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The Dean with the Write Stuff

by Ben Rath

Professor Don Ross, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce at UCT, gives sound advice to university students and graduates in an exclusive interview.

In a recent UCT Newsroom publication, Professor Don Ross, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce at the University of Cape Town, commented on the importance of writing as a vital communication skill. He firmly believes that every first-year should take it upon themselves to develop their writing, because it is the “biggest difference-maker” when it comes to performing in the working world.

“Anybody in any professional capacity needs to be able to write well.”

In the professor’s opinion, university students are ill informed as to the importance of quality writing. Students are often quick to assume that the only professions in which such writing matters are those in which writing is the focal point, such as journalism. The skill of writing is consequently neglected by students who aren’t involved in majors which require a considerable volume of writing.

But what is defined as ‘quality writing’? Prof Ross narrows it down to three key factors: clarityconciseness and relevance.

In an office environment, being able to communicate properly and professionally is crucial. Often, hindrances within an office environment are a result of poor written communication between individuals. This has a negative effect on an organisation, giving rise to unfavourable consequences throughout the workplace.

“If an employee is incapable of good written expression, inevitably that pushes work onto other people, slowing office efficiency.”

The professor, who is also a Program Director at Georgia State University and obtained his Ph.D in Philosophy of Science at the University of Western Ontario in 1990, suggests poor writing is detrimental to an individual’s prospects for promotion in the working world. He insists that few organisation, regardless of the nature of their operations, will want an individual who is a poor writer to be communicating with external parties. He says organisations make concerted efforts to avoid hiring individuals with inadequate writing capabilities.

Read high-quality prose

The professor, whose academic pursuits include research in applied game theory, foundations of microeconomics, experimental economics, philosophy of science; and African trade and industry policy, argues that if students make a habit of reading content which is well written and well structured, they will absorb the techniques of well-instructed writing. Prof Ross recommends that students read publications such as The Economist, The Guardian or The Financial Times, which are publications that he believes, are well written in a business context.

“Don’t spend all your time on the internet; Facebook is not the place to learn to write well.”

Have your writing checked

Getting a third party to check your work and help to improve the delivery of the information you are trying to portray will inevitably help your writing; however, this is only true if you actually take time to understand what changes were made and why. Prof Ross emphasises that reflection is incredibly important in being able to permanently improve one’s writing skills.

 “Don’t just outsource the job; don’t just send it to somebody else, have them correct it and then send it off without studying the changes they made.”

Learn to care about being precise

Look back at each sentence once or twice after having written it; determine whether you have expressed exactly what you meant to say as precisely as you can. The professor urges students to, for every sentence, stay with the sentence until they are happy with what it conveys.

“It does make the act of writing slower; however, it will pay well back in the long run, because you will get to do things once and not twice, and you won’t be wasting you colleagues’ time in editing your work.”

In closing, he recommends, to parents of primary and high school students, that they initiate extra-curricular writing activities. He believes that the secondary education system, in general, inadequately caters for the development of writing skills for students. He encourages that parents set out writing activities for their children, take time to sit down with them, and work them through the corrections in their work.

“If you show me a first-year student who already knows how to write, you’re showing me a student that is going to get solid A’s up and down the line.”

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