Almost 60 years after Rudolph Flesch wrote a best-selling book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It,” CNBC recently posted a story with this headline: “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad.”
In more than one survey, according to CNBC, employers expressed displeasure over job candidates’ inability to speak and write clearly.
Flesch’s book in 1955 advocated the use of phonics, which had given way to the look-say method to teach reading. The book sent shock waves through the country.
Before writing “Johnny,” Flesch had written books on how to communicate clearly and effectively. “The Art of Plain Talk” in 1946 had received acclaim.
Flesch was not alone. In 1944, Robert Gunning had established a business that provided something called “readability counseling.” Gunning worked with hundreds of writers, and in 1952 he copyrighted “The Technique of Clear Writing.” The opening chapter is titled “The Fight Against Fog.”
CNBC’s story hit home with me.
During my years as a newspaperman, I saw a serious deficiency in writing — not from reporters, but from the general public. Some letters to the editor were almost impossible to comprehend and were replete with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Business letters were better written, but they, too, often contained major errors. Copy provided by advertisers was frequently in the same vein.
In 1980, the Hoosier State Press Association asked me to conduct a session on writing at its annual newsroom seminar and awards program. I did a 90-minute presentation that I called “Organizing the Chaos.” Since then I have made that presentation to several newspapers and non-newspaper groups.
Here are some pointers from “Organizing the Chaos” that can help you improve your writing.
• You cannot write well if you don’t gather/research essential facts and information. Substance trumps style. Context — background and meaning — is a must.