Readers label you based on your style

I’m in Seattle at the Association for Business Communication conference. Erin Kane and I will present “Reader Perception of Workplace-Writer Attributes” this afternoon. (Our fellow researchers, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning couldn’t make the trip.)

We had more than 600 working adults in the US tell us

  1. whether they preferred the more plain or less plain version of 21 written passages
  2. what two labels described the writer of their preferred written passage
  3. what two labels described the writer of the written passage they did not prefer

Good news for those who promote a plain style in their teaching or consulting. People do think plain style is more appropriate in a routine workplace email. The plain passages were preferred 80% of the time (±3.17 at a 95% confidence level). While you might think this is obvious, we have found little research that clearly establishes the style we recommend is actually valued by workplace readers. Most existing evidence is anecdotal.

Good news for those who write in a plain style, too. For example, results for one pair of passages testing nominal usage are shown in the bar chart: 70% of our participants preferred the plainer style without nominals (“defines” over “definition”).Nominal

The writer of the plain passage was most commonly described as clear and straightforward. The writer of the passage that was NOT plain as inefficient. Telling writers that, based on empirical research, they will be labeled as “inefficient” by most workplace readers when they use nominals is qualitatively different that telling them they shouldn’t use nominals.

We have lots of interesting results to share. Some today. Some in future publications. Thanks to the ABC’s C.R. Anderson Research Fund for supporting our work.

Does essay writing help you succeed as a writer at work?

Today’s post is in honor of the National Day on Writing. U.S. students spend years writing essays. They believe they know how to write. (And also often believe that writing is meaningless.) What they do not know is that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, content) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in effective written messages. That’s called genre awareness.

The situation means you shouldn’t be surprised that workplace novices write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Many non-academics complain. Loudly. Here’s a small selection of such complaints. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

There is definitely evidence that such complaints should be interpreted carefully. (See The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education.) That doesn’t mean students gain genre awareness before they enter the work force.

Let me share a story that makes my point. [A version appeared on Pros Write a couple of years ago.] Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even seen such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion first. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical education that would lead to better workplace success!

Of course, when teachers spend time on genre awareness, they are not aiding students in their quest to ace the essay writing required for academic purposes. I mean the high stakes writing “tests” used to determine college or grad school admissions or scholarship offers. Shame on higher ed!

I salute all of those teachers who promote genre awareness just because it’s best for their students in the long run. Keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be standing beside you.

Plain language requires attention to the process


The first three parts of my series on defining plain language focused on the three aspects of the rhetorical triangle: (1) textual elements like style and organization, (2) reader outcomes like comprehension and usability, and (3) writer outcomes like organizational costs and benefits. To overcome the limitations of any one of those aspects when considered alone, several experts talk about plain language as the process by which successful workplace documents are created — a process in which all three aspects are integrated.  That’s my focus here in Part Four.

Minimally, creating a document requires drafting: putting words on paper (literally or figuratively). Sadly, amateurs operate as if this single step or activity = writing. To enhance the quality of documents and move amateurs toward expert status, writing teachers regularly add two additional steps to the process: intentional planning before you draft and revising after you have drafted. The wisest of these folks also promote some form of document testing in order to determine what and how to revise.

testing

Let’s talk about the phases of the process shown in red using examples from the proposed mortgage loan estimate document created for the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) project called Know Before You Owe by Kleimann Communication Group. I mentioned their exemplary work in an earlier post.

Planning

Pro workplace writers work their way through heuristic questions about the rhetorical context, message content, and content organization before they draft a document. Last year, I wrote a series of posts about a letter soliciting sponsorships for an outdoor sign at The First Tee of Tuscaloosa:

I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in those pieces. So let me just highlight some examples of the planning process for the loan estimate document.

In general, written messages are preferred for complex content and for situations in which a record of message delivery is needed. In the case of the loan estimate, both conditions were met. The Dodd-Frank Act required lenders to disclose information about mortgage loans to their customers after they apply for a mortgage and shortly before they complete the process.  It also required combining the information from two separate forms. mortgage disclosure symposium

Given the widespread interest in banking and financial practices, the CFPB judged that the high cost of creating a quality loan estimate document was worth it. One way they corroborated this interest was by holding a symposium with consumers and industry representatives in December of 2010.

