Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Literary Offenses of the Average Office Paper Pusher

One of my favorite authors is Mark Twain. I suggest not just his classic Huck Finn, the origin of uniquely American prose, but his witty and often angry later writings, and his superb travel books, especially the stuff that his estate suppressed publication of for 50 years after his death. In fact the last thing of his that should be read as a sample is Tom Sawyer, which is of course the work to which most of us are first exposed.

The man hated organized religion, racism, classism, nationalism, war and all popular artistic and intellectual mediocrities. He had a vicious wit and hated hack writing, which brings us to this post, eventually, if you'll allow me to ramble.

I've been laid off from office jobs something like 10 times (twice by the same firm!), have held about 20 contract positions which ended when the work ended and I've been fired a couple of times. I've also quit several jobs for something better as it came along. Thus I've had my head in the want ads in a new job search session, in the newspaper and online, dozens of times, usually for weeks or even months at a time with each employment need. In each session in this employment-finding mode I've probably applied to a hundred or more jobs on average before getting one (in one lucky instance during the dot-com bubble I was out of work one day, but this is atypical). I probably read 5-20 ads before applying to one.

In other words, like most Americans with shaky job security (i.e. most Americans), I've been exposed to a lot of ads. Maybe more than most depending upon how stable your employment has been. There's no way that I've read less than 10,000 want ads, and likely 50,000 or more, which is a painful way to live. Reading shampoo bottles is far more fulfilling.

Most people can't write to save their lives, but there's something especially pathetic about want ads. All anyone is looking for in these things is a clear job description which lets one make a quick determination of "I can do this job and would like to so I will apply" or "I can't do/don't want to do this job"... that's it. I don't want the Great American Novel, but the minimal amount of clarity that comes with a minimal amount of writing competence seems little enough to ask.

And the very last thing that most want ads give you is a simple description of the damn job. If you're lucky enough to get a clear job title, the descriptions are usually some combination of so broad and vague as to be useless, and somehow simultaneously too cryptically specific to the internal culture and vocabulary of the organization to be useful to anyone who doesn't already work there.

Examples of the former? They usually waste everyone's time by saying that you should be "able to work independently" (which I take to mean most broadly that you don't need your bedpan changed) while also always a "team player" who "works well with others" (not a hermit..? I thought you might want to hire a hermit...). There is usually something about having the sort of basic spelling, grammar, writing and computing skills that I wouldn't expect anyone to get out of high school without, which becomes additionally ridiculous when they note that they'd also prefer someone with an advanced degree (although what subject the degree might be in would give us a clue to what the job is about, so this part is often left out). I think we all assume that people looking in the want ads for any form of office work are basically competent to do general office tasks, and those people who aren't are the last people in any position to self-assess that they shouldn't apply.

You are getting a resume and cover letter, right? So you'll be able to see who can type full sentences and use a printer anyway, right..? Who is being discouraged from applying by stating in the ad that office skills are needed in an office?

Often we also need a "can-do attitude" or some similar such bullshit, often restated multiple times with multiple cliches torn from motivational posters, which some people in Human Resources (a department title which conjures up Soylent Green) evidently think scares off very negative people with low self-esteem, who were on the verge of applying to the job by the thousand until hitting that very phrase, and were suddenly discouraged from applying. "Whew, that was close!"

Thus far we've read a full paragraph of BS and are no closer to knowing what the job is than we were before we read anything. Thus the grains of sand run out on my life, time never to be reclaimed.

On the other hand the very same ads will, more often than not, contain extremely specific information about the workplace which is only useful to the people who already have jobs there. A common example is the job title itself, which might be "Special Projects Assitant to Oversight Director III", with the "III" indicating pecking order and pay grade. These ads won't usually indicate whether "II" or "IV" would be the next level up or down the scale, nor how many Roman numerals this scale contains. Usually the ads will note that there is a need to work "under supervision", which I think is pretty damn self-evident, as this is an employer's job ad and not a franchise opportunity, nor an ad for an open god-king position.

Frequently the ads will list a very specific job duty in language that might well only be used in that company or even only in that department but nowhere else on Earth. Using the Office Space example of the mysterious, infamous "TPS reports", an ad might well read "Program Assistant III assists Program Assistant II as necessary in weekly TPS report compilation, monthly TPS report compilation, weekly TPS report assessment, monthly TPS report assessment, weekly TPS report meetings and monthly TPS meetings as per XYZ recommendations." I am not exaggerating. You can read the darn thing twelve times and it makes no more sense than the first, and it will always be phrased in the least efficient manner, like a third grader padding out a 250 word essay that had a first draft of 180 words.

