Why the ability to write well is the most underrated skill

Artificial intelligence will not spell the end of writing skills; rather, the career advantage for the gifted writer only increases, writes UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel

Not a day goes by that I don’t get annoyed by a badly written text. That can be a cumbersome email where I have no idea what exactly the sender wants. Sometimes it is a delicate message from a manager that turns out to be bland management-speak when it should have been empathetic. I read pitches from entrepreneurs where essential information is missing. I give up on blogs that fan out without a point in sight. And I struggle with my own columns, which just won’t say what I had in mind.

Writing is the most underrated skill in your career. Writing well professionally is infinitely more difficult than what you learn in school. But if you master the art, writing gives you a unique competitive advantage. A well-written text opens doors for investors, keeps your employees on board during a crisis, or convinces a customer to do business with you. A simple text can make your career. Or can it can mean the end of it.

The problem is that we seem to write worse and worse. Emails, tweets or chat messages seem stripped of basic writing logic. It doesn’t have to be like this. In a digital world where TikTok and podcasts rule, the written word seems to have become obsolete. Nothing is less true. Text is everywhere. When online, you send messages that are often intended for ten, hundreds or thousands of readers. Counterintuitively, good writing is even more important in a digital world than in the analogue world. The reach of your digital message is greater, while the chance that you personally know someone beforehand is smaller.

Read more: Why learning ability is the skill that trumps all other skills

This creates an infinite range of potential misunderstandings and ambiguities. In writing, you can only hope that the brain of that unknown reader similarly receives the idea in your brain. But all research suggests that’s not the case. People are bad at deducing intentions and emotions from written text.

But you can learn to write. I beg you, teachers, practice and drill those writing skills. Teach your students how to write a carefully constructed text that contains not a word too much. Teach students about logic and structure, the correct register and the appropriate word rhythm.

While teaching in London, I noticed a huge difference between British and foreign students. It wasn’t about the difference in English vocabulary, it was about writing skills. British students were trained in writing short essays from an early age, which helped them in their later careers. The ability to present arguments in a clear and concise manner is invaluable. I had my epiphany after reading Stephen King’s ‘On writing’.

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UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel says that even the most advanced AI could never replace the human ability to express a unique idea. Image: Supplied

Career advantages for gifted writers

Does artificial intelligence make writing skills superfluous? We were collectively blown away last month by the writing capabilities of new AI applications like GPT-3 and ChatGPT. Automatic language models have reached a level where they are virtually indistinguishable from human texts. Our students are already eagerly using it, and they present education with an unsolvable problem and a new strain of plagiarism. How do you recognise a text written by an AI app from a text written by a student? Outside of education, we will soon be inundated with texts written by AI. The impact will be unprecedentedly disruptive. A new world awaits us.

That’s a godsend to the scratchy writer. Helpless writers can now count on an app to finally produce acceptable pieces of text about any topic in the world. But don’t think for a minute that artificial intelligence heralds the end of writing skills. On the contrary, the career advantages for gifted writers will only increase.

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History shows that people are willing to pay a premium for authentic, handcrafted work in a world of mass production. In the world of Apple watches, you still pay millions of euros for a handmade Patek Philippe timepiece. Predictive AI writing will make it clearer what original and authentic human writing is capable of. The ultimate compliment about a written text will be: ‘AI could have never written this piece.’

Frederik Anseel is a Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Academic) at UNSW Business School. His research focuses on the motivational micro-foundations of how people contribute to organisational success. For more information, please contact Prof. Anseel directly. A version of this post was first published in De Tijd.