Learn to analyze a workplace audience to deliver an effective message

Know your audience. This would count as a platitude for good writing without some specifics. So this post provides a specific system for analyzing a workplace audience. That system requires writers to assess two aspects of their situation–the context of their message:  (1) their relationship with the audience and (2) their audience’s readiness to accept the message.

An earlier post used the example of writing a letter soliciting sponsorships for First Tee of Tuscaloosa from local businesses. Here’s what I wrote about audience readiness in that situation.

  1. How much expertise do readers have about the message? For the entire group of readers, the writer guessed there was moderately low knowledge of First Tee, especially of its goals (which focus on life skills rather than golf). This meant the letter has to educate or inform the audience.
  2. How sensitive are readers to the message? Overall, the writer predicted moderately low sensitivity because the sponsorships were cheap and included advertising at the First Tee site and events. But the writer still had to persuade them to act.

As another illustration of the importance of readiness, check out these examples used by Victor Yucco in Framing effective messages to motivate your users.

Today’s mortgage APR: 3.75% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. Save today!

Many, although not all, North American readers are able to understand the message. For those who don’t, additional informative content is needed like a definition for the abbreviation or a comparison of fixed versus variable mortgages.

But even for those who comprehend the message, they may not be willing to accept it. That’s why Yucco presents the following version as an improvement.

Today’s mortgage APR is at an all time low of 3.75%. Complete our pre-qualification form now to lock in this rate. This rate would save you enough money on a $250,000 loan over 20 years to send your child to college when compared to an increase of just 1%, which could happen at any time.

To address audience willingness, the writer created persuasive content, such as emphasizing the need to act now and describing the financial gain from doing so with an example of significance to the target audience.  (Yucco summarizes research on framing based on health research–see below.)

My point here is that an audience must be ready–both able and willing–to accept a message. If you haven’t analyzed your audience’s readiness, your message is likely to be ineffective. The same is true for your need to reflect on your relationship with the audience before you write.

Audience analysis in a workplace setting is explained in Chapter 2 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises that require you to analyze a workplace audience and consider the implications for creating a written message. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document
  • two brief video tutorials
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with helpful resources.

Sample Document

Review the abatement notice created by me for instructional purposes based on information available from Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

  • Writer: the owner of a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s employees and OSHA officials
  • Bottom Line Message: three hazards identified during an OSHA inspection have been addressed

Video Tutorials

I’ve split the video tutorial on audience into two, shorter ones. The abatement notice is included in both.

Related Readings

There aren’t many posts here at Pros Write that don’t deal with audience. If you enter “audience” in the search field near the top of this page, you’ll get about 10 results. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, there are countless possibilities. You might begin with the following sources.

Austin et al. (2009). Using framing theory to unite the field of injury and violence prevention and response: “Adding Power to Our Voices.” Social Marketing Quarterly,
15(S1), 35-54.

Hersey & Blanchard (1988). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Prentice Hall.

Hofstede (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage.

Shibboleths for National Grammar Day

For National Grammar Day, I’m posting a slightly edited version of “Shibboleths and entering the professions,” which appeared on Pros Write back in 2012. I wrote the original in response to the raised eyebrows after I posted  “Language choices can be unsuccessful — but never wrong.” For some readers, my belief that language can never be wrong contradicts with my belief that I can prepare students for writing successfully in the workplace. The apparent contradiction deserved an explanation. So this post is about grammar rules. (I’ll get to “shibboleths” in a minute.)

According to Parker and Riley (two contemporary linguists) in Grammar for Grammarians:

“grammar” is not a simple, unified subject. Rather, it is a cover term for at least four different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, conceptions of grammar: prescriptive, descriptive, generative, and contextual.

My university training as a linguist means I studied the latter three types of grammar rules. (I learned the prescriptive type in elementary school.) My role as a writing teacher means I often interact with people who assume I share the worldview of prescriptive grammar — that language can be wrong.  I don’t. Let me explain why not, borrowing from Parker and Riley’s chapter 2 on the prescriptive period.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. And so did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette and is therefore wrong. (You know, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.) Sadly, even highly educated people don’t know the history behind these vapid rules.