You do get one clear picture of this office - the people who wrote and approved this enormity have been swimming in this TPS report crap stream for such a long time that they are now oblivious to an outside world in which TPS reports aren't as ubiquitous as oxygen.

What befuddles me is that despite great detail in the cliches about your attitude and the TPS report detail almost none of these ads will ever tell you the big picture of what the damn place actually does to earn money, which would be hugely useful in helping them find competent employees and would help me see if I want to apply, as well as help me write a cover letter to show the employer that I might know something about their business if indeed I do. Do you bake cakes or are you a law firm? Are you venture capitalists or are you a non-profit? You want a writer, great - what will this person write about? What sort of data is in your database that I'd be compiling? How is that unimportant? Does anyone who works there give a flying crap what they do..? It's all just abstract widgets? This total lack of interest on the employer's part in what the goal of the place is doesn't make me enthused to work there, yet the ad might well state, at so many dollars per word in the paper, that "enthusiasm" for these unstated goals is required.

Usually the non-profits will tell you so, which seems only to be to lower your salary expectations. A hiring Development Department will always tell you that they are in a non-profit, although almost all such departments by definition will be in one. It's almost as if they taunt us, knowing that everyone else is moot on the subject. The non-profit will often ask you to be "passionate" about their cause, despite the fact that they often don't tell you what that is. You might be applying for example to a pro-choice or anti-abortion office, and we're not telling. But please be "passionate" about it either way, OK? (The eel-like slippery nature of the established non-profit world makes for another day's rant topic.)

A few months ago I was applying to a job listed under Writing/Editing positions. Part of the ad I don't list below suggested submitting a sample of an editing job along with a resume. I didn't have anything offhand of that sort I'd done in other jobs, so I decided to take a crack at the most recent terrible piece of writing I saw, which in this case was the ad for this job itself.

The gobsmacking part of that is that this place appears, as best as I can make out through the murky prose, to be a firm which writes and edits as its main mission! And oh the irony, the ad itself is a confusing turd seemingly written by a committee of chimps-with-typewriters borrowed from the Randomly Reproducing Hamlet Project.

I started hacking away at this exercise from the assumption that the firm would get the standard 800 responses for this poxy little job in a shitty job market, so I could make myself stand out by showing them at once how I could improve their writing arsenal and how badly this was necessary. Quickly I realized that any accurate assessment of how well they do their only function would just piss anyone off who works there, beginning with the person (people?) slow-witted enough to produce this ad, likely the recipient(s) of my email.

This is part of the problem in getting an office job; you usually have to convince some HR flunky who doesn't understand half of your resume that you're worthy before they even pass the resume under the nose of your potential boss. If key words and phrases that the flunky has been trained to match on don't match precisely, you're screwed.

Being a Twain fan (finally we get back to that!), I realized that I was essentially doing an homage to his Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences. There was no way in hell I was getting this job, and it sounded like a nightmare if I did get it. So I completed this in record time in inspired fashion as a lark and a comedy bit, only darkly comedic in that it's just true. With apologies to Twain, I present the following, seeing as this appears to be the writing outlet I use, and because you're likely on the blog just looking to kill time at a mind-killing job of your own. Note that I substituted the name of the firm with XYZ, but in all other aspects the ad is verbatim.


By way of a writing sample, and an editing sample, in the spirit of Mark Twain I give you…

Xyz Ventures, Inc.’s Literary Crimes

If I were looking to hire a firm to do some editing or writing and this were the first thing I saw out of you, you would not be getting a call from me. Effective writing assumes that words have fixed meaning and that they should serve some function or disappear. The meaning of this paragraph’s language has not been thought over much, and its presentation is sloppy. I count 24 problems of note in one paragraph, “a new record” as Twain would say. Let us consider it as the FAA does a crash site:

Xyz Ventures, Inc. (Xyz), on of Philadelphia’s leading consulting firms specializing in non-profits, currently has a Project Assistant position available. Project Assistants work closely with Xyz’s experienced professionals and learn the basics of how nonprofit organizations work, public and private sector fundraising, program design, strategic planning, housing development and fundraising for nonprofits, including research and strategy development; preparing editing and submitting grant proposals; & conducting best practices research and interviews related to nonprofit planning studies. Successful candidates for this entry-level position possess: excellent writing, editing & organizational skills strong analytical & communication skills; precise attention to detail & ability to multi-task; facility with Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint & web research; & a bachelor’s degree in English, Urban Studies, Journalism/Communications, or another relevant field. Applications are NOW being accepted ON-LINE (only) at Direct any questions to


That is a stunner.

