I've said before that we teach students WRITING FOR TEACHERS in school, but when they get on a job where they need to write, some of those WRITING-FOR-TEACHERS writing habits betray them. Therefore, I think it's crucial...is there a stronger phrase? (screamingly, clamorously imperative)...that students in a so-called "business/technical writing" course practice writing to a REAL READER who actually cares about the issue the student is writing about--cares in a way that the information the student provides is actually USEFUL, practical, essential information the reader can use to make a decision of some kind. And, if at all possible, THAT reader should "grade" the writing.

So let's unpack that paragraph rant.

How do the WRITING-FOR-TEACHERS writing habits betray them?

  1. Very, very rarely do teachers actually NEED the information students provide. Instead, students are advised to write to an imaginary reader or readers. Thus they learn to broadcast instead of narrowcast. They provide content that comes from their own interests instead of writing by carefully targeting the actual questions a real reader needs to have answered, a situation they will face immediately when they write on the job. The critical-thinking activity of having to generate a real reader's questions is formidable for most students. It's an exercise students need to practice over and over again And then addressing those actual questions directly, fully, and concisely is another exercise students need to practice, practice, and practice!
  2. Workplace readers (defined as those doing business and their customers/clients) read with one finger on the delete key. And they read by skimming quickly and foraging for useful information. THEY DO NOT READ THE WAY TEACHERS ARE PAID TO READ, that is, they don't begin with the first word and read consecutively until they reach the end, grading as they go. So students need to learn how to make documents pay off immediately and how to make documents extremely easy to navigate. (Many electronic genres build readability in, e.g., 140-character limit, expectations of very short bursts of information, as in texting, comments attached to a posted photo, and the other microformats inherent to specific social media and phone apps, etc. However, somewhat longer email and analog texts don't build in these opportunities for explosive moments of meaning.)
  3. Workplace readers prefer plain English. Teachers don't. Inexperienced students think "