I’ll give you an example. Robert Lowth, who wrote the highly influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, is the subject of the portrait in today’s post. He believed there had been a decline in writing standards and that his job was to remedy the decline by formulating a set of rules for proper behavior. One of his rules is called preposition-stranding:

Keep a preposition with its object.

For Lowth and his followers, this means “the party you went to” is wrong, while “the party to which you went” is right. Parker and Riley explain:

The rule apparently is based on the fact that in Latin (as in all Romance languages), prepositions always precede a noun phrase and thus never appear in sentence-final position.

So, you should ask, what is the relevance of Latin as a model for English? Well . . . there is no direct line of development from Latin to English. Rather English evolved from Germanic roots. (I’ve added red circles to the diagram from the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.) Also, English is structurally different from Latin, using few inflections and a basic verb-object order. Too, by Lowth’s time, Latin had been a dead language for more than a milleneum. (No one outside of a monastery spoke it after ~700 AD.)  The fact that a dead language doesn’t change, while a living one cannot stop changing was apparently lost on Lowth and his prescriptivist pals.

You should also definitely ask: what were Lowth’s credentials for creating rules for English usage? He served as Bishop of Oxford and was a professor of Hebrew poetry (in other words, The Old Testament). I willingly recognize Lowth’s expertise in reading Hebrew and Latin. He might also have been a good writer. (I can’t judge the performance of 18th century British scholars.) But I won’t grant him expertise over the language I use today. His rule about preposition placement convinces me he had little enough understanding of the language used during his own lifetime.

Because of my studies in English language, I know prescriptive rules like preposition-stranding are shibboleths. As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

If my students’ language signals they may not pass inside the gate where professionals reside, I never tell them they’re wrong. I do sometimes tell them their language will elicit negative attention from some workplace readers.  But only when they break prescriptive “rules” that count as shibboleths for professional membership. It’s my responsibility to know which rules matter. Because of my studies in writing and business communication, I know ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t one of them. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

In a professional writing course, I always explain levels of formality (see my video on word choice) to everyone. I explain grammatical shibboleths to individual students whose usage signals they belong outside the gate: double negatives and subject-verb agreement are two prime examples. As needed, I explain a few other mechanical issues that serve as shibboleths: misspellings, sentence fragments, and comma splices (see my video on punctuation).

What is most sad to me is that so-called language experts (that means most English teachers, who study little, if anything, about language) perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated. But they were denied any real language education. They did not learn that English does not belong to those long-dead, reactionary, literary men of the 18th century who acted as the judges of etiquette based on their own tastes.

I choose not to continue the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day. And I choose not to promote the use of shibboleths to teach students how to enter their chosen professions.  To me, there is a critical difference between telling students their language is wrong and telling them their language is likely to be unsuccessful in certain situations because it will distract some readers and undermine their credibility. As an educator, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices.

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Create logical flow between sentences to promote accurate and efficient reading

I have argued that sentence variety is the enemy of efficiency. People read more accurately and efficiently when all the elements of a document are tightly connected. This includes the connection between consecutive sentences. I refer to this as cohesion (sometimes referred to as Functional Sentence Perspective by linguists).

My experience is that most adults are able to create cohesive prose at the sentence level without explicit instruction. But, for those without this skill, the problem is truly critical. Their readers struggle to read their prose and make comments about awkwardness, lack of logical “flow,” or–the most damning–the quality of the writer’s education. The kicker is that few writing teachers I’ve known understand how to help. Responding as a reader or editor is not the same as teaching.

Cohesion is briefly explained in Chapter 8 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with the logical flow of information. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if there’s something else you’d like to see.

Sample Document

Review a copy of the letter to a supplier. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics (forestethics.org). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with more effective cohesion.

Video Tutorial

The letter to a supplier is included in this <12-minute video about cohesion in workplace documents.

For more on flow, check out this video from the writing center at the University of North Carolina.

Related Readings

There are not many posts here at Pros Write that deal with cohesion because it is relatively rare problem for adult native English speakers.  If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clark, H. H., & Haviland, S. E. (1977). Comprehension and the given-new contract. Discourse Production and Comprehension. Discourse Processes: Advances in Research and Theory1, 1-40.