The writers of the loan estimate knew their readers were the heterogeneous group of US consumers. They also knew some general things about that group of readers: (a) their ability to understand message content was low because the level of quantitative and financial literacy is low for around 50% of US adults and (b) their willingness to attend to and use the message content to make decisions was low because that is a characteristic of all US consumers. The team of writers had to develop both informative content (like examples and definitions) to address the audience’s inability to understand mortgage loan details and persuasive content (like evidence) to address the audience’s unwillingness to pay attention to and use those details. mortgage disclosure planning

Before they began drafting, they read relevant documents and research, talked to CFPB staff and consumers, and brainstormed. After they began testing drafts, the writers also met with small business owners about using the new loan estimate.

Testing

Testing a draft document is the phase of the workplace writing process that most distinguishes you as a pro. I haven’t written much about the types of document testing. My goal is not to be exhaustive here. Instead, let me share how the writers of the loan estimate tested their document.

First, they posted drafts of the documents on the Know Before You Owe website and collected 27,000 comments.know before you owe

Second, they used parallel design tests by creating two significantly different designs for the loan estimate. They implemented those two designs in eight document versions based on four different loan details. In Round 1, they presented these document versions to seven English-speaking consumer participants, two Spanish-speaking consumer participants, and two mortgage lender participants in Baltimore. Using one-on-one interviews, they asked participants to read-and-think aloud and to answer comprehension questions; they also asked lenders to answer implementation questions.

Even when the benefit of a quality document doesn’t warrant the expensive testing done for the loan estimate, testing is still possible — and warranted. Editorial or expert review is certainly less costly. But even reader testing can be done on a shoestring budget. To learn more about testing documents, you can begin with the guidelines on usability testing from the federal government’s plain language site.

Revising

For the loan estimate, testing suggested numerous revisions to the textual elements in both designs. Among the most serious issues identified from Round 1 testing, the writers learned (a) consumer participants needed more clarity around the monthly loan payment and the total monthly payment; and (b) they needed to address how the design could encourage consumers to read the Cautions at the same time as they read the Loan Terms. So writers revised a number of textual elements in both designs. A few specifics for Design 1:

  • To make the loan amount more prominent, they added the heading Loan Amount.
  • To simplify cognitive processing and keep all cautions together, they combined the content of Key Loan Terms and Cautions.
  • To draw attention to cautions, they added more emphasis to this word in headings with shading and all caps.

Testing & Revising (Again)mortgage disclosure think-aloud

The writers used an iterative design process. That means they tested the revised versions of the loan estimate in Round 2 in Los Angeles. And then revised the content, organization, and style some more. And tested again in Round 3 in Chicago. And revised more. In all, there were ten rounds of testing in cities across the US followed by revisions.

So . . .  What is plain language?

After four rather lengthy posts, here — with a drumroll — is how I understand the concept of a plain language document.

  1. It can be described as a set of text elements, including content (e.g., examples), organization (e.g., headings), style (e.g., verb voice), and mechanics (e.g., punctuation).
  2. The outcome of delivering the document is that it achieves the writer’s purpose, while minimizing costs and maximizing benefits for the writer’s organization.
  3. Other outcomes of delivering the document are target reader interest, comprehension, and ability to use the writer’s message.
  4. The only way to produce a plain language document (one that achieves #2 and #3) is to use a process for choosing text elements that incorporates planning, testing, and revising.

And, finally, describing plain language with fewer than all four of the items above is like describing only a portion of the elephant.

Beware of those who claim plain language is simpler than this. That would include those who make promises based on software tools or platitudes. And pay attention to those who include all four items. (See, for instance, the plain language checklist from the Center for Plain Language.)

No wonder becoming a pro who can produce plain language takes so much time and effort! But that’s what makes a pro so valuable.

Plain language requires attention to the audience

In Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • rhetorical triangle preziThe corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

Plain language requires attention to the text

To celebrate International Plain Language Day, I’m republishing a four-part series in which I defined “plain language” a couple of years ago. Part three was accidentally published last night. [sigh] Here’s part one.

