My grad student, Jessica, struggled to write in college. Then she went to work. She tried to apply what she was taught in college about writing to her workplace writing. But she felt anxious and confused. Where to start? How to get over writer’s block? How to impress the Boss? How to impress her customers? After her Boss gave her a low rating on written communication on her annual performance appraisal, she decided to fix her problem. She went back to school, entering the grad program in professional writing at Towson University, where I met her in my business writing class.

When we talked several weeks into the semester, she shared her story with me. She said she felt so relieved to learn what I was teaching her about writing, lessons she found herself applying immediately on the job. I told her that, in my opinion, there’s a dirty little secret about college writing courses. They don’t do much to teach us how to develop useful content for our workplace readers and how to present that information well. The focus is eloquence and make-believe, not everyday practical writing for real people who are busy but need useful information to do their jobs better.

College writing teachers usually care a lot and try hard to teach writing. But the approach is more about having students mimic generic forms of business/technical writing (both print and electronic forms) for no particular reader, or a reader who is made up. Unfortunately, the results of such efforts are not very productive...just ask employers. Ask Jessica.

I’ve discovered some surprising things about writing as I moved from the academic classroom into a writing consulting practice with real workplace writers. What’s the most surprising thing I’ve discovered about workplace writing and teaching people to write well in 35+ years of teaching undergraduate and graduate students and working with people in their workplaces at NASA, the State Department, the GAO, KPMG, JMT Engineering (and many, many others), and how surprising was that thing?

Actually, there are four BIG SURPRISES, and they are VERY SURPRISING. They combat the four most dangerous misconceptions about writing.

#1. If I asked you to put into percentages the relative importance of the content and presentation in a document, what would you say?

In the classroom, far more attention is paid to presentation: issues of proper punctuation, grammar, sentence clarity, active/passive voice, where the thesis sentence goes, etc. Far less attention is paid to what CONTENT actually is and how to make sure you develop useful content that your reader will actually appreciate.

Judging by this classroom practice, I’d estimate a ratio of importance that looks something like this: PRESENTATION 80-90% important; CONTENT 10-20% important.

After all, our writing teachers don’t actually need to use the information (the content) we provide—except to grade us. And teachers are trained to read for errors, like low-level editors. They point out our mistakes in presentation, which account for about 80-90% of their comments on our writing, far more than they point out what content is truly useful for the reader—after all, there’s no true reader, or perhaps a make-believe reader from a case study at best.

SURPRISE #1: Workplace writing is 90% about content; 10% about presentation!

In the workplace, I find that actual readers care at least 90% about the content. They would prefer NOT to pay any of their attention to the presentation, which should be the invisible process that carries the information they need into their brain. However, it may be impossible to create the perfectly invisible presentation. So the other 10% of the reader’s attention is, unfortunately, taken up with the presentation. When presentation becomes an issue and distracts the reader from gaining the needed information, that “10%” can increase the reader’s level of effort to some extent or even sink the whole ship.

But do we care more about the cargo ship or the cargo it carries? As long as the cargo is conveyed safely, the ship hardly matters. That analogy describes workplace writing. It’s 90% about the informational cargo and only 10% about the cargo ship—unless the ship takes on water, wasting some of the cargo...or sinks.

So am I saying we should spend 90% of our time in the classroom teaching about content and only 10% about presentation? Not exactly. But I am saying we need to spend far more time teaching the critical-thinking skills students need to develop truly useful content, to offer strong evidence, and to do accurate analysis. This leads us to the second surprise.

 

#2. When I ask students and workplace writers to define CONTENT, they say it’s the information you provide to your reader. But that’s only HALF of the actual story.

SURPRISE #2: CONTENT comes from your reader, not you!

Content is endlessly fascinating and can be complex. But workplace writers should realize it comes from the reader. Producing content is a 4-step process. It originates with an ISSUE (for the reader)—an area of SHARED INTEREST between the writer and the reader. The ISSUE is the reason why the reader should care about your writing, and it’s why you write.  To say it simply, without a truly interesting ISSUE, the reader won’t care (won’t read…will hit delete). Step one in developing useful content is knowing about the ISSUE…what you’re writing about and why the reader should care.

