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 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 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)


(10 minutes)


(5 minutes)

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


(30 minutes)


(120 minutes)

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


(0 minutes)


(0 minutes)


(30 minutes)


(30 minutes)

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


(1440 minutes)


(480 minutes)




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.]


  • 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.


** 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.

Six guidelines for responding to hostile challenges to change

Credit: Vasko Miokovic
Credit: Vasko Miokovic

I’m breaking my silence here at Pros Write with these guidelines. They’re the result of a study made available today in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. With my co-authors (Pierson Carmichael and Jefrey Naidoo), I offer six practical lessons to help change agents manage communication and maintain credibility with stakeholders who have made a hostile challenge like “Why are we changing a successful system?”

Lesson #1: Diagnose the source of the stakeholder’s hostility in order to determine the component of readiness you need to address.

Once you are familiar with the five components of change messages, you will become adept at diagnosing which of these you must address to neutralize the stakeholder’s hostility toward your change initiative. Does your response need to focus on the discrepancy between where your organization is and where it needs to be? the appropriateness of the planned change for dealing with the discrepancy? the likely efficacy of the planned change? the support of leadership? or the benefits of the planned change to individuals?

Lesson #2: Claim dealing with the challenge isn’t timely as your default response strategy.

Our recommendation is backed by the consistency of findings in studies about strategies for responding to hostility. It may well be most preferred because it implies that the change agents are already addressing the concerns the stakeholder has raised.

Lesson #3: With an efficacy challenge, either deny something about the challenge exists or explain why answering the challenge isn’t desirable.

Because the timing strategy was not preferred with challenges focused on the potential efficacy of the planned change, you need alternatives in this situation. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on our own findings, with nothing in an earlier study to warn against its use. Similarly, our recommendation to use the desirability strategy is based on earlier findings, with nothing in our own to warn against its use.

Lesson #4: Deny something about the challenge exists to deal with challenges to discrepancy and appropriateness, as well as efficacy.

Because the timing strategy may not always be applicable with challenges focused on the the need for or appropriateness of your planned change, you need an alternative in these situations. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on its consistently high preference rankings in our own and earlier studies.

Lesson #5: Claim you aren’t able to handle the challenge with caution and only when dealing with principal support or personal valence challenges.

Preferences for the ability strategy were highly inconsistent. It ranked 2nd overall in our study because of its effectiveness dealing with principal support and personal valence challenges. In contrast, it ranked among least preferred strategies for dealing with other types of challenges in our study and for dealing with all challenges in an earlier study.

Lesson #6: Don’t deny you are the right person for handling the challenge.

Although our results for the agency strategy were inconsistent with an earlier study, we feel justified in cautioning change agents not to use it because it “passes the buck.” Benoit notes that “denial and shifting the blame are not considered by those who are injured by the actions to be as appropriate or effective as other potential image restoration strategies”. Earlier research found the agency strategy least preferred when responding to hostility about environmental concerns, and in interviews with experienced organizational spokespersons, some noted they had been explicitly taught not to use it in public affairs training.

After using these lessons to deal with the hostile challenge in a way that maintains your credibility, you can continue your on-going dialogue about components of the change which your stakeholder finds troubling. My single-minded focus on research has been inevitable during my sabbatical this fall. But I intend to share more often here when 2015 arrives. At least that’s the plan.

Further Reading

Armenakis, A. A. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681–703.

Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Campbell, K. S., Follender, S. I., & Shane, G. (1998). Preferred strategies for responding to hostile questions in environmental public meetings. Management Communication Quarterly, 11(3), 401–421. 

Campbell, K. S., Parker, F., & Follender, S. I. (1996). Responding to hostile questions: More insights from speech act theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(2), 151–167.

Gore, M. S. (2003). Strategies leaders should use to respond to hostile questions regarding organizational changes: An empirical investigation. Thesis. Air Force Institute of Technology.

Insure readers understand your message with the right content

Workplace readers often say they want short documents. But shorter doesn’t always equal an easier reading experience. Consider these jury instructions:

A fact is established by direct evidence when proved by documentary evidence or by witnesses who saw the act done or heard the words spoken. A fact is established by circumstantial evidence when it may be fairly and reasonably inferred from other facts proved.

Got that? Here’s a revised version of the same content:

Direct evidence means a fact was proved by a document, by an item, or by testimony from a witness who heard or saw the fact directly. Indirect evidence means the circumstances reasonably suggest the fact. Indirect evidence means that based on the evidence, you can conclude the fact is true. Indirect evidence is also called “circumstantial evidence.”

For example, suppose a witness was outside and saw that it was raining. The witness could testify that it was raining, and this would be direct evidence. Now suppose the witness was inside a building, but the witness saw people walking into the building with wet umbrellas. The witness could testify that it was raining outside, and this would be indirect evidence.

juryWhen these two versions were tested in a mock trial, the jurors who received the longer version thought it was simpler than those who got the shorter version. And the group with the longer version also scored better on comprehension questions about the content of the instructions. So shorter isn’t necessarily better.

