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.

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.

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.

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!

 

3 guidelines for coaching novice workplace writers

I’ve been thinking about the nuggets of wisdom I have to share with those who are new to teaching novices to write successfully in the workplace. I came up with 3 guidelines, which I shared with some new college instructors in a workshop last week.  I thought they were worth sharing on Pros Write as well.

Referring to these instructors as “coaches” is deliberate. Teaching and coaching are similar. But not identical.  Think about a golf pro.  She holds a teaching clinic where 10 or so students learn about chipping.  Her focus is on explaining a body of knowledge and offering general guidance.  She also offers one-on-one coaching lessons where her focus is on improving the chipping performance of the individual student. The new college instructors I spent time with last week will do some teaching. But their success will be measured by the quality of workplace-like documents produced by their individual students.  That means their role leans more heavily toward that of a coach.

Guideline #1: Make the consequences of performance quality explicit.

Each document a writer delivers within the workplace is a measure of his or her job performance. Take, for instance, the announcement I wrote about in Cut your email into 3 chunks for better digestion. (Follow the link to see the actual document I’ll be referring to throughout this post.)

Delivering that low quality announcement had consequences for three stakeholders as shown in the figure at right.

  1. consequencesFor readers, the results of receiving the announcement fell into two categories. First, the majority paid little attention to the message because they thought it was irrelevant to them. Second, a few attended to the message but were confused and frustrated because they couldn’t figure out why they received it.
  2. For the organization in which the writer worked, the results included loss of money from the wasted staff time and resources used to create, print and deliver this document to several thousand employees. Because so many readers ignored the content of the message, the organization also failed to gain compliance with their requested actions. Yet another result was loss of credibility for the specific office in which the writer worked.
  3. For the individual writer, the result of delivering this announcement was negative attention from employees, including loss of credibility in future messages.

If a writing coach doesn’t get a novice to understand the kind of consequences prompted by low quality documents in the workplace, there’s little motivation for the novice to care about improving his or her own performance quality.  Plus there’s little understanding of the roles written communication plays at work.

Guideline #1 is primarily the result of my experience with traditional-aged business students in the U.S. Non-traditional college students, who have workplace experience, benefit when coaches follow this guideline, too. But it is critical for traditional students, who lack that experience.

Guideline #2: Teach principles that explain performance quality.

perceptionsPart of being a good coach is helping a student understand what makes a performance good (or bad).  On the one hand, a writing coach can talk about perceptions.  A coach trying to help the writer of the poorly written announcement, might share thoughts like those shown at right.

While it’s helpful to know a reader thinks the details in the announcement are irrelevant, perceptions aren’t that useful to the writer because they’re not specific about what should be done differently to improve performance quality.

editsOn the other hand, a writing coach can talk about specific wording (or organization or whatever) like the example shown at left.

Telling the writer specifically how to write a more effective announcement is terrific for fixing this document. Sadly, the coach’s editing doesn’t help the writer learn anything of value for future documents — unless the writer can intuit the unstated explanation behind why the coach’s version is better than the writer’s.

principleAs a professional who makes my living as a writing coach, I have always felt obligated to provide an explicit explanation for performance quality. Those explanations are principles like the one shown at right.

A good workplace writing coach teaches novices about audience sensitivity, bottom lines, and directness in organizing content.  When combined, these concepts explain much about performance quality in the announcement and many other communication genres within Western business culture.

Specific examples are important in combination with principles. They are a means of showing how a principle applies in different documents or situations. Another means of teaching principles, my video tutorials include excerpts from workplace documents. I would also teach principles by asking students to read sample documents and come to class ready to discuss how a principle explains the quality (and consequences) of those documents.

It’s important to me that the principle behind effective bottom line placement is based on research. Not on tradition. Or personal preferences. That’s true of all of the principles included in 21 chapters of my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing (RPW). I’m not interested in teaching “rules” that are not grounded in theory and data. (I like to actually use my Ph.D. in both teaching and research.)

If a writing coach doesn’t get a novice to understand all of the basic principles that explain the quality of documents in the workplace, there’s little chance the novice will avoid negative attention when delivering documents in his or her future workplace.

