through free writing. First developed by Peter Elbow (1973) and explained in his book Writing Without Teachers, it involves putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard without knowing up front what you think or want to say about the subject. It is an important brainstorming technique because it separates the “inventor” part of ourselves from the “critic.” Believe it or not, free writing is writing. The raw material—thought (here spelled with an R, for reflection), and language (here spoken with an R for writing)—is made flesh.

The only rule of free writing is that for a limited time (say ten minutes) a person must begin to write and not stop. Complete thoughts, correct punctuation, grammar, and spelling are of no concern. The writer simply records whatever comes to mind about the subject—and if the writer goes blank, simply writes about that—until the next thought comes. By quickly recording whatever comes to mind, writers discover what they may not have known they already know about the topic. Free writing provides the opportunity to think broadly, explore an idea or feelings about the subject, take uncensored risks. This kind of brainstorming inevitably brings up insights. It also eases the terror of the blank page. For most people, once they start writing the tension is broken and they are able to think clearly, and ideas begin to flow.

Some people have great difficulty free writing because the urge is so strong to “correct” as they go. This means that their internal critic is overly developed. Down the road, when the writer needs to complete a final revision, the critic is very much needed to make sure that thoughts are complete, and to check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. But if the critic is involved in the beginning of the process then the person’s creativity will be stifled.

One of our management students who works for the security department of her company told us that learning to free write liberated her. On her job she frequently writes reports that not only have to be clear, but carefully accurate as well, which caused her so much anxiety she often felt overwhelmed and blocked when it came to writing the reports. Free writing helps her get down what she knows about a case and from there she can arrange the information in a logical order and expand on certain points.

And free writing is not the only brainstorming technique to use. Some people work well by creating lists of ideas and details, others use mapping—starting with an idea in the center of the paper and drawing lines from it of other ideas and details until they have a literal web of raw material. Even doodling can be a place to begin for a visual person.

Another benefit of improving managers’ writing competencies and writing processes, especially brainstorming, is that it generates ideas and provides a way to develop those ideas. Writing is a mysterious process that calls not only on our consciousness, but on our subconscious as well. Or as the novelist E. M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Even if the end product is not going to be a report, or a letter, or a memo, but perhaps an oral presentation, the writing process—because it is a thinking process—helps people better develop ideas. Our management students report that by learning how to generate ideas they have become not only more confident, but they are more likely to take risks in terms of expressing ideas, because they have a way to think them through.

In brainstorming every thought is recorded, no matter how ridiculous or far flung it seems. We suspect that using the writing process may lead to better collaborative work between employees because workers learn to generate, value, and consider many ideas, and then they become more skilled at developing their own and others’ ideas, leading to collaborative, creative learning and problem solving. This is a particular benefit in a team-approach environment.

Just about any piece of writing, no matter its purpose, contains ideas and details. In business writing, where time is money, reports and memos need to be short. All the more reason they be clearly, concisely, and logically written, with the ideas well supported. Most of the writing we do is persuasive in nature: we want our audience to understand and agree with our point of view. It is essential that ideas are supported with specific information: facts, statistics, examples, anecdotes—for the devil is in the details. It is the details which we can relate to, that give the ideas meaning, that convince us that the ideas are good ones.

After conjuring up ideas and details through free writing, what remains is the fun part: re-seeing what has been done (here spelled with an R, for revision). And revision is not just recopying, or even adding business jargon to decorate the prose. Revision is that special human capacity for improvement—for reinvention and reincarnation—the way we make the concepts we are trying to communicate come into sharp focus and organize them so the audience can follow and understand us. Revision starts after the first free writing and is a way for us to reorganize our arguments to make more sense.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to start using the writing process and it takes only a little bit of training and encouragement, at low cost, to learn the writing process and realize the benefits. In business, which is bottom-line driven, the ability to access a thinking process and to become proficient at clearly articulating ideas is a great advantage, especially now as we live and work—and communicate—in a global community, in a global marketplace.

For further reference see:

Bauman, M. Garrett. (1998). Ideas and details: A guide to college writing, 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Publishers.

Elbow, Peter. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Murray, Donald M. (1983). Writing for your readers. Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press.

Murray, Donald M. (1987). Write to learn, 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston Inc.

Zinsser, William. (1996). On writing well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Dr. Handley is mentor with the Empire State College’s FORUM management development program, a published poet and fiction writer, and one of the creators of Empire State College’s Writer’s Complex on the World Wide Web. She has extensive experience teaching literature, writing, and women’s studies. She holds a Doctor of Arts degree from the State University of New York, University at Albany, a Master of Letters from Middlebury College, a Masters of Education from Lesley College, and a Masters of Arts and Bachelor of Arts degrees from the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Robert Miner is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, and a long-time teacher of writing. He teaches writing at the Empire State College FORUM program, as well as other area writing programs and universities. He has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Esquire, Redbook, Outside, People, Self, Glamour, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Village Voice. He has also published two novels.

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SUNY Empire State College