One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help amateurs become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. The key here is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.** Here are the guidelines I’ve provided before to those introducing undergraduate business students to writing for workplace readers. They were written for an educational setting. And they are more exhaustive than exemplary. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully!
- To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
- To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
- To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use
These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.
For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.
Choosing a Sample Message
You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.). Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.
Introducing the Activity
- Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
- Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
- Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.
Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)
- Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
- What’s the bottom-line message?
- Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
- What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
- What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?
- Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
- Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
- Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
- Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
- Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?
- Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
- What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
- Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
- Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
- Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?
- Is the style appropriately concise?
- Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
- Is the style appropriately active or passive?
- Is the word choice appropriate?
- Is the level of formality appropriate?
- Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
- Is the level of directness appropriate?
- Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?
About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):
- Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
- Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
- Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
- Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?
- Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
- Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
- Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
- Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?
When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.
Providing the Take-away
- Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
- Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.
** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy. Ken Hyland used the following table in a 2004 research paper to clarify that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world. Where students learn to communicate with an audience in their writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a distant memory. Sigh . . .