I’ve taught business/technical writing to grad and undergrad students for 35 years. Since 1984, I’ve also regularly consulted with writers in the workplace at NASA, KPMG, Catholic Charities, Whiting Turner Contracting, the State Department, the Justice Department, and many, many other places. I’m disenthralled with the giant textbooks used in most college business-writing classes—they’re WAY too expensive and don’t focus well on the simple, common-sense, matter-of-fact critical-thinking and workplace-writing skills students need for the rest of their working lives.

With my business partner, Kevin Dungey, who teaches oral presentations at Johns Hopkins University, I’ve created what I call a systems-approach to workplace writing that covers these skills. More about that in later posts…if you’re interested.

Let me share a life-altering experience that was truly a watershed moment for me in the way I view workplace writing and how to teach it. I’d be interested to know if you’ve had similar experiences.

How I Became Involved with GAO

In 1987, I'm sitting in my office at Towson State University (as it was called back then) when a woman appeared asking where a colleague’s office was—he never showed up. She’d come to recruit him to teach writing courses at GAO. We started talking. Eventually she asked if I would like to come to GAO to help them write better reports.

I was thinking to myself, “Hey, I have a Ph.D. in writing. I’ve published a lot of poetry and prose." I’d even worked by then with a few companies as a writing instructor (not a very good one in those days, actually). "I know a whole lot about writing,” I thought. Of course I was happy to go to GAO and earn a few extra bucks teaching them to write better. But I had one question…WHAT’S GAO?

These days, GAO stands for the Government Accountability Office. It’s known as the congressional watchdog. Whatever any congress person or congressional committee wants to know, GAO does research—a performance audit—and reports back to congress with a written report, a testimony, or briefing or all of the above. Here’s a link if you’re interested: http://www.gao.gov/about/.

Flop sweat.

I showed up to a room full of GAO employees ready to shed pearls of wisdom about writing. My co-instructor that day was Kevin—the first time we’d met. He urged me to just sit and watch and take it all in. But I was determined to show my expertise.

I started “teaching” and soon got questions, comments, and reactions from the participants that I’d never heard before, never imagined, and had no way to answer. Flop sweat ensued. Luckily, Kevin took over the run-away class and saved the moment and the day—he’d been teaching writing at GAO for a year.

Then the lightning bolt, as I sat for the rest of the day on the sidelines kind of humiliated, hit me.  As a student all the way through my doctoral program and then as a teacher, I’d learned and was now teaching college students how to write for teachers!

Writing for Teachers: I now call it Learning How to Get to Page 10!

Teachers do set some odd writing requirements and interact with student writing in a most peculiar way. First of all, teachers routinely ask for a 5-page or a 7-page or, heaven forbid, a 10-page paper. Why 10 pages??? What if the student can say everything she has to say in 4 pages? Then she fails. So we writing students eventually learn how to get to page 10.

I remember making the margins a little bigger, the font a tad bigger. But that was bush league. I soon realized the value of inserting quotations. The more quotations wedged into the paper, the less I had to write. Up to a point, teachers seemed to like them. Also, if the teacher required 10 pages, I was going to annex the first quarter or even the first third of the paper for the I-N-T-R-O. . .and I was starting with “Mesopotamia, the lost city between two rivers,” and then working my way slowly toward the present.

I also learned about fluff. If I simply wrote “I woke up and drove to campus,” I’d have only 7 words. So I learned to stretch: “On that luxuriously warm morning in late August, the first day of classes redux, I woke to birds singing a half hour before sunrise and sat with a sheet pulled over my head, trying to fall back to sleep, trying to ignore the dawning of another ineluctable 15-week drudge through another dreary semester, clinging to memories of the summer I’d spent near the ocean with Maria.” That’s 66 words already! And I haven’t even gotten out of bed. By page 3 maybe I’ll get to campus. And my teachers loved it.

But seriously, teachers do interact with student writing in a peculiar way. Teachers are reading because they need to evaluate and grade not because they’re scanning for information that they actually need to use—with one finger on the delete key in case the information proves useless. They’re paid to begin reading with the very first word and keep going until they reach the last word—evaluating all along the way. (Who in the world really reads that way?)

Teachers tend to value eloquent writing over plain English. Here’s a link to an interesting academic article that shows teachers’ preference for left-branching sentences (periodic sentences); the heightened, uncommon word; and a diverse vocabulary even though these three features actually detract from reader comprehension: http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/Files/ALSL/cross_Linguistic_Features.pdf

When it all changed...

So what I witnessed in that first GAO class was the need for very efficient writing, writing that extremely busy people could USE to make very important decisions. Over the next 25+ years, up to today, Kevin and I have been working hard to learn what kind of writing works in the workplace and what kind doesn’t and how to teach people the difference between the two. We never stop learning.

We’ve developed, as I mentioned, a systems-approach to writing that ends up being pretty different from the usual writing instruction in college.

We like to make outrageous statements, such as, “Workplace writing is 90% about the content and only 10% about the presentation.” I realize the so-called “business-writing” or “technical- writing” class is only 15 weeks long, about 40 hours of actual class time. Students have time to learn and then practice just a few important concepts and writing skills that will work for them for the rest of their lives in what we call “the real world.”

Have your students write for someone who can USE the information.

I’ll finish this post with one observation. If you want to help students learn the workplace- writing and critical-thinking skills they will actually need to do analog or digital writing on the job, NEVER HAVE THEM WRITE TO THE TEACHER, unless they write about something the teacher needs to know, providing USEFUL information to that teacher. For instance, I have students tell me whether I should buy an all-electric car, a decision I’m considering. I find that information very USEFUL. I ask them to find out how to make ceviche and then teach me how. Otherwise, students must write to somebody who needs the information, and that person should “grade” the writing.

Okay, enough ranting for one day. Let me know what you think.