If you haven’t spent much time in a white-collar workplace yet, you likely have little experience writing for readers who know less than you do. Instead, you’ve delivered documents to teachers, who normally know more than you about your content. Plus teachers are obligated to read whatever students write. I promise that won’t be the situation at work! You will have to carefully develop the right information to make your message clear to workplace readers. You’ll have to know your audience well enough to predict what information they need.

Developing informative prose (that means definitions, comparisons, examples, etc.) is briefly explained in Chapter 3 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in an academic setting, you’ll find tons of exercises in that chapter. They’ll help you practice identifying and fixing problems with the supporting details in professional texts. Here are some additional resources:

  • 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 you want to suggest how to make the resources more useful.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary for a business plan adapted by me based on a sample available from the Center for Business Planning (

  • Writer: the owner of a manufacturing company
  • Readers: potential investors (like venture capitalists)
  • Bottom line message: the company is a good investment because they’ve got an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand

Here’s a revised version of that executive summary with better content development.

Video Tutorial

The business plan’s executive summary is included in this video about informing readers in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a guide to the essentials, which takes ~13 minutes.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with developing effective information for workplace documents. Enter “information” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might check out the following sources.

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

Holmes-Rovner, al. (2005). Evidence-based patient choice: A prostate cancer decision aid in plain language. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 5(1), pp. 16.

Schiess, W. (2008). The Texas pattern jury charges plain-language project: The writing consultant’s view. Clarity, 60, pp. 23-27.

Persuade readers with an appeal to logos

Photo Credit: soukup via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: soukup via Compfight cc

People who have influence at work know how to write persuasively. Persuasion is how you successfully lobby for resources from your boss or win funding from an investor. Research found that persuasion was central to the success of 10-30% of all internal, written communication in an organization.

The negative connotation of persuasion is created by trust (ethos) problems with the organizations where writers work. (Or with some individual writers.) And also the fact that unethical individuals often rely solely upon appeals to audience emotion (pathos) rather than reason (logos). Workplace writers can use written language both (a) to sell the need for higher health insurance co-pays to their company’s employees while the CEO buys a villa in France or (b) to sell the value of alternative energy sources to government representatives. The writer’s intent — not the writer’s prose — is the key to differentiating between these two messages.

Creating persuasive prose is briefly explained in Chapter 4 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to practice identifying and fixing problems with persuasion in professional texts. But here are some additional resources to help you become a more persuasive writer:

  • 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 I can do something to make the resources more useful.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary from a business plan, which was adapted by me based on a sample available from the Center for Business Planning (

  • Writer: the owner of a manufacturing company
  • Readers: potential investors (like venture capitalists)
  • Bottom line message: the company is a good investment because it has developed an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand

Here’s a revised version of that business plan’s executive summary, with more persuasive content.

Video Tutorial

The business plan’s executive summary, along with other examples, is included in this video about persuasion in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a succinct guide to the essentials of writing more persuasively by appealing to your reader’s logos (reason). This content is not easy to grasp. Although this tutorial follows my rule for length (it’s less than 12 minutes long), you’ll have to pause and read at several points in order to follow the material.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with persuasion in workplace documents. Just enter the term in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might check out the following sources.

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), pp. 72-79.

Gilsdorf, J.W. (1986). Executives’ and academics’ perceptions on the need for instruction in written persuasion. Journal of Business Communication, 23(4), pp. 55-68.

Halmari, H. & Virtanen, T. (Eds.) (2005). Persuasion Across Genres: A linguistic approach (Pragmatics & Beyond, New Series). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sproat, E., et al. (2012). Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation.  Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.

Do you know what you’re saying about grammar?

adviceDo you offer grammar advice to others? I urge you to read 12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar makes to insure you’re not repeating common mistakes. Jonathon Owen, blogger at Arrant Pedantry (and also a linguist, writer, and editor) knows what he’s talking about. To me, the most serious mistake self-proclaimed “specialists” make is Mistake #3 on Owen’s list.

The writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing.

Let’s talk about “register” for a minute. Register is a term used to refer to the way styles of language vary according to situation. Example: when stating your opinion of the new PlayStation 4, your words and their structure vary in different situations:

  1. a text to your friend (ps4 is the sh@% f#$k xbox)
  2. a conversation with your grandmother (it’s better than any other game system)
  3. an online consumer review (better gaming than Xbox)
  4. an online professional review (The PlayStation 4 is $100 cheaper than rival Xbox One and has the upper hand on indie and day one digital-only offerings.)
  5. an academic essay (Compared to Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 gaming system demonstrates critical advantages: it is less expensive, and there are more independent, as well as more digital-only, games available at the time of its release.)

The style of your language — its register — differs because the rhetorical situation (your audience, purpose, mode of delivery, etc.) differs. I’ve referred to this as code-switching in previous posts.

Back to Mistake #3. The formal writing register is the style of language preferred when writing for teachers.  That’s example 5 above. None of the other styles of language would be appropriate for use in an academic essay. But here’s my point. The style of example 5 would NOT be appropriate for any of the other four situations. (If you think the style of 5 would be appropriate for situation 4, you might need to think carefully about the audience for online reviews of gaming systems.)

As Owen wrote in the post that prompted mine:

Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.