Crossley, S. A., Allen, D., & McNamara, D. S. (2012). Text simplification and comprehensible input: A case for an intuitive approach. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 89-108.

Kopple, W. J. V. (1982). Functional sentence perspective, composition, and reading. College composition and communication, 50-63.

What word is used only in a woman’s performance review?

Wanted to share this piece from Fast Company even though I have no time to elaborate today. (Tip o’ the hat to Marie Paretti for sharing it!) Those of you who write performance reviews for women need to reflect on your word choice. And what it says about you!

The answer = abrasive. 

sexism-what-can-I-do

The genre of responses to research article reviews

fighting criticsThis post continues my series on research articles (RAs). This time I’m addressing the all-important response to RA reviews. Mastering this genre is critical for anyone whose job includes publication in peer-reviewed journals. (If you want a little background, see this post.) When resubmitting a revised RA for potential publication, the authors must include a response to the reviews received on their initial submission, along with the revised RA.

One key to developing a document in this genre is for authors to get past their emotional reaction. Anger and frustration are normal emotional responses to RA reviews. But, like all professionals, researchers have to move past those emotions to be successful. Although it’s a challenge for all researchers to learn how to create this genre, non-native English speakers have even greater challenges. They are the target of much of the research on writing RAs and related genres as well as a host of author support services (like Editage.).

As usual, my approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) practice of describing a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Responses to RA Reviews

A document people recognize as a typical response to reviewers includes at least five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) signaling attention to the review comments, (3) claiming positive results, (4) previewing content, and (5) responding to specific comments. One additional move appears to be optional: (6) claiming solidarity. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from four actual samples. (Identifying information has been removed; I’ve used pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)

 

A Comparison of Textual Elements

Details for the pattern of textual elements found within the four responses to reviews are summarized below.

    Overall Usage Examples
Style Elements Tense Past (simple & perfect) = high 1.     We condensed the literature review . . .
2.     While avoidance was a key aspect . . .
3.     We have revised our paper . . .
4.     . . . we have gone to great lengths . . .
Present = mid to high 1.     This is an important point . . .
2.     We find the opposite result . . .
3.     There is adequate evidence to . . .
4.     We absolutely agree with . . .
5.     We provide more detail below . . .
Future = low No examples identified
  Passive Usage = mid 1.     This view is reinforced by B&S (2005) . . .
2.     . . . it should be mentioned . . .
3.     . . . participants were informed . . .1.     Below, we describe the changes . . .
2.     . . . we present cross-sectional regressions . . .
3.     . . . we actually had some data . . .
  Pronouns 1st person = high 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     We thank Reviewer A for the constructive comments . . .
3.     We agree and have removed most of this discussion . . .
2nd person = mid 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     While your prior comments are focused on . . .
3.     As you say . . .
3rd person = low 1.     Participants were informed . . . they would receive . . .
2.     Discussions with managers . . . reveal that they typically ask . . .
3.     . . . outlined by you and the reviewers . . .
4.     As suggested by Reviewer B . . .
  Hedging Usage = high 1.     We feel the literature provides a clear . . .
2.     We hope that we were more clear . . .
3.     If we attempted to . . . it would have taken away from . . .
4.     . . . we have tried to better explain . . .
5.     For now, we have not delved deeply . . .
Organization Elements Headings Usage = high 1.     Editor Response Memo . . . Description of New Data . . . Responses to Reviewer A . . .
2.     RC1-1 [Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . AR1-1 [Author Response to Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . RC1-2 . . . AR1-2 . . .
Number or bullet lists Usage = low 1.     Responses to Reviewer A: (1) . . . (2) . . . (3) . . .
Page numbers or pointers Usage = high 1.     See new development on pp. 9-12 . . .
2.     . . . they are stated in the 1st full paragraph on p.5.
3.     We added such a table . . . (Table 2) . . .
4.     We have rewritten Section 2.5 . . .