1) The title “Program Overview” manages at once to contain redundancy and no accurate meaning. This is a job description, not a program description. Use of the word “Overview” becomes redundant with an accurate title, and by the use of the visual cues bolding, color and underlining. What’s wrong with “Project Assistant”?

2) Outside of a contract, we can dispense with referencing to the reader that “(Xyz)” will refer to Xyz Ventures, Inc. What would the possible complicating factor be that we’re avoiding?

3) “on” should be “one.” Getting a three-letter word wrong one clause into a paragraph concerning an editing firm is not encouraging.

4) “on[e] of Philadelphia’s leading consulting firms specializing in non-profits,…” Damning with feint praise! How many consulting firms specializing in non-profits are there in this city, and how many are better? Why not “Philadelphia’s eighth-best consulting firm, provided we restrict ourselves to those specializing in non-profits…” “Leading” in this sense is a subjective statement, and best not trifled with unless you use the superlative. “Philadelphia’s leading non-profit consulting firm”… note the word inversion, saving time and space.

5) “currently has a Project Assistant position available” Currently? One would hope. Redact. The entire clause is useless if I’ve read this far and if we title correctly as per #1; all you need here is “Xyz Ventures, Inc. is Philadelphia’s leading non-profit consulting firm.”

6) “Project Assistants work closely with Xyz’s experienced professionals…” Aside from the word “closely” being unnecessary for a position with Assistant in the title, the implication is that the PA is not an experienced professional. Perhaps this is intentional if you intend to draw those resumes/lower expectations, in which case I would simply say “entry-level” somewhere near the beginning of the paragraph, as this is less insulting.

7) “and learn the basics of how nonprofit organizations work” I should hope they learn more than the basics, and in fact that they would come in with some vague idea of how non-profits work. “the basics of” should go.

8) Are we going with “non-profits” or “nonprofits”? Pick one. These are your only clients and they hire you to edit, you should have this settled by now, at the very least within one paragraph.

9) “public and private sector fundraising” Do we also “specialize” in males and females? This is “fundraising.”

9.5) “strategic planning” is unfortunately a widely accepted redundancy which has come to have its own meaning, and for that reason only is hesitantly retained. One wonders what the alternative is.

10) “housing development and fundraising for nonprofits” is at best redundant (how much fundraising do you do for for-profits?) and at worst a bit confusing. Is this obtaining space for the non-profits or assisting housing-oriented non-profits who aid the unhoused?

11) “including research and strategy development” Redundant at minimum in this sequence, in addition to unclear in terms of how many preceding items to which it refers. Redact.

12) “preparing editing and submitting grant proposals” needs a comma, and I’m not sure that ‘submitting’ needs to be included at all.

13) Here we begin to abandon “and” and adopt the ampersand, without reason.

14) Anything “related to” is fuzzy. Do you conduct planning studies or vet the people who do? Either way you should say so. Also, “nonprofit” is redundant.

15) “Successful candidates” Should this be singular?

16) “entry-level position” If we follow the suggestion in #6 this becomes redundant, although it’s still unclear to me why the assumption in this job market would be that this is or should be entry-level.

17) “possess:…” You want commas in this list following the colon as opposed to semi-colons, and some of those are missing in any event.

18) “excellent writing, editing & organizational skills” I should think this is assumed. What would be helpful here are more specific categories of each.

19) “precise attention to detail” As opposed to..? This might be a triple redundancy, impressive for four words.

20) “ability to multi-task” People who say this almost never mean it. What is usually meant is the ability to plan out a daily schedule and/or be capable of doing a lot of different tasks in that day. Multi-tasking would be on the order of writing in Greek with your left hand and in Latin with your right simultaneously.

21) “web research” needs more explanation. I suspect what would be more useful here would be to share what types of data is collected as opposed to how they are usually collected, as a practical matter the former being much harder to train for than the latter.

22) “a bachelor’s degree in English, Urban Studies, Journalism/Communications, or another relevant field” Surely English and Urban Studies grads are miles apart! I should think it’d be considerably easier to find a social sciences person who can write than a literature enthusiast who knows the social sciences, but this is my bias showing. The editorial criticism is that the job search itself now comes off as unfocused.

23) “Applications are NOW being accepted” I should hope NOW, otherwise what’s the POINT? Capitalization only makes it worse. You could capitalize any word expect “being” in that sentence and it would be equally useless, but only “BEING” would seem ungrammatical on top of that. I hear this exercise in Jerry Seinfeld’s voice. This also manages to be re-redundant given #5.

24) “ON-LINE (only) at” I gave up trying to figure out if this were doubly or triply redundant when the headache started.

Direct any questions to” was perfect, credit where credit is due.

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