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Posted by on Jul 23, 2017

The Kids Can’t Write? They Write All Day…

Infographics are often quite silly. They try to boil down complex issues into simplistic graphics, with stick figures and stylized pie charts. The good ones, though, unveil some central truth and help us see things more clearly – at least to get us asking deeper questions. Good infographics focus our attention.

In the quick graphic below I set out to dramatize the giant gulf between writing instruction and the actual writing that goes on in the knowledge economy. Few writing or English instructors understand that tens of thousands of “no-collar” workers spend their days writing. Today’s workplace is more writing-focused than at any time over the last 40 years.

Writing is how software gets built. You know software – the industry that Marc Andreessen called out as “eating the world” back in 2011.

Knowledge workers write more in a day than college students do in an entire term.

Which creates a huge opportunity: tying agile software development to traditional K12 and Higher Education English curricula. It’s why 11trees is working hard on the Treeline Curriculum and professional development series: to bring the world of software development to high schools and colleges – to help bridge a gap that is hardly a gap once you start thinking about it. Agile software development is the best thing to happen to writing instruction since…spellcheck? The pen? Word processing? Dot matrix printers?

So we took a crack at describing, simply and visually, what we’ve known for a few years now: there is a huge gap between traditional schooling and workplace writing intensity and volume. It’s a gap writing teachers should be celebrating, because they are best positioned to close it.

Words per Month:

  • College students will write a paper or two per term, maybe 1,500 words each. They’ll typically write papers in one class per term, maybe two. And they’ll have discussion posts to write and respond to…6,000 words of required writing, in any given month, is a generous average.
  • Knowledge workers write user stories, emails, website copy, presentations, emails, requirements, release notes, Slack messages, documentation, blog posts, and analysis documents (see Jeff Bezos’ crazy-awesome writing regimen at Amazon for some context). It’s easily 3,000 words a day for many of us. I know because I keylogged myself to find out.

Authentic Audiences:

  • Students rarely have an authentic audience for their work. They’re writing for “the teacher” and everyone knows it. Sure, Project Based Learning and Capstone project chip away at this fact, but since middle school students have been writing for an abstraction. An abstraction who, quite often, doesn’t want to read what students have written.
  • Knowledge workers have intense peer review environments, where the written word is thrown up on screens and debated, daily. There are other software developers, product leaders, UX experts, stakeholders (read: executives), and – oh yes – customers. It don’t get much more authentic than that.

Platforms Used:

  • Students use a word processor and maybe a Learning Management System. Perhaps less is more, here, especially with younger students. But knowledge workers switch between 5 to 10 platforms daily. We’ll dig into what these different platforms, with names like Jira and Slack and Salesforce and ZenDesk and InVision and Atom and Trello and Asana etc. etc. are for in a separate post. The cognitive load is high, the writing genres multifaceted.

Literary Terms Used:

  • For anybody who loves writing and novels and words: the language of software development is the language of literature and narrative:
    • Brilliant software engineers spend big chunks of time, every week, talking through user stories with their team in backlog grooming sessions.
    • C-suite product leaders map out (and finance) the epics and themes that will inform the next 6 to 9 months of effort.
    • User Experience experts craft user personas and work with engineers and product folks to define user journeys. You know, like the Hero’s Journey…just through Facebook Pages or Snapchat Face Swap or the Vanguard Personal Investor site instead of what happens after the fall of Troy.

Beer:

  • Just so we don’t take ourselves too seriously…there’s probably an equal amount of beer drinking going on in college and the no-collar workplace. The ferocity of college-age drinking is perhaps muted once the late 20s or 30s come around…but beer is often free in the knowledge economy. So probably the two balance out, at least in the centers of knowledge work like NYC, Pittsburgh, Austin, SF, Seattle, London, Berlin etc. It’s another thing knowledge workers have in common with professional writers: for better or worse, an appreciation for fermented wheat.