How firefighters and officers can be better writers

Develop these five habits to greatly improve your business-writing skills


By Mary Sovick

When I'm teaching writing seminars to members of fire and EMS services, I ask the participants what type of writing training they have been relying on when faced with their workplace writing tasks. Many people say they took Comp I and II in community college or college.

However, many of those respondents offer a caveat that sounds like this: "We-e-l-l, I took Comp I and II and I earned Cs in both," which meant, "Confirms I can't write."

When working adults return to college and are faced with writing many papers, they discover that unless they are taking a writing class, very little, if any, writing training is offered in these courses.

Consequently, people who had weak writing skills upon entering college inadvertently go through college reinforcing weak skills rather than using the college years to progressively improve their writing.

Even if writing instruction is not part of a curriculum, students in higher education can take steps to ensure that they leave college feeling more confident and competent in the writing arena.

Based on the quantity of written assignments facing students, the college years can and should provide opportunities for ongoing writing improvement.

Students have a few choices for how to proceed. One choice is to simply continue doing what they've always done. Students who have been uncomfortable with writing and have traditionally struggled with grammar, mechanics and spelling might simply reinforce that discomfort throughout their college years.

I recommend a different option: students should take charge of improving their writing. The years in school provide a unique opportunity to develop and practice new habits that will allow students to complete their written work more efficiently, more effectively and with more confidence.

Most importantly, they will have developed habits that will serve them well in their workplace writing obligations. Here are five habits to develop and reinforce.

1. Use a style guide
Style guides are books of rules. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and Modern Language Association are most commonly required for academic research. However, I recommend using supplementary, user-friendly sources that will answer additional questions about word use, sentence structure, and grammar rules.

"Take Command of Your Writing" by Jill Meryl Levy is an excellent resource written specifically for emergency responders. "The Gregg Reference Manual" is another good source. Both books are geared towards business writing, which will serve users well at work.

Many excellent online style guides are also available. I recommend bookmarking the Purdue Online Writing Lab on your Internet browsers. And for those who want to write for publications like this one, "The Associated Press Stylebook" is the go-to guide.

Use of style guides is important because simply wanting to improve writing isn't enough. That desire must be supported by sources with reliable information to guide writers. Most importantly, writers must develop the habit of using these style guides.

2. Take a business-writing course
Students who have taken business-writing classes, in addition to basic composition courses, seem to be better prepared for the type of writing they will do at work because of business writing's focus on structure. Adult learners want relevance, and business writing provides it.

3. Use the school's writing center
To find a school's writing center, type the name of the school and "writing center" into a search engine. Writing centers provide a wealth of resources to help students both on and off campus.

4. Identify problematic rule areas
Research shows that most writers make the majority of their errors in one to three rule areas. The following example explains what this means.

Don submitted a five-page report for an officer development course. While he earned 20 out of 20 points in the content section, he earned 0 out of 10 points in the grammar, mechanics and spelling section. He made 20 errors throughout the paper.

However, 19 of the 20 errors were apostrophe mistakes. Don was confused about the correct use of apostrophes, and he threw them into his plural words throughout the entire paper. So Don actually made just two mistakes, but he made one of them 19 times.

I contend that Don felt a twinge of uncertainty in his gut when he added the first apostrophe. If he had simply looked at a style guide to learn if he needed it or not, he could have avoided the subsequent 18 errors.

More importantly, he would have taken the first step in writing his plurals correctly, forming a new and correct habit.

People who struggle with grammar should realize that there aren't hundreds of rules they need to know. Instead, there might be a dozen rules that are the sources of their confusion and that apply to their own style of writing.

This is a manageable number. Students who begin to respond to their own twinges of uncertainty by using a style guide will soon know how to write their own sentences with correct grammar and mechanics.

5. Respond to feedback about mistakes.
If an instructor points out errors in grammar, mechanics or spelling, those same errors are likely to be repeated on future assignments unless the writer learns how to fix them.

Most instructors do not (and should not) fix the mistakes, but when a mistake is pointed out, students should focus their time on learning how to fix it. Writers can then practice correct usage on their next assignments.

The time spent getting a college education can be used to ensure that students are better writers upon completion than upon entering. Students who do not receive meaningful feedback about writing issues on their assignments shouldn't be discouraged.

Instead, they should rely on their instincts — their twinges of uncertainty — to prompt them to search for, find and apply the answers to their own questions. As the title of Jill Meryl Levy's book says, "Take command of your writing."

About the author

Retired career firefighter Mary Sovick has provided workplace writing training for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, Fireline Training and Consulting, since 1996. Mary provides expertise on elevating writing standards and skills to individuals, departments and regions. In addition to offering her "Ignite Your Writing" seminars nationwide, she is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and for Colorado State University's Fire and Emergency Services Administration degree program. Mary presents at many state and national conferences. She also works with departments to develop and/or evaluate graded written components in promotional processes. Mary is an associate member of IAFC's professional development committee and was an editor of IAFC's "Officer Development Handbook." You can reach her at msovick@frii.com

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