The choice between Who did you give the book to? and To whom did you give the book? is a choice of register. Only the most formal written register includes the use of whom.

If you’re providing grammar guidance, make sure your advice takes register and genre into account. Also remember that the register of the business world is less formal than the academic register. And specific business genres can be both more formal (a white paper) and less formal (an email request to a colleague who is also a close friend) than the business register in general. Using an inappropriate register for a specific situation is a breach in manners — like wearing white shoes after Labor Day — not a breach in grammatical competence.

I’ll repeat what I wrote in Shibboleths and entering the professions: What is most sad to me is that so many people 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 — even with English degrees. They parrot memorized etiquette rules based on the language preferred by teachers. But they were denied any real language education. An education that taught them about registers and their rhetorical functions. An education that would allow them to make good judgments about the most appropriate style of language for a specific situation.

On the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech

I have a dream speechMartin Luther King, Jr. certainly had a way with words — and with audiences. I have often used his words as the focus of discussions in my leadership communication class. In honor of today’s 50th anniversary of perhaps his most famous speech, Johnson wrote an interesting rhetorical analysis for today’s Economist. If you want to read Dr. King’s words for yourself, they are available in the National Archives. If you want to hear the actual recording, NPR provides the audio for the entire speech.


The genre of research articles: Introduction sections

Photo Credit: Ben K Adams via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ben K Adams via Compfight cc

Today’s post begins a series on the different sections that make up a research article (RA). I’m tackling the Introduction section first. The Introduction provides a “frame” for the research. It sets the boundaries for interpretation. (See this post for a discussion of the overall structure of the RA.) Based on my 25 or so years of experience writing and teaching others to write RAs, I find Introduction sections the most challenging.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Introduction Sections

John Swale’s Create-A-Research-Space (CARS) model is a widely used description of the arguments writers make in RA Introductions. (My mentor at LSU taught me to analyze rhetorical structure in a parallel way while I was in grad school.) Basically, a document people recognize as an RA includes three rhetorical moves in its introductory section: (a) establishing a territory, (b) establishing a niche, and (c) occupying the niche. The CARS model breaks down each of those rhetorical moves into more detailed descriptions as shown in the table.

Move 1 Establishing a territory Step 1 Claiming centrality or
  • In research
  • In the world
Step 2 Making generalizations or
Step 3 Presenting background information
Move 2 Establishing a niche Step 1A Counter-claiming or
Step 1B Indicating a gap or
  • In research
  • In the world
Step 1C Question-raising or
Step 1D Continuing a tradition
Step 2 Presenting positive justification
Move 3 Occupying the niche Step 1A Outlining purposes (why?) or
Step 1B Announcing present research (what?)
Step 2A Announcing principal findings or
Step 2B Predicting results
Step 3 Indicating RA structure
Step 4 Evaluating findings

Analysis of Rhetorical Moves in a Sample Introduction

Let’s look at the introduction to the sample RA shared in my earlier post. Examples are the best way to grasp the value of rhetorical move structure.

The Introduction of the sample RA includes all three moves, although not all possible steps. (One of the strengths of the CARS model is its ability to describe multiple avenues for creating a frame for the writer’s research.) Move 2, establishing a niche, takes up a little less space than the other moves. The classification of the final move is ambiguous. It seems to do two things at once: establish a niche and occupy it.

Analysis of Style in a Sample Introduction

Because the rhetorical purpose of Introductions differs from other sections of the RA, the way textual elements are used also differs. I introduced this aspect of the CARS model in my earlier post, but I’ve included examples from the Sample RA in the table below to clarify how it applies.

Textual Element Usage in Introductions Examples from Sample RA
Tense  present is high & past is mid
  1. . . . managers must sometimes act . . .
  2. These tasks . . . are necessary . . .
  3. . . . prior work clearly documents . . . 
Passive use is low
  1. . . . managers’ lack of success . . . is well documented
  2. . . . the selection of a referent standard is determined by the employee . . .
Citation use is high
  1. Molinsky and Margolis (2005) called these acts “necessary evils” . . .
  2. Incivility is still a common perception in the workplace (Andersson & Pearson, 1999)
  3. According to Folger and Cropanzano’s (2001) fairness theory . . . 
Hedging use is mid
  1. . . . organizational justice theory has primarily studied . . .
  2. In many cases, subordinates’ subjective response . . .  is anger
  3. We seek to contribute . . . 
Commentary use is high Nearly every statement is commentary. The only “facts” might include:

  1. Molinsky and Margolis (2005) called these acts “necessary evils” . . .
  2. . . . we provide an overview . . . We then explore . . .

I had difficulty applying the concept of “commentary.” Seems obvious that almost every statement in an Introduction is commentary. Surely commentary is the opposite of “fact” . . . I need to look back at Swales’ work to see if I’m missing something.

I’m headed to Baton Rouge tomorrow to visit my alma mater. And one of the things I’ll be talking about is RA Introductions. I’m leading a workshop on the topic for doctoral students in LSU’s Information Systems program.

Research Sources

Samraj (2002).  Introductions in research articles: Variations across disciplines. English for Specific Purposes, 21, pp. 1-17.
Swales & Feak (1994). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.