Step two requires the writer to factor that issue into all the reader’s pertinent questions about that issue, whether they’ve actually been asked by the reader or not. (Our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing, calls this step “question factoring.”) Sometimes a reader has asked pointed questions that are right on target, and addressing them is all that’s required. Sometimes a reader includes a mix of pertinent questions and questions that aren’t important. And sometimes a reader has no idea what questions to ask. Whatever the situation, the writer must know the issue well enough and the reader well enough to know what reader-questions to address.

Step three is directly answering those questions. Answers can come from a writer’s expertise, experience, or research. A writer may know the answers immediately. Or the writer may need to construct an elaborate research methodology and form a team to find the answers, which could take months or even years.

Step four is supporting those answers with necessary explanations, details, evidence, analysis, and argument. This is a tough step in some cases. But support for the big answers most always turns out to be a series of smaller (researchable) questions.

For example, if the issue for a CEO is seeing whether the company’s COATS FOR KIDS program was successful, the writer talks to the CEO to get a sense of the questions she needs to have answered: How many coats were distributed? Did they go to deserving kids? What resources were expended in the effort? Was there adequate publicity? These are some big questions. But to answer each of them, you’d need to answer follow-up questions: What was the quality of the coats? Were they adequately laundered? Who qualified for coats? How was that determined? What follow-up was done to access the success of distribution? Which local news outlets ran a story? Etc.

Step four can include answering descriptive questions: the familiar who, what, when, where, and why. The less-familiar auditor’s 5-C questions are indispensible for an analytical report: Criteria: what standard was used to describe the required or desired performance? Condition: what was the actual performance? Did it exceed, meet, or fall short of the criteria? Consequences: if there’s a gap between criteria and condition, what was the impact/significance/effect of that gap? Cause: if there’s a gap, what caused it? Corrective action: if the consequences of the gap are significant enough to warrant action, what action should be taken to address the cause and lessen or eliminate the consequences?

Step four can also include the elements of argumentation, like those described by Stephen Toulmin’s Method of Argument (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Toulmin#/media/File:Toulmin_Uses_of_Argument_cover.jpg), or other models. It’s certainly a rich area of study that writers need to understand.

Before students write any draft, they should be asked to write a paragraph (at least) about the issue and provide a question-outline that shows the big (I. II. III.) and little (A. B. C., 1. 2. 3.) questions they will address for the real reader because the reader needs to have those questions answered!

Then those answers need to be well presented to the reader, which leads to the third surprise.

 

#3. Ask anybody where they’d expect to see the word “CONCLUSIONS” in a 10-page report. Almost all will say, page 10, or very near the end. But ask readers if they’d prefer reading through 10 pages to get to the writer’s conclusion or having that conclusion as close to the front as possible, and most will say Up Front…Please!

SURPRISE #3: CONCLUSIONS should come first!

Why do we put conclusions at the end? Our algebra teacher required us to show our work along with the right answer. One was no more important than the other. You didn’t get full credit for the right answer if you failed to show your work; conversely, you wouldn’t get no credit for a wrong answer if some of your work was right. Our writing teachers seem to function in the same way. They want us to begin with background, and then build our arguments one by one until we get to the end, where we can give our conclusion. We learn to show our work. Or maybe we’re just inveterate storytellers and leave the dramatic conclusion for the end (the Butler did it!!!).

But not so fast! Though we like telling each other stories when we chat, our conversations are structured on a loose string of questions and answers. On Monday morning, we ask a co-worker, “How was your weekend?” Thus a conversation is born. “It was great. We went kayaking.” If you’re interested, you ask a follow-up question, “Wow, that sounds exciting. Where did you go?” And so the conversation goes along until interest in that topic (issue) is diminished and the conversation ends or turns to another area of interest.

What’s so crucial to notice about how we converse is that when asked a question we BEGIN with the ANSWER! Then we give details if the listener is interested. We may ask, “How did you meet Laura Nyro?” You begin by saying you met her after a concert and found out she liked your book of poems. Then you may tell the whole story of meeting Laura Nyro if the listener wants to hear that story. But the story is SUPPORT for your first answer. You may write a whole memoir about meeting Laura Nyro. But nobody will read it unless they want to know the answer to some key questions: “How did you meet her? What was she like?”

We call writing that starts with the answer and then gives the details, DEDUCTIVELY STRUCTURED. It puts its “conclusions” first, and then explains them as needed.