Perhaps the most obvious way to define plain language is to focus on the words a writer chooses. For instance, a common proscription from those interested in better workplace writing is for writers to avoid jargon. Jargon is a word with a highly specialized or technical meaning. Like 401(k), an investment plan established by employers to which eligible employees may make salary contributions on a pre- or post-tax basis. (Read more on investopedia.) There are other aspects of style that might be implicated in plain language as described in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part IV of Revising Professional Writing (RPW):

But style alone cannot explain why the email announcement about employees’ pension plan I’ve included below fails as a plain language document.

Software tools can identify many aspects of style that might be revised to achieve more plain language in a document. However, revising to achieve more conciseness in the first sentence and to eliminate unneeded passive verb voice in the second sentence won’t be enough to convert the email announcement into plain language.  (I don’t think the original includes any jargon.)

Other textual elements like organization have to be considered in creating plain language documents.  For many documents, the bottom line message may be presented in effective style but be placed in the middle or at the end of the document, which means it’s buried. I’m not going to categorize any document with a buried bottom line as achieving plain language no matter how plain the style is!  The areas of organization that contribute most to the lack of plain language in the original email announcement are paragraph unity and format. The initial paragraph is quite long and is not tightly constrained to a single, manageable topic identified with a topic sentence at the beginning. In addition, the format of that initial paragraph in one big block of text does nothing to make it easy for readers to get the document’s message.

All of the aspects of organization that might be implicated in plain language appear in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part III of RPW:

While I haven’t reviewed StyleWriter yet, in general, editing software tools are more effective at identifying style issues (which operate at the word- and sentence-level of text) than organization problems (which operate beyond the level of individual sentences).

Consider the revised email announcement, which exemplifies a move toward plain language.

One of the primary differences between this revised and the original versions of the document relate to content development, specifically to the use of a table to display the  example of how the new pension plan works. All of the aspects of content development that might be implicated in plain language appear in my three video tutorials based on chapters in Part II of RPW:

I could continue by talking about the influence of mechanics (e.g., Part V of RPW on punctuation, pronoun reference, etc.) on how plain the meaning of a document is. But the point is that a pro manages all elements of text, including organization and content, to achieve plain language — not just style. Many experts on plain language understand it as the result of all elements of the text: Joseph Kimble does so in his most recent book; Cheryl Stephens does on her website; and Beth Mazur did in her STC article more than a decade ago. Beware of those who understand plain language as writing style. They make pronouncements based on only a fraction of the elephant!

Remember. This is only part one of my definition. More on the importance of the rhetorical context beyond the text when defining plain language . . .

Plain language requires attention to the writer’s organization

[This post should have appeared on October 13 to acknowledge International Plain Language Day.  More important, it should have appeared AFTER parts one and two.]

In the first two posts defining what I mean by “plain language,” I have focused on two points of the rhetorical triangle: textual elements like style and organization (Part One) and reader outcomes like comprehension and usability (Part Two). Now it’s time to tackle the third, the writer’s purpose.

rhetorical triangle preziThis is arguably the aspect of rhetorical context that gets the least attention when it comes to workplace documents. This is logical. For academic writing — you know, the kind of writing done throughout nearly all formal education — the writer has often been promoted as the most important aspect of the rhetorical context.  Take, for instance, the concept of “writing to discover” from Peter Elbow. (Here’s a 2007 interview which will help you understand this perspective on writing.) I’ve written several posts about the unhappy consequences of students learning to write only for teachers (see this early one or this more recent one or my About page). One of the things teachers have in common as an audience of student documents is that they must support this writer-centered view. At least to some extent. I mean the student writer is the focus of a teacher’s professional responsibility.

The emphasis on the audience in workplace writing is critical for helping workplace amateurs focus on the rest of the rhetorical context and become pros. However, as a representative of his or her organization, the workplace writer and his or her purpose for a document is also critical.  Unlike academic writers, whose writing is self-centered, workplace writers must focus on both their audience and the organization they represent.

In my video-tutorial on purpose based on Chapter 1 in Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I categorize a professional’s reasons for writing based on the intended effect on the audience:

  • informing emphasizes tasks and the status quo
  • directing emphasizes tasks and action
  • consulting emphasizes relationships and action
  • valuing emphasizes relationships and the status quo

While these do a good job of describing the immediate aims of the writer’s document, they don’t adequately connect to the overarching organizational goals to which the document contributes.  I’m talking about THE bottom line — money. Whether for-profit or not, every successful organization seeks to maximize revenue and minimize costs. When workplace writers create documents, they affect their organization’s bottom line.