Usage of some style elements seems obvious for the rhetorical purposes within this genre. For instance, the relative importance of past tense and first person pronouns means that authors spent considerable time reporting what they had done: Move 2 (signaling attention to review comments) and Move 5, Step 5c (describing specific revisions). As another example, use of hedges was high because authors qualified their claims–in typical academic style. Authors in this genre also have to be careful to achieve a polite tone when disagreeing with referee comments.

Other aspects of style are less obvious. For example, note that, despite the frequent use of first person, passive voice was fairly common. This is true not because authors are unwilling to refer directly to themselves but because passive is a key tool in creating cohesion.

The four samples of this genre used lots of headings but few lists to organize their content. (I’ve sometimes used tables to organize the steps in Move 5.) The samples also used a multitude of page numbers or other pointers to link their response to RA reviews clearly to their revised manuscript. This is a key feature of successful documents in this genre. Authors are more likely to succeed when they make it easy for editors and referees to find what they’re looking for.

Research Resources

I haven’t located any research directly related to this genre. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

 

How to perform the role of “grammar checker” at work

From beauty by the geeks
From beauty by the geeks

Yesterday in “The big grammar quiz of 2014,” the UK’s Management Today published a terrific piece about grammar in workplace writing. Test yourself with their quiz. Then review your score with their key, which includes thoughtful and accurate explanations.

If you rely on Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, you will resist those explanations. But I remind readers to consider expert opinions from Geoff Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education in “50 years of stupid grammar advice” or the MIT lecture with Steven Pinker, “Communicating science and technology in the 21st century.”

If you’re still resisting, check out my post, “Do you know what you’re saying about grammar,” which expands on Jonathon Owen’s “12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar mistakes makes.” If you’re hungry for another quiz and more thoughtful explanations from an expert, head over to John McIntyre’s “A grammar quiz not for sissies.”

The message here is that helping people communicate in writing is difficult. But not because they haven’t learned a list of grammar rules. (Part of the problem is that there is no single list. To understand the scope of such rules, check out the HUGE project, a database of all English usage guides.) Helping writers is hard because effective language choices cannot be reduced to that kind of list.

Instead, the Management Today piece ends with 10 terrific tips for those whose unofficial role at work is “grammar checker.”

1) Always encourage [writers] to start by thinking about the specific audience: different readers have different needs and expectations.

2) Often, ‘grammar issues’ are actually about context. How formal does the document need to be?

3) Always seek permission to offer writing advice. Lessons remembered from schooldays are deeply ingrained and criticism may be taken personally.

4) Look stuff up – the internet is the biggest reference library in the world (www.oxforddictionaries.com is good for grammar and usage).

5) Help people understand that there often isn’t a ‘right answer’ in grammar; it’s an untidy field that needs judgement.

6) Businesses that write a lot will need a house style to help make decisions. The online Guardian and Economist style guides are a good starting point.

7) If a senior person has a pet grammar peeve, first find out whether it’s justified – it could be. If it isn’t, try to help them over it (although you may end up having to lump it).

8) Blogs and social media are helpful for keeping up with grammar usage issues –Lingua Franca is a good place to start.

9) Some people think it’s okay to be a ‘grammar Nazi’ but, as the term suggests, it’s very unkind to the recipient. Be sympathetic.

10) Don’t forget, older people will always huff a bit about the literacy of the next generation. ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter,’ William Langland once said – and he was born in 1332.

Thanks to the authors for offering solid advice: Andrew Ingram (Better Business Writing) and Tom Freeman (The Stroppy Editor). In the spirit of promoting those with good sense, here’s the one-minute video for Andrew’s company.

Email and your reputation

A couple of months ago, the CMO of a tech startup shared Surviving Email Politics at Work via LinkedIn.

Email is an extension of you, part of your reputation. What you say and how you conduct yourself over email is the professional “you.” Managing this carefully is important.

I couldn’t say it better. Today, I’m sharing some stories about the bad things that can happen based on what you put into your emails at work. (Tip o’ the hat to Erica over at LinguaDigitalis for sending many of these my way.)

no cap emailJeff Pearlman tells the story of a hopeful college intern who failed to get his dream job because he sent a thank-you via email from his phone. And didn’t capitalize the first letter of Thursday. This one hurts my heart. But the message is clear. Professional email sent via mobile devices is especially prone to make you look UNprofessional.

