Don’t let poor writing hold you back – how to get help

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To get ahead in most workplaces, secondary and technical colleges, and universities, you need to communicate well. This includes writing effectively.

Sometimes, even tiny mistakes can have big negative effects. I once had a boss who would (literally) toss job applications into the shredder if she spotted a grammatical error or typo in the cover letter.

Although there are lots of books and courses around on advanced writing skills for academic and business writing, there’s not as much out there for adults who struggle with one or more of the fundamentals.

Effective writing

Higher educators and employers expect high school graduates to be able to write for different readers and purposes, including to:

  • inform;
  • persuade;
  • explain; and
  • tell stories.

They also expect young adults to have a strong grasp of the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation and capitalisation, as well as to have acquired the vocabulary relevant to their jobs. (See, for example, the Writing and Language Standards of the Common Core State Standards for Grades 11 and 12.) For many courses and jobs, young adults also need to demonstrate critical thinking skills in writing to:

  • analyse;
  • summarise;
  • interpret;
  • synthesise;
  • critique; and
  • respond to,

oral and written language.

In higher education settings and in many workplaces, young adults need to write at a professional standard. Depending on the course or job, this might include texts and emails, social media posts and blogs, academic essays and research summaries, memos and reports, reviews, case studies, applications, proposals, presentations and speeches, and formal reports.

Barriers to good writing

If you’ve had – or still have – a language or learning disorder you are more likely than others to:

  • struggle with writing (Katz et al., 2008);
  • have writing problems that outlast reading and other learning problems (Alley & Deshler, 1979); and
  • have problems with writing that persist well into adulthood (Mortensen et al., 2009).

Compared to typically-developing colleagues and peers, adults with a history of language or learning disorders have more problems with understanding and using the:

  • “big picture” (or “macrostructure”) elements of good writing, such as the generation of ideas, organisation, theme development, the conventions of different kinds of writing, and overall quality (Dockrell et al., 2009; Harrison & Beres, 2007; Hall-Mills & Appel, 2012; and Gregg et al., 2002); and
  • nuts and bolts (or “microstructure”) of good writing: including length, number of different words used, grammatical complexity, correct grammar, spelling and punctuation (Gregg et al., 2002, Smith-Lock et al., 2009, Suddath et al., 2012, Harrison & Beres, 2007).

Many young adults without a history of language or learning disorders also struggle with one or more of these components of good writing.

How I assess writing problems (and strengths)

When an adult comes into my clinic for a writing assessment, I will:

  • screen their oral language skills to assess whether they might have a general language disorder;
  • assess their writing with a formal standardised assessment;
  • collect writing samples from school, university or work;
  • have them provide me with a persuasive writing sample related to their study or work (mainly because persuasive writing tasks are common in higher education and many workplaces, e.g. Wolfe, 2011);
  • give them a timed writing task (to mimic writing to a deadline); and
  • interview the client about their writing strengths, weaknesses, strategies, professional needs, and goals.

Treatment of writing disorders/problems

Writing treatments for adults need to be tailored. Based on a framework developed by Berninger & Winn (2006), I seek to:

  • identify a client’s strengths and weaknesses across the writing samples;
  • identify evidence-based strategies to help remediate, mitigate or compensate for their error patterns or deficits; and
  • use “real life” tasks to train the client to use strategies.

I collaborate with my clients to prioritise goals, taking into account:

  • the client’s immediate priorities (especially for urgent tasks with pending deadlines);
  • the client’s work and life goals;
  • how much impact each weakness has on the client’s writing quality;
  • the severity of each weakness;
  • the amount of time it will take to make progress on different areas of weakness;
  • the writing tasks most essential to the client’s future success; and
  • elements of writing with no easy technology or other “workarounds” (e.g. knowledge of text types and conventions).

Examples of therapy tasks

Some clients benefit from revising the steps of the writing process (e.g. Vaughn et al., 2000), including:

  • pre-writing/idea generation/planning;
  • structuring/outlining;
  • drafting; and
  • editing/revising.

Other clients benefit from being taught the conventions of writing formats directly relevant to education settings or workplaces. For example:

  • for a university student, we might review the conventions of compare/contrast exposition assignments; or
  • for a young professional, we might work on persuasive writing conventions for pitches or proposals.

For clients struggling with their spelling or grammar, we might work on proofreading and editing skills. I might also explicitly teach or revise spellings of various common prefixes, roots and suffixes. For distracting punctuation errors, we might review capitalisation or comma rules/conventions. For common spelling errors, we might review high frequency homonyms, e.g. “their”/”they’re”/”there”, and spelling rules. For clients who struggle to convey complex thoughts, we might work on sentence formulation tasks using a range of subordinating conjunctions and strategies to generate elaborated noun and verb phrases.

Some clients with material writing problems may benefit from special supports or accommodations, e.g.:

  • diaries and organisers;
  • time management tools;
  • memory strategies (e.g. peg or link systems);
  • speech-to-text programs (there are a number of good apps);
  • scribes and note takers (e.g. for exams);
  • editing support (e.g. for professional presentations);
  • audio/video recording;
  • transcription services (e.g. for note-taking); and
  • spelling and grammar checkers.

Other clients, e.g. with language disorders, may benefit from having education or work tasks simplified or translated into Plain English, with or without the support of visuals.

Almost all adult clients benefit from talking about their own perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses to build their awareness of their abilities and self-monitoring skills. Sometimes, to support a client in this may, we can help to adapt or use an evidence-based framework.

Examples of evidence-based writing strategy frameworks

(a) Self-regulated strategy development model (Feretti et al., 2007)

This has six stages to develop writing strategies:

  • developing and activating background knowledge required to understand and use a strategy;
  • discussing the strategy;
  • modelling how the strategy works, with positive self-statements while writing;
  • memorising the new strategy;
  • practising the strategy with support; and
  • using the strategy independently.

(b) Strategic Content Learning (Butler et al., 2000)

This framework requires the speech pathologist/teacher to work collaboratively with the client to improve the client’s writing quality using “real world” writing tasks that matter to the client. It helps tackle writing weaknesses using common sense steps:

  • Identity the problem.
  • Discuss strategies to help overcome the problem.
  • Implement the strategies.
  • Modify the strategies for improved results.

I like this framework because it’s simple and gives the client control over what’s targeted, recognising that severity, impact and client preference are not always the same thing.

Clinical bottom line

Many young adults struggle with their writing. Poor quality writing can get in the way of education, work and life goals – especially in the age of emails, texts, digital products and services, and social media.

Tailored writing assessments can help identify language issues, patterns of strength and weakness, and potential goals to improve writing quality. Speech pathologists and clients with writing needs can then work together to prioritise the goals on the basis of severity, impact, and importance to the client.

Related articles:

Principal source: Richards, S. (2015). Characteristics, Assessment and Treatment of Writing Difficulties in College Students With Language Disorders and/or Learning Disabilities, Topics in Language Disorders, 35(4), 329-344.

Resources and further reading: Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project (2011). Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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