Lowering the bar

I recently saw a job posting in which the first line under “Responsibilities” went like this:

….deliver [content] that engages audiences, and that is virtually free of spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes

Misspelled road sign: shcool

S-h-cool? Hey, don’t worry. It’s cool.

Got that? The first requirement of the job – the number one expectation — is that my content will contain spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes. Not a lot of them, mind you. But the word virtually ensures that there’ll be a few mistakes.

Look, I know we’re all human and we all make mistakes. But they set the bar way too low when they say that I — or the successful candidate, since I won’t be applying for this job — will be expected to make mistakes.

Even without the word virtually, I’m afraid that “free of spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes” is still a very low bar. There’s nothing about making my content accurate, useful, and relevant to my reader. “Free of mistakes” diminishes who I am as a professional. It trivializes my work as a technical communicator.

I imagine this employer would have little use for the idea that technical communicators contribute bottom-line value to the business. Or for the idea that their customers deserve high-quality information. After all, a few mistakes aren’t going to matter.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? Or am I right to be offended by the attitudes that this job posting implies?

15 thoughts on “Lowering the bar

  1. Mark Baker

    I read it very differently. The number one ask here is “engages audiences”. The fact of the matter is that the intersect between the people who can produce engaging copy and those who can produce totally error free copy is pretty small. So this ad seems to be saying, if I have to pick between engaging and error free, I’ll take engaging, as long as the errors are not too noticable. Which does seem to me to value the writers ability contribute to the bottom line, since customer engagement is the first step to revenue.

    I think this also reflects a modern truth, that immediate and personal are greater virtues than pristine, as long as the result is not outright sloppy.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I hope that your more sanguine interpretation is the right one. And I agree that engagement is preferable to error-free, if you have to pick just one. But if they wanted to emphasize engagement I still wonder why they bothered to mention the “virtually [error] free” aspect at all. And why they didn’t say anything about accurate, useful, or relevant.

  2. Susan Carpenter

    Businesses would never tolerate such a defect level in whatever product or service the content was expected to support. If they understood the extent to which content defects undermine consumer confidence in those products or services, businesses would insist on better content.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I appreciate your comment. I think that, as Mark says, audiences are increasingly willing to accept minor mechanical errors when the information is helpful and engaging. But as a professional I can’t bring myself to say that errors in my own work, even minor ones, are inconsequential.

      1. Mark Baker

        I’m not sure “inconsequential” is quite the word. Errors may still have consequences. I think the point is more that other things have consequences too. Hiring an impeccable grammarian who is a dull writer has consequences. Having writers hold their content for 48 hours so that they regain the ability to see their typos has consequences. Hiring proofreaders has consequences (both in cost and time to market).

        The Web has changed readers expectations. Delay in responding now has worse consequences than it did before. Impersonal responses have worse consequences. Increased product costs from more complex processes have worse consequences than they did in an increasingly price-transparent world.

        The questions is, which consequences are worse? To fixate on any one property as an absolute risks significant consequences in other areas.

        The software world has shown that current and relevant beats bug free. Companies who wait to be bug-free before shipping miss their market window. At the same time, if your software is too buggy, you will lose your users. It is not that a certain level of bugginess is inconsequential, it is that a certain level of bugginess is acceptable for the sake of new and useful functionality. This is not about lowering professional standards, but achieving engineering and marketing balance.

        Content creators have to be the same way. It is not about lowering standards, but about balancing all the factors that go into creating a successful communication, among which, cost, timeliness, and appeal cannot be ignored or sacrificed to spotless copy. Cheap, fast, and good should remain the goal, but until we get better at delivering all three simultaneously, we still have to deliver.

  3. TechCommGeekMom

    I agree with the sentiments already stated. I will say that a big problem right now is that grammar is taking a side role rather than an equal role in writing engaging content. For someone like me, it’s horribly distracting to see obvious grammatical errors that should have been corrected when the author was in third or fourth grade. When I read the “virtually”, I had a similar reaction to you, Larry. I can only guess that the person who is looking for this candidate has been burned badly by either one or several people who couldn’t get those essential grammar rules down, and diminished the value of the business because that poor writing–no matter how engaging it was–detracted from the message. When I read articles in general, it’s alarming to me to see how bad the writing is based on grammar alone. It’s maddening for me, to the point I wonder how that person got the job, and wonder why I can’t get that job myself.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Danielle. I recognize that many job postings contain a long list of skills that describe the “ideal candidate.” Perhaps, as you say, this one reflects an awareness on the part of the hiring manager – born of experience – that good mechanics do indeed matter.

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  6. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Larry, Thanks for speaking up for high standards. Like Danielle, I figure that the person who wrote this job description had experience with writers who lacked skill with (or cared little about) language mechanics. I read, essentially, “Look, guys, you don’t have to write perfectly, but the mechanics matter here. If you don’t value them or never learned them, you aren’t the writer for us.”

  7. Vinish Garg (@vingar)

    Let me assume it for a minute that this is a valid and acceptable job description. Considering the way business dynamics change for content production, publishing and delivery requirements, what happens if the organization needs to plan, write, and publish a White Paper. Will they post a new job description with ‘different priorities’ where language skills are most important?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      It’s hard to say, Vinish. On the one hand, “engaging content; virtually error free” covers a lot of ground – so they could ask the same person who writes the tech docs to write the white paper. On the other hand, if the white paper is produced in a different “silo” than the tech docs, then we might see another job ad that has little or nothing in common with this one.

  8. Kaylin Tristano (@KaylinTristano)

    I, for one, appreciate a lowered bar – I see way too many job postings out there that read something like, “we need a Ph.D. with 15+ years of experience in a progressively responsible management role at a Fortune 500 company to run our Twitter feed about how tasty soup is. For free. In Antarctica. No telecommuting.”

    Granted, I’m only assuming that the rest of the job listing you found does not include such demands.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Yeah, I’ve seen more than a few job ads that set the bar ridiculously high. So maybe I’m complaining about the wrong thing. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a happy medium between “Ph.D. with 15+ years” and “able to metabolize oxygen into CO2”?


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