A financial controller in New Zealand was fired for sending email perceived as confrontational because she used bold, all caps, and red type. More on this story from The New Zealand Herald, which includes a cornucopia of entertaining stories about email blunders. As Leslie O’Flavahan says, “Back away from the caps lock” to create a professional impression.

emailstory1Business Insider published a collection of Infamous Wall Street Quotes that included this one from an email sent by an employee at Standard & Poor’s before the financial crisis:

Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card falters.

I don’t recommend you spend too much time reading the examples at Business Insider. They’re depressing. But they make my point that what you put into an email represents you as a person–not just as a writer. I believe the S&P employee was a greedy jerk. And I’ve never met him/her. All I know about the individual is the result of that sentence from an email. So think carefully about how you want to be represented before you hit send.

For a more humorous slant, you can read about the BuzzFeed reporter who mistakenly emailed his entire company, explaining he would be late to work because the water heater at his apartment wasn’t working. This is the kind of thing you can get away with only once. (And then only if your workplace includes a lot of nice people.) It takes a long time to overcome the negative image such a mistake creates.

Bloomberg Businessweek produced a recent piece on the Five Worst Emails You Can Receive at Work. The biggest blunder: tone-deafness. Confirmation that you must control your tone to avoid negative attention from readers. What you meant is not always what your reader thinks you mean. This is why audience analysis is so crucial. As the writer of Don’t Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions wrote in Psychology Today,

What was written: yep

Tone Interpretation: I’m really busy. I don’t have time for you, and by the way, you’re not worthy of a capital Y.

What could have been written: Yes.

Your audience determines your reputation based on what you put into that email message. To succeed, you have to be able to predict how they will interpret what you wrote.

There are those who say email is dying. But that day is not today. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that we spend about one-quarter of our work life (650 hours per year) dealing with email. If email dies, then a new medium/tool for communicating will create an artifact that represents you. Sorry to disappoint.

The lesson. Write work emails only when you’re calm and are willing to be at least moderately thoughtful about what you’re doing. If your reader is an important person (your client) or a stranger (a potential boss), don’t compose your message on a mobile device. To protect your reputation, think carefully about your purpose and audience and then

  • develop the right content
  • organize it efficiently
  • present it with professional style and mechanics

What have we learned about content (and its purpose) in white papers?

If you’re in Pittsburgh today, come hear Jef Naidoo and me try to answer this question at IPCC 2014.  Here’s more detail than we’ll be able to cover in 20 minutes. (We have a couple of related details about white papers to share as well.)

Why are we studying white papers?

They’re important to organizations. Here’s some evidence from sources about white papers across all industries: used and trusted as a key buying decision tool by over 64% of early stage buyers and 61% of middle stage buyers (SiriusDecisions, 2010).

And here’s some evidence (Ziff Davis Enterprise, 2010) from the high-tech world:

  • 35% of IT Professionals use them for awareness and finding ideas
  • 33% of IT Professionals use them for finding vendors or comparing them
  • 23% of IT Professionals use them for creating a short list and for vendor evaluation
  • 10% of IT Professionals use them for making a final decision

I wrote earlier that little scholarly research has been done. I also posted what Jef and I have learned so far about information design in white papers. But my aim in this post is to talk about patterns of content/purpose in white papers.

How did we study content/purpose in white papers?

We collected a corpus of 20 recent, high-tech marketing white papers from TechRepublic with the “top rated” label in two topic areas: business intelligence (BI) and security (S). My post on information design gives more detail about the corpus.

The figure summarizes the process we used to identify the rhetorical move structure (focus on definition #2) for high-tech marketing white papers. (You can also read about this approach in a book by Biber available from Google books.) The results are shown in the document below.  To understand how we created that document, I’ve included a diagram of the process.

We began to develop it by looking at other studies of rhetorical move structure in related genres (e.g., proposals and research articles); we reviewed the few research studies available, as well as guidance from recognized experts on white papers (see this post for a summary); we compared what we learned from those first two sources to two sample white papers to create the first version of what you see below.