Guideline #3: Provide deliberate practice, with individual support and feedback.

As I tried to convey in 3 Lessons from Great Performers video, expertise requires a lot of practice. The 10,000-hour rule (i.e., the time-period required to attain expertise) has been confirmed by research in many domains: music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. Innate talent does not significantly shorten the required time period. It took chess player Bobby Fisher 9 years to reach the status of Grandmaster.

A writing coach has to prepare a novice workplace writer for reality. It will take 250 hours of (3 months of 5-hour-per-day, 5-day-per-week) practice to move out of the beginner level and into the apprentice level of performance. That means most college students will still be beginning writers when they enter the workforce.

jack white 2Performance quality is lower when you move into a different context. Experts have contextualized knowledge. Jack White might be an expert guitar player — in the alternative genre. But, if he decides to start performing classical guitar pieces, he won’t be an expert in that new activity even though it involves playing a guitar.

So a coach preparing students who are novices at writing in the workplace has to overcome the overconfidence of successful academic writers. This is hard on coaches and students.

It turns out that the quality of practice matters, too. Deliberate practice is required. It’s different from work or play that involves the same activity, as psychology researchers noted when reviewing studies in this area:

Let us briefly illustrate the differences between work and deliberate practice. During a 3-hr baseball game, a batter may get only 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored.

In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance. In addition, engaging in deliberate practice generates no immediate monetary rewards and generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments.

phelpsDeliberate practice is not fun.  Sad. But true. Just ask Michael Phelps about the time he spends lifting weights or running or swimming with paddles or listening to his coach tell him about the minute details of his kicking technique.

A writing coach has to plan and execute practice that helps a novice build up and maintain the writing tools and techniques that make successful future performance more likely. Exercises in RPW aren’t fun for many students. But they are deliberate practice with the principles that explain document quality in the workplace. Coaches assign them because there are some serious consequences to document quality at work.

A writing coach also implements guideline #3 when providing feedback on individual performances. If I was coaching the writer of the announcement, I’d provide something like the rubric shown below. The rubric reinforces the lessons learned through practice exercises. Or when implementing guideline #2 with tutorials or discussions. But it focuses on the specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual writer’s current performance.

Final Words

Coaching novice workplace writers ain’t easy. But it sure is rewarding.  The reason I wrote Cut your email into 3 chunks for better digestion was that a former student was asked by his supervisors to share what he had learned that his colleagues at one of the Big Four audit firms had not.  That’s what I’d call positive attention at work.

If anyone is wondering, the vast majority of the novices who are the responsibility of these new instructors are traditional-aged, academically successful college students working toward an undergraduate degree in business at a large state university in the U.S. While my examples might be different for folks who are coaching a different group of students, the three guidelines would be the same.

Related Research

Follow links above to posts for research sources on bottom line placement, etc. The following research article is my primary source on deliberate practice and its role in developing expertise.

Ericsson et al. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp. 363-406.

Who is responsible for the quality of workplace writing?

Ready-Set-GoI’m in the early phase of a research project designed to describe what influences writing quality in the workplace. Everyone has an opinion. And it usually focuses on blaming someone else. The public, through their legislators, blames educators. Or businesses. Individual writers blame educators, too. In fact, it’s popular to blame educators! Educators blame legislators. Or students. Or businesses. And businesses blame everyone else, too.  That’s why I was intrigued with this initiative at Bentley University called PreparedU Project: Insights and advice on preparing for the 21st century workforce. Here’s the infographic presentation if you just want to see the highlights.

The PreparedU Project seeks multiple perspectives about what it means to be prepared for the workplace. The conversation isn’t focused exclusively on writing. But the importance of “soft skills” is mentioned more than once. Their white paper, An In-depth Look at Millennial Preparedness for Today’s Workforce, attempts to answer the following questions:

  • How is preparedness defined? Is there consensus across key stakeholders as to what comprises “being prepared” for the workforce?
  • How wide is the preparedness gap? Is there a disconnect among key stakeholders in how they view the level of preparedness of recent college graduates?
  • Will the millennial generation change the business world, or will they need to adapt to the current workplace in order to succeed?
  • Is a liberal arts education antiquated in today’s world, or is it still giving students the skills they need for lifelong success in the workforce?
  • Does business have an image problem? Are millennials deterred from pursuing an education or a career in business due to the bad economy and/or recent corporate scandals?