Readers benefit from deductive structure in four ways:

            1. They read the document faster.

            2. They answer questions about the document more accurately.

            3. They recall main points longer.

            4. They feel more persuaded.

But there’s a huge writer benefit. Deductive structure is the best power-tool in a writer’s arsenal to ensure conciseness. Most of us think conciseness comes from writing tight sentences. And you do increase conciseness a little by tightening sentences. But knowing your main point, putting it first, then supporting it produces huge savings.

I give classes at the 16th largest Engineering firm in the United States because writing deductively wins million-dollar contracts. If you are restricted to 10 pages in submitting your proposal to get the contract, every word, every inch of real estate in the document, is very valuable. Using deductive structure, the engineers/writers can say more in less space.

Designing a deductively structured document is a highly evolved state. It doesn’t happen in a first draft (or usually in a second or third). Deductive structure evolves through the whole drafting/reviewing process. And it can permeate a document from top to bottom:

· message titles and executive summaries make the whole document deductive;

· major-section headings deliver bottom-line messages and a beginning overview paragraph summarizes the whole section;

· message-headings for subsections forecast the message for the entire  subsection; and

· topic sentences up front establish the focus for the rest of the sentences in that paragraph.

Finally we reach the last surprise, which has to do with how we write sentences and choose words.

 

#4. I’ve found that inexperienced business/technical writing students believe that learning to be a business/tech writer is about two things: 

     1)learning special formats for business/technical documents and

     2)learning to elevate your vocabulary so you sound professional, impressive, and            important.

But it’s not about either of those two things. Workplace writing is about learning to efficiently generate and deliver USEFUL content to real readers who need the information.

SURPRISE #4: Write plainly to impress!

As readers, we can notice when a writing style is elevated. It has an easy-to-notice sentence structure (as in ODD) and vocabulary (as in STILTED). But is an elevated style really impressive in the workplace? Consider the following sentence:

            Our lack of pertinent data prevented determination of committee action             effectiveness in fund targeting to areas of greatest assistance need.

Got it?

This is a relatively short sentence (20 words). It’s grammatically correct. It’s punctuated correctly. And you know the dictionary definition of every word. So why can’t you immediately understand it?

It’s not delivering information the way your brain is wired to comprehend language.

Here’s a revision, using about the same words:

            Because we lacked pertinent data, we could not determine if the committee             had targeted funds to areas that needed assistance the most.

Way better, right? Why? Your brain is wired to decode language in a particular way. In short, you need the grammatical subject to state the ACTOR (what noun is acting in the sentence or serving as the actual topic), and you need the main verb to state what that ACTOR is doing (or a verb to properly LINK it to a predicate that completes the thought: The sky IS blue…You ARE my favorite reader…Writing useful, highly readable content IS fairly easy if you follow my directions).

In the first version, you have a LACK that is PREVENTING DETERMINATION. Pretty abstract. In the second version, you have

· we-lacked…

· we-could not determine…

· committee-had targeted…

· areas-that needed…

When you write plainly, you impress. Remember, workplace writing is 90% about CONTENT. Plain English is far more “transparent” than Stilted English (sometimes called The Official Style). Why say “endeavor” when you can say “try” or even “attempt”?

We talk to our co-workers/customers/clients in plain English all day long. If we didn’t, we’d be out of business…immediately. So let’s relax and write sentences that follow the rules we use when we speak: easily-grasped sentence structure, easily-understood words.

What’s impressive to readers is getting USEFUL information FAST! 

Keep these 4 surprises in mind when you write (or teach writing). Be sure to avoid the 4 most dangerous misconceptions about writing.

SURPRISE #1: Workplace writing is 90% about content; 10% about presentation!

SURPRISE #2: CONTENT comes from your reader, not you!

SURPRISE #3: CONCLUSIONS should come first! 

SURPRISE #4: Write plainly to impress

Doing so will allow you to keep your reader’s LEVEL OF INTEREST high and the LEVEL OF EFFORT low. What else could a reader or writer want?

Jessica, now my pen pal, gets and gives great ratings on annual performance appraisals for written communication. She’s a high-level supervisor in her workplace these days and teaches these writing principles to those she supervises. Way to go, Jessica! Kudos. At your success I’m never surprised.