Amateurs don’t want to be beginners

Growing up, my son never wanted to start at the beginning. I guess it’s human nature. I mean who doesn’t want to start with dessert? My son’s desire wasn’t an issue until he wanted to participate in some new activity that required skill (think karate, piano, golf, etc.), and he still wanted to skip the beginning. With those kind of activities, the beginning is usually full of unfun stuff. And doing that stuff makes you a beginner.

When it comes to writing (or any other mode for communicating), the beginning is always the context, nicely represented as a rhetorical triangle. The video tutorial I’m working on for tomorrow focuses on one corner of the triangle, the writer’s purpose. I know most people will want to skip it to get to the “meatier” topics and avoid being a beginner. But the only way to predict a document’s success is by referring to the context. So I just HAVE to do this one. (And I can already promise you there will be one on audience, too.)

For those of you who don’t plan to skip the beginning, here’s a copy of the Email Job Update referred to in tomorrow’s tutorial. It was created by me based on an actual student’s response to an assignment from a 1999 textbook titled, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell. I’ve adapted it specifically to help amateurs think about purpose in workplace documents. A few details about the context of the document:

  • Writer: a project manager for a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s owner
  • Bottom line message: one project is over budget and behind schedule

Coming soon . . . I’ve decided I should add a page to collect all of the sample documents I mention. That will appear a later tonight.

Hope all of you fathers got to skip right to dessert today. (But if you want to become a more professional writer, don’t skip tomorrow’s tutorial!)

The video tutorial on format

borrowed from the folks at World Usability Day

I don’t know people who read at work for fun. They read because they need help doing their jobs. That means they’re looking for documents they can USE.

Few things make a document more usable than format. (I’m talking about white space, typography, etc.) Revising Professional Writing devotes a chapter to this topic. I’ve been using short video tutorials (<15 minutes each) with my own professional writing students for years. It means I don’t have to spend class time giving these tutorials. Plus students can listen to whichever tutorial they want whenever they want.

Anyway . . . I’m updating those old videos and posting them here. I’ve been using technology long enough to anticipate problems so . . . let me know what you think.

Pros know readers are document users

I am working on a brief video tutorial on format for tomorrow’s post based on a chapter in Revising Professional Writing. Each of my tutorials refers to a one-page workplace document (or an excerpt from a longer document). Because video degrades the quality of the print in those document pages, my plan is to post them here the day before I post the video.

So here is a page from the revised Technology Consultant’s Report  referred to in the video tutorial on format. It is based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook (www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/).  But it has been adapted specifically to help amateurs understand how pros use format in workplace documents. A few details about the context of the document:

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a brewing company
  • Bottom line message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

The original document version can be viewed here. (Please don’t blame David for this awful document. Remember–I created it as a teaching tool!)

Stay tuned . . .

Amateurs lack genre awareness

Amateurs write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. It’s one consequence of using literature teachers to teach writing in the US. Our students do not learn that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, messages) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in a document. That’s called genre awareness.

Let me share a story that makes my point. 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!

Are you ready to drink the koolaid yet?

Why this blog?

I’ve been talking about the role of writing for professionals for nearly 25 years. My “talk” has always taken place in a university classroom or an academic journal. I’m not ready to stop talking in those contexts, but I am tired of their constraints. So why not talk with fewer (or at least different) constraints here? There are things I really want to SAY.

Like . . . why do so few recognize how bizarre it is that the US educational system thinks teachers who like to read literature are the best candidates to teach young people how to write? These teachers mean well, but all they offer are platitudes like “writers must analyze their audience” followed by a requirement for at least five double-spaced pages. I guess it works out OK for the 10 or 15 or so years people remain students who write about literature for teachers who like to read literature. But what about the writing they do for the REST of their lives? You know–the kind of professional writing that determines whether they get a job or earn a promotion or win funding for their business venture.

Don’t get me wrong. I have loved reading literature for as long as I can remember. But writing like Austen or Twain or even Stephen King hasn’t earned me a promotion. Not once.

What gets me professional R-E-S-P-E-C-T is my ability to create a document that helps other people do their jobs with minimal reading effort on their part. It’s about bringing order to chaos. Making the complex simple.

That ability was hard won. It started with a knowledgeable mentor who was willing to read the crap I wrote and provide generalizable feedback based not on platitudes but on his knowledge of linguistics and his own professional writing experience. It continued with my willingness to admit I had never written anything but crap–despite my history of straight As in English–and to apply my mentor’s guidance. It also required the kind of knowledge literature teachers rarely have. I’m talking about explicit (not tacit) knowledge of workplace language or discourse. God bless you, Frank!

This blog will allow me to share some of what I’ve learned. I’ll go on record that nothing I can give you will do you any good without humility, tenacity, and selflessness. Platitudes are easy. But it’s not easy to earn the rank of “pro” writer.

That mini-rant felt good. I’ll try to keep myself in check. At least most of the time.