All important questions — and most are related to my research.

But I’m not sure how much can be accomplished by the PreparedU Project.  The list of solutions to the preparedness gap places most of the responsibility on students. Don’t get me wrong. I want students to take responsibility for their own education and life after school. I’m CERTAIN higher ed and K-12 could do better. But what about business? The PreparedU white paper does report their 3,149 survey respondents agreed business shared some responsibility to work more closely with colleges/universities (a) to develop professional curricula and (b) to improve career services in order for colleges to better understand what businesses are looking for in terms of internship experiences, resumes, cover letters and interview experiences.

But consider just the microcosm of preparing workplace writers. Business-educator cooperation will guarantee better preparation only if business can articulate the specifics of what it means to be prepared. What do they mean when they say college grads lack writing skills?  (Writing quality has been defined in as many ways as there are people who have defined it.) What is the business commitment to quality workplace writing? Do companies hire people who can write effectively at work? How do they determine who can and can’t? Do companies reward employees who write effectively? How do they determine effectiveness? How much are they willing to pay for that effectiveness — not only in employee training or mentoring but also in differential pay for great performance, in added time to construct quality messages, and in added resources to test the quality of those messages before they’re delivered?

It seems there are many issues that can only be solved by business. No curriculum developed in partnership with educators will override a company’s human resource or other issues. Neither will a supply of motivated college graduates with soft skills. I remain convinced that the solution to workplace writing quality has to be systemic. And I applaud Bentley for seeking out perspectives from multiple stakeholders about how to best prepare individuals to succeed in business. I guess the arctic blast has made me a little snarky . . .

Do good students make bad workplace writers?

A+In my very first post (now the Pros Write About page), I stated how bizarre I find it that teachers who like to read literature are tasked with teaching young people how to write. I’m not the only one who has noted the ensuing — and negative — consequences. It turns out that many industry people agree.

Copywriter Scott Flood makes a similar point in Business writing: Why it’s okay for English teachers to despise your ads and brochures:

High schools and colleges teach a style of writing that’s used only within the halls of academe. Unfortunately, that often cumbersome, frequently unfriendly style sticks with many students long after graduation. Want proof? Read some of the memos circulating around your office.

In Students struggle for words, the Wall Street Journal says,

Most writing is taught by English departments, who require a certain number of words, have all writing assignments about novels, and reward flowery prose. Business writing has to be completely different; very direct and to the point. So even those people with “good writing skills” in high school and college will have to unlearn their style when they move into the business world.

I shared Why trying to learn clear writing in college is like trying to learn sobriety in a bar from Forbes a while back. As the folks at Klariti say in Why good teachers make us bad business writers,

To develop your (and your kid’s) career, wouldn’t it make sense to learn business writing skills instead of elegant, academic writing styles?

Yes. It would make sense.

What is lacking is a rhetorical education. I wrote about that in one of my earlier posts as well. Imagine how much better prepared young people would be for the workplace if they were asked to read even one brief workplace report during their 12+ years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided the students 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? Plus, a teacher asked students to write different genres — say about similar content — for different audiences. If all of that happened, students would have developed genre awareness. They would have received a rhetorical EDUCATION that would lead to better workplace success!

So why doesn’t this rhetorical education take place?  I suspect the primary culprit is the pressure on K-12 to get students into college. That means preparing them for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.  Guess what kind of writing they test?  That’s right. Complex syntax and literary vocabulary are rewarded. Creativity and self-centered expression are rewarded. Narrative organization (with the bottom line last) is rewarded. And little is different in most freshman composition classrooms, where the focus is on making sure students can write exam essays and research reports for teachers who already know the answers and are paid to read whatever the students produce.