Rhetorical Move Structure ProcessJef and I refined our guesses by independently applying them to three sample white papers. We met, discussed, and revised to create the second version of what you see below.

We trained research assistants to apply the rhetorical move structure in the three sample white papers. Those discussions resulted in a few more revisions.

At this stage, those two raters are coding the corpus of 20 white papers, using the document shown below as a key.

The examples in the key refer to the three white papers we used in training. Follow the links to retrieve them.

If you don’t want all of the details about the rhetorical move structure we are testing, this figure from our slides provides the big picture. Slide07

When our raters are done, we will compute the reliability of their codes to determine whether our rhetorical move structure can be applied consistently or will need further revision. Although we’re not there yet, we are close to having some findings we can share!

The slide you see hints that there is one area (linguistic qualities) that I haven’t written anything about yet. Stay tuned . . .

Related Research

U. Connor (2000). Variation in rhetorical moves in grant proposals of US humanists and scientists. Text, 20(1), pp. 1–28.

J. Naidoo & K.S. Campbell (2014). A Genre Analysis of High-Tech Marketing White Papers: A Report of Research-in-progress.IPCC Proceedings. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

L. Yeung (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26(2), pp. 156–179.

S. Zhou (2012) ‘Advertorials’: A genre-based analysis of an emerging hybridized genre. Discourse Communication, 6(3), pp. 323–346.

Looking for evidence that writing quality matters?

To Be Clear, SEC Reviewers Want Filings in Plain English, Period” from the Wall Street Journal will help you make your case. Let me highlight a few of their examples of SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) responses to the filing documents companies have submitted for review. 

In case these documents are unfamiliar to you, here’s how Wikipedia describes them:

An SEC filing is a financial statement or other formal document submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Public companies, certain insiders, and broker-dealers are required to make regular SEC filings. Investors and financial professionals rely on these filings for information about companies they are evaluating for investment purposes. Many, but not all SEC filings are available online through the SEC’s EDGAR database.

Use the Wikipedia link to see the list of specific documents (and forms) companies deliver to the SEC for review.

The WSJ piece refers to content in specific SEC responses. Illustrative reading for anyone who wonders whether writing quality matters in the workplace, as well as why white collar workers write.  Here’s one example.

This one mentions problems with the quality of format (typesize) and informative prose development (definitions, descriptions, etc.).  Other letters mention quality problems with style (jargon) and punctuation (commas). Sadly, WSJ undermined the value of their information by publishing a follow-up piece describing the low quality of filing documents by testing them with readability formulas.

If the topic of financial communication interests you, there have been a couple of interesting-looking conferences in the past two years in the UK: see Corporate Financial Information Environment.  You can also keep a look out for an upcoming paper by Ron Dulek and me in which we analyze strategic ambiguity in several cases of corporate finance (see below).  Now back to the required revisions for that paper . . .

Related Research

Arnold et al. (2010).The effects of ambiguous information on initial and subsequent IPO return. Financial Management, Winter, pp. 1497-1519.

Brochet et al. (2012). Causes and consequences of linguistic complexity in non-U.S. firm conference calls. Harvard Business School Research Paper.

Dulek & Campbell (in press). On the dark side of strategic communication. Journal of Business Communication.

Eisenberg (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51(3), pp. 227-242.

Gao et al. (2008). Signaling corporate strategy in IPO communication: A study of biotechnology IPOs on the NASDAQ. Journal of Business Communication, 45(10, pp. 3-30.

Garrison et al. (2012). Designing evidence-based disclosures: A case study of financial privacy notices. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer, pp. 204-234.

Higgins & Bannister (1992). How corporate communication of strategy affects share price. Long Range Planning, 25(3), 27-35.

McLaren-Hankin (2008).’We expect to report on significant progress in our product pipeline in the coming year’: Hedging forward-looking statements in corporate press releases. Discourse Studies, 10(5), 635-654.

Richard Branson — pro writer

I already shared this on twitter but thought it was worth sharing here as well because I have a different set of followers here on Pros Write. Branson’s description of his process and what he does and does not delegate will help you understand a piece of what it means to be a pro writer.