Poor writing is holding the world back, slowing the velocity of getting big, meaningful things done. Poor writing is often the root cause of misunderstanding between people. Misunderstanding leads to confusion. Confusion leads to delays and disregarding great ideas.
Take Amazon for example. Writing is Amazon’s superpower. Amazon’s six-page memo exists to clearly articulate an argument and set up high-quality discussion.1 Amazon Prime started as writing.2 All of Amazon’s big ideas start as writing, grow with writing, and are executed with writing.
Writing will be the single most important skill as we unlock the world’s potential and collectively build the future. Clear writing is clear thinking. Clear thinking leads to understanding. Understanding leads to collective action.
Unfortunately, most people struggle with writing.
Students. Nearly ¾ of high school students score below proficient on writing.3 About ⅓ of college students take remedial English courses.4 Only 42% of employers rate new college graduates as having adequate written communication skills.5
Professionals. 75% of workplace communication is digital.6 50% of written communications are misinterpreted7, leading to confusion and needless animosity.
Every educator, professional, and person I speak with laments the state of writing skills. However, the situation is much worse than people think. Why?
Writing is A LOT more than grammar.
Most people think writing is synonymous with grammar. However, grammar is just a surface-level issue. Struggles with writing are deeper than they seem because writing is synonymous with thinking.
Writing = Structured Thinking.
Writing is the most effective way for people to develop and communicate their thoughts. Thinking often starts with a jumble of thoughts. An outline and first draft help piece the thoughts together and identify and fill in gaps. Only through multiple drafts, feedback, and revisions can a writer attain a cohesive, clear argument. A final version must present content in a clear, structured way to influence the thinking of others.
We must start thinking of writing as Structured Thinking. As a society, we devote very little time to helping people learn to develop and structure their thoughts. The miscommunication gap is the result, leading to wasted time, communication anxiety, and unintended animosity between people. We struggle to help people learn to develop and structure their thoughts because developing the Structured Thinking writing skill takes significant time and resources.
I’ve spent years thinking about and solving the writing problem. From my time at McKinsey to founding and growing Prompt, there has been a common thread: poor writing is holding people back; poor writing is holding the world back.
Professionals struggle to communicate well. Frontline employees aren’t able to communicate their thoughts to their fellow employees or managers. Managers aren’t able to communicate their thoughts to executives. Executives aren’t able to communicate their thoughts with their employees and customers. The results are potentially ruinous – big and small things are not getting done fast or well. The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry because of a failure to communicate known risks on a PowerPoint slide in a way leadership could understand.8 Nokia lost its competitive edge because its poor communication habits left it unable to turn its good ideas into products.9
Students don’t realize they’re bad at writing. Grade inflation and limited feedback make students believe they’re good. They receive little feedback on their Structured Thinking – i.e., the higher-order aspects of writing (content, structure, and clarity). The problem compounds year over year throughout K-12 and higher ed until students become unprepared job seekers.
Everyone suffers from digital misunderstanding. Many people have anxiety or even a visceral reaction every time they hit send – “what will people think of me?” Writing well is not just about work and education; it is a part of our mental well being.
Never has there been a more important time to improve writing skills – not just grammar, but how to think in a structured way. People who write well will have a powerful advantage. Writing skills are a core requirement of the jobs of the future as jobs requiring less thought are increasingly automated away. Digital communication will become even more pervasive. The way a person structures their thinking through writing will become their DEFINING characteristic.
How do we solve the writing problem?
Solving writing won’t happen overnight; it requires a significant investment in time and resources. Learning to write is an iterative process that takes years of Deliberate Practice (and never truly ends). It requires access to high-quality instructional feedback and the will to act on the feedback.
The good news? Solving writing will lead to a massive payoff. The velocity of getting big things done will greatly increase. Meaningful problems will be solved quicker and better. People will be happier. People will feel valued and understood.
All of this brings me to Prompt. We are the writing coaching, tutoring, and feedback solution for the world. The feedback people need must be focused on Structured Thinking – How can the argument’s reasoning be improved? How can gaps in structure and clarity be filled? The feedback must be provided by an expert that is knowledgeable about the piece’s topic, exceptional at identifying gaps in content and structure, and thoughtful at explaining how to improve in an actionable way. To compound matters, most people are writing things right before they’re due – they need coaching and feedback within hours, not days.
My team and I have a big vision – to make all people better writers. We know the world needs writing to reach its potential. But, we know we need to start somewhere. We started with the root cause of the writing problem – education. As it turns out, the world’s education system is NOT structured to support students on writing. Read on to learn more.
1 Jeff Bezos’s 2017 Shareholder Letter
2 The making of Amazon Prime, the internet’s most successful and devastating membership program. Jason Del Rey, Vox.com.
3 “Nation’s Report Card” by the National Center for Education Statistics
4 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
5 The National Association of Colleges and Employers
6 Workplace of the Future: Progress, but Slowly
7 Emails and Egos. Lena Winerman, American Psychological Association.
8 PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports
9Nokia’s Bad Call on Smartphones. Anton Troianovski and Sven Grundberg, Wall Street Journal.