As someone whose raison d’etre has been to help students make the transition from school to work, I spend most of my time just trying to get students to believe me when I say they don’t know how to write successfully for the workplace . . . despite their history of good grades.

3 lessons from great performers for workplace writers

Because documents are performances and great performers can teach us what it takes to deliver a great performance, I have used that theme to create a short (3:48) cartoon. My goal is to get people, mostly amateurs ( . . . beginners), to think about the amount and kind of WORK involved in being a great performer as a workplace writer. Swimmer Michael Phelps, musician Jack White, and actor James Earl Jones are featured as great performers. (Don’t you adore the Sprint commercials with James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell? I could go on about their rhetorically based humor but let me try to stay on track . . .)


I am continually surprised at how nonchalant people are about learning to write in the workplace. (In other words, they give it little, if any, thought at all.) Yet the same people complain about the quality of what they have to read at work constantly! And, of course, I’ve written about the potentially negative outcomes of poor writing for both individuals and organizations many times.

For those with an interest in the nuts and bolts, I used a free account with PowToon to create the video and produce the finished product. It’s pretty amazing. The audio was recorded and edited with Camtasia. I’m not exactly satisfied — especially with the audio — but I have got to stop playing around and get to work.

Happy New Year!

Using TEDEd lessons to learn about plain language

TEDEdTEDEd brings us short lessons on many subjects. There are currently eight lessons in the TEDEd Playing with Language series. That’s where I found one called How did English Evolve that explains why some words are less “plain” than others. So I flipped it to create my own lesson related to plain language. (It’s a very simple process.) Follow the link to watch the TEDEd video lesson, answer some questions, and then dig more deeply into what this means for those who want to be successful writers in the workplace.

I’ll be looking for other TedEd lessons of relevance for workplace writers. I’m not pleased that they provide no credentials for the educators creating the videos. I don’t think there are any major content problems with How did English Evolve although a few YouTube viewers quibbled about the simplistic history offered. There is a potential for more entertainment than education. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

Here’s an intro to TEDEd for the uninitiated.


Please share with us if you flip one of their lessons! Or have other thoughts about TEDEd.

The genre of business proposals: Getting readers to buy what you’re selling

So you’ve got an idea or service to promote? You’ll do much of that selling face-to-face. But you’re likely to need a written proposal in many cases. This post provides some basic guidance for writing a proposal (not a business plan, which is a specialized type of proposal) based on some relevant research.

Proposals are a critical genre in the business world.  (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by “genre,” see Pros have contextualized knowledge.) You can write proposals to sell big, complex ideas or smaller, simpler ones. Selling those big, complex ideas is BIG business. If you write those kind of proposals, you’re likely to belong to the APMP (formerly, Association of Proposal Management Professionals), which describes itself as “the worldwide authority for professionals dedicated to the process of winning business through proposals, bids, tenders, and presentations.” APMP members represent proposal writers in organizations like Boeing and proposal readers in organizations like the US federal government. These folks work hard to become pros at proposal writing. If they don’t, they starve.

Most of us aren’t involved in selling those big ideas. But selling smaller ideas to other people is something nearly everyone in a white collar job is expected to do — at least once in a while. The European Commission recognized this and asked many experts from across Europe to develop a guide for managing internal proposals for small- and medium-sized companies to support critical innovation.

Content and Structure of Proposals

So what do we know about successful proposals? Let me disclose that most of the studies on the proposal genre have dealt with grant proposals written by academic researchers or non-profit organizations rather than business proposals. That’s partly because it’s difficult to get organizations to share their proposals with the public.  After all, those documents include information most organizations don’t want to give away to competitors. The table shows the rhetorical moves (content + structure) found in three sub-types of proposals.

Order Move Business Proposal Research Grant Proposal Non-profit Grant Proposal

1

Establishing the territory

2

Establishing the gap

3

Stating the goal

4

Describing the means

5

Reporting prior work

6

Predicting results

7

Describing intended benefits

8

Establishing competence

9

Claiming Importance

10

Describing the schedule

11

Describing needed resources

[Updated August 15, 2013]

A Sample Business Proposal

Let’s consider how this research applies to an example document. Here’s a brief proposal created by business students who were selling a free service (a document audit) to a potential business client. Which of the moves from the table can you find?