Not long ago, I wrote about selling plain language to your manager. (In fact, a comment on that post is why I started this series on defining plain language.) I argued that a business case for creating quality documents might be the key. Making a business case includes analysis of costs, including risks, and benefits.  Let’s consider a simple, hypothetical business case for creating the email announcement to employees about changes in pension plan contributions — the one referred to in Part One and Part Two. In the table below, I’ve calculated costs for creating both a lower quality and higher quality announcement based on the salary of those involved.

 

Low Quality Document

High Quality Document

1.       Reading time (100 employees’ 50K salary)

$4,200

(10 minutes)

$2,100

(5 minutes)

2.       Writing time (HR writer’s 50K salary)

$12

(30 minutes)

$50

(120 minutes)

3.       Reviewing time before delivery (HR manager salary 90K) (5 employees’ 50K salary)

$0

(0 minutes)

$0

(0 minutes)

$22

(30 minutes)

$60

(30 minutes)

4.       Answering questions after delivery (HR employees’ 50K salary)

$600

(1440 minutes)

$200

(480 minutes)

TOTAL COST

$4,812

$2,432

The lower quality announcement costs less before delivery but results in higher overall cost to the organization due to the greater time required for employees to read the email and for HR employees to answer questions about the email content after delivery. Note that I haven’t tried to calculate benefits related to things like employee satisfaction or compliance with federal requirements. Risk assessment is not my specialty. Nevertheless, those benefits could be converted into dollars for the writer’s organization.

My point with this simple example is that plain language is not only about the text and the audience. Or even the about the writer’s purpose for writing. It’s also about the organization’s goals. While I’ve talked about all three corners of the rhetorical context, there’s one more post coming on understanding plain language. I need to deal with the process involved in creating plain language documents.

Read. Then write.

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help novices become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully! The key to thoughtful reading 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 to those introducing novices to writing for workplace readers. They are more exhaustive than exemplary because I created them for an academic context. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. [Note: This is an updated post from a few years back.]

Goals

  • 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

  1. 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.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. 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)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • 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)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • 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?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • 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?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • 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?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • 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?

Leading Discussion

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

  1. 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.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.

Footnote

** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table to show 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 writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a blurred memory. Sigh . . .

Related Research

Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, pp. 148-63.

Check out the 4th Edition of Revising Professional Writing

rpw4_coverThe 4th edition of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences is now available It’s an affordable workbook at $39.95 USD, with over 400 revision and editing problems. Instructors get an answer key plus supplements here on Pros Write (e.g., sample documents, videos, etc.) supporting the principles in the book.

Each of the 21 chapters explains research-backed principles for revising or editing a single element (e.g., informative graphics, bottom line placement, conciseness, pronoun reference, etc.). The succinct explanatory text is followed by revision and editing problems that require increasing levels of expertise within each chapter.

Details:

  • Over 400 revision and editing problems covering rhetorical context, development, organization, style and tone, and mechanics.
  • Problems range from sentences and paragraphs to 11 full-length texts.
  • Examples from a variety of texts: memos, letters, résumés, proposals, instructions, definitions, and reports.
  • All revising and editing problems drawn from the actual writing of college students.
  • Self-contained chapters, allowing flexible use with other textbooks.
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-6-2

Parlay Press provides exam copies:

Email: mail(at)parlaypress(dot)com
Toll-free fax: 888.301.3116

Your feedback is valued!

Theory? Or experience?

Many people believe you have to choose between experience and theory when you want to gain knowledge or skills. But the choice represents a false dichotomy. It’s on my mind today as I get ready to meet my first two classes of undergraduate students since 2012.

The first day of a college course is about two things: setting expectations and getting to know each other. One important way for students to get to know me is to hear my thoughts about how people learn. Here’s what I’m likely to say about theory and experience today.

How Do Adults Learn?

A researcher named David Kolb observed adults learning at work and discovered what we call the “experiential learning cycle.” Learning is non-linear. It’s a cyclical process with four phases. Let’s go through a simple example.

