What do students REALLY need to know about professional writing?

So, we hear all of this gab about professional writing and how it is something that’s really important…right? But let’s be honest, as students we don’t have much experience with it in the real world. Because of this disconnect, I decided to interview Sarah Steenrod, from the Office of Career Management at The Ohio State University, in order to get the real scoop on being a successful writer in the workplace. What follows are some of the highlights of my conversation with Sarah. As a career management professional, Sarah sees dozens of resumes, cover letters, and other professional writing documents every day, so she really knows what she’s talking about!

Highlight 1: The thank you note

What’s on your list of the most important documents for a student entering the work force to master? Resumes? Yep, that’s one of them. Cover letters? Yep, that’s another one.

But have you ever thought of perfecting the art of a thank you note? No? Not a surprise. Most students understand the importance of resumes and cover letters, but many don’t realize the importance of a thank you note following an interview or a networking situation.

When you write a thank you note, avoid generalizations and be specific. Make sure you address it to the right person and company. According to Sarah, the best thing you can do is include something from your conversation with the person to whom you are writing. That way he or she really remembers who you are and makes a connection. That’s what you want!

Highlight 2: Don’t be sloppy

I asked Sarah about the writing error that she despises the most, and she said “anything that makes your document look like you haven’t put any work into it.” She specifically mentioned some of the most common errors – “their” vs. “there,” spelling errors, and overly casual language in inappropriate contexts – but her overall message was that little mistakes here and there give your reader impression that you are uninterested and sloppy.

Highlight 3: The value of professional e-mail

The aspect of professional writing that Sarah said she has learned about the most after being exposed to the “real world” is the ability to communicate using e-mail. She cautions against “reading too much into e-mails.” Some people are busy and don’t put as much time into the content of their e-mails. This isn’t meant to be rude or mean. It’s just what happens when someone sends an absent-minded e-mail because he or she is busy.

Sarah’s Tips for E-mail:

  • Take the time to read what you write before you send your e-mail. Although e-mail is quick and easy, e-mails should have the same thought put into them as a printed letter.
  • Remember to include things like “please” and “thank you” even though an e-mail may have a casual tone.
  • Always, always, ALWAYS make sure you send an e-mail to the right person! This can be one of the most embarrassing errors that you can make. Laura from the next cubicle over might think it’s hilarious that you dropped your phone in a pitcher of beer at “mug night,” but that story may not have the same effect on your boss when you hit “reply all.” So…just be careful.

Highlight 4: Good readers make good writers

In regards to improving your writing skills, Sarah’s advice is to READ! Reading really improves your writing abilities and opens your mind to different writing styles. Take classes on writing. Take advantage of your university’s writing center. Talk to an advisor. Put thought into your pieces. Have two or three people read your document before you turn it in. And finally, don’t forget to have fun with it!


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