My analysis located most of the moves shown under the column for business proposals in the table above. The proposal begins with Move 1, establishing the territory of communication audits. (The table below shows specific wording for each move.)

The sample document quickly presents Move 2 (establishing the gap) under the first heading. This section of the proposal is one of the longest. That seems important in an unsolicited proposal. In other words, the reader did not issue anything like a Request for Proposals (RFP), which would have signaled their interest BEFORE receiving the proposal. (See RFP Database for some examples.) The student writers were doing something more like “cold calling” when they delivered this proposal. So the writers have to persuade the potential client that they have a gap (problem or need) that the writers understand.

The prose of the second paragraph under the first heading begins with Move 3, stating the goal of the proposed service from the potential client’s perspective. One way to improve this proposal would have been to provide goals more specific to the proposal reader.  I know the student writers of this proposal had little knowledge of the reader’s organization at this stage.  In the workplace, it would be crazy to proceed without learning more about the potential client’s needs.

Under the second heading, the prose begins with Move 4, describing the means by which the writers will perform their service. It’s significant that this section is one of the two longest — best developed — within the document.

Order Move Examples from Document Audit Proposal

1

Establishing the territory This document describes the communication audit that we would like to perform for your organization.

2

Establishing the gap Poor oral and written communication cost an organization time and money.

3

Stating the goal The goal of our proposed communication audit is to maximize external communication by . . .

4

Describing the means We will determine the quality of the document through two types of interviews.

5

Reporting prior work

X

6

Predicting results

X

8

Establishing competence

X

9

Claiming Importance

X

10

Describing the schedule

Table 1. Proposed Communication Audit Schedule

11

Describing needed resources We need two things from you:

  • One document (preferably in electronic format) from an author representing your organization
  • Thirty minutes for an interview with that author

7

Describing intended benefits By participating, you will not only help our team learn more about workplace communication but also help your organization realize several benefits through improvement of an important organizational message.

In our sample, the last portion under the second heading accomplishes Move 10, describing the schedule, by incorporating a table of intermediate steps/goals and their projected dates.

The brief prose under the third heading counts as Move 11, describing needed resources. I call the rhetorical purpose of the prose under the final heading as the “call to action” typical of most business correspondence. It’s not captured in the table of moves identified from research sources because all but one of those studies focused on lengthier proposals that would not have been presented in a letter format. Such documents would appear in the format of a formal report with a cover page, table of contents, appendices, etc. However, research on email business proposals hoaxes has identified this move in the corpus of documents studied.

Final Words

In sum, the sample document provides enough of the expected content — and expected arrangement of that content — to get most readers to recognize it as a proposal. As always in workplace writing, one size does not fit all. The rhetorical context of a specific proposal determines the most effective content development, as well as its organization and style. Nevertheless, the relative emphasis on establishing the gap (Move 1) and describing the means (Move 4) is typical of the proposals studied by researchers. Proposals are essentially problem-solution arguments.

This sample proposal was successful in soliciting the reader as a client for the students’ proposed document audit service. Partly because the price of the service (FREE) was right.  And partly because business people like to help out students. But also, in part, because the writers established a problem with meaning for the reader and described a solution that was reasonable in terms the reader could understand and trust. The reader bought what these proposal writers were selling.

Research Sources

I haven’t listed sources in past contributions on writing a genre because I assumed readers at Pros Write weren’t interested. Some feedback suggests I was wrong.  Instead of cluttering the body of the post with citations, I’ve opted to provide you with a simple list of sources. I’m happy to answer questions about which source provided which findings mentioned above for anyone who asks.

Chiluwa, I. (2009). The discourse of digital deceptions and ‘419’ emails. Discourse Studies, 11, 635-660.

Connor, U. and Mauranen, A. (1999). Linguistic analysis of grant proposals: European Union research grants. English for Specific Purposes, 18, 47-62.

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

Halleck, G.B. and Connor, U. (2006). Rhetorical moves in TESOL conference proposals. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 70-86.

Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.

Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.