Credit: Jonathan Newton

Imagine you’re a swimmer and you want to learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event. You start by talking to an expert—a swimming coach named Bob. Bob tells you about butterfly. One of his points is that upper body strength is key. At this point you’ve got theoretical knowledge (some abstract understanding) but, if you quit now or if you and Bob just keep talking, you definitely won’t learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event.

phelps-practiceAt some point, Bob tells you to jump in the pool and swim laps with paddles to build upper body muscle. You are learning to compete in the 100m butterfly event by experimenting with something new. Again, if you just keep practicing or quit now, you won’t learn much.

You enter the next phase when you have the actual experience of competing in a 100m butterfly race. You place 5th. If you quit now – or you just keep entering more races – you won’t learn that much. You’ve got to continue to the next phase of the cycle.

Credit: David Goldman

After your experience, you have to think back on the race. What EXACTLY happened? Reflection on your experience is necessary. If you’re committed to continue learning how to swim the 100m butterfly …

swim phelps turnyou start the cycle again by talking to Coach Bob, who theorizes your turn technique slowed you down. This is just an idea until you get in the pool and experiment with new turn techniques. Then, in the next race, you might experience a win. Or not.

The point is that as long as you are learning, you keep going through this cycle – this spiral – of conceptualization, experimentation, experience, and reflection. Expert knowledge will require about 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on your part. Michael Phelps started swimming competitively at 7 and made the Olympic team at 15. But he didn’t win any Olympic medals until 4 more years passed. (Note that it took Bobby Fischer, perhaps the best chess player in history, 9 years of learning to reach grandmaster.) Reaching just the level of apprentice will require that you put in 250 hours – that’s 5 hours of quality practice per week for 3 months. kolbs cycle

What Does This Mean for My Students?

Although my example focuses on a sport, the learning cycle applies equally well to any workplace task or skill. Real learning requires both theory and experience. Here are some ways the learning cycle influences how I have designed our course.

First, the activities I’ve planned will require you to move back and forth between thinking and doing. You’re probably more comfortable with one of them. But the quality of both matter.

Second, I believe learning is a process, not an outcome. If you focus only on grades (an outcome), you’ll be frustrated. And you won’t learn as much.

Third, I expect you to take risks. Sometimes you’ll fall down. Failure is necessary for learning. I will do all I can to make it “safe” for you to fail.

Finally, it’s an advantage to have a teacher/coach to guide you through the learning process. I’ll give you as much individual attention as I can, but teaching ~70 students at one time means there are limits on what I can offer. (I mean Coach Saban has 9 assistants to coach 125 or so football players!) So I expect you to coach each other. Your coaching should lead to deeper knowledge, too.

So let’s get started!

Related Readings

Kolb & Kolb (2009). Experiential learning theory. In S. J. Armstrong & C. V. Fukami (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development (pp. 1–59). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ericsson et al. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

 

Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader ebook released today

e978-0-9767180-7-9The 2nd edition of Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader: The TILL System for Leadership Communication is now available as an ebook on Google Play. The book is a concise guide to help current and future managers become better leaders by building their personal power.

In a nutshell, the TILL system teaches you to manage tone when you manage people. Its focus is deliberately not media specific. But I plan to create a few relevant posts about writing here on Pros Write this fall while using the TILL ebook in my course on leadership communication. (Yes, I do have a day job.) There have been a few guest posts here by terrific former students in that course. In fact, the material in the ebook grew out of my experiences teaching them about the role of language in leadership.

Details for instructors/coaches:

  • 12 chapters with two in-depth application exercises per chapter––one analyzed for students, the other for practice, homework, or quizzes
  • extensive analysis of memos, emails, letters, performance evaluations, and leader-member conversations
  • answers to selected exercises
  • annotated bibliography and suggested readings at the end of each chapter
  • equivalent to ~200 pages
  • $29.99 list price (currently $16.19 USD at Google Play)
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-7-9

One of the great things about ebooks is that you can read a sample without buying. The 1st two chapters of TILL are available free on Google Play. Thanks to Frank and Kathy at Parlay Press for making it happen.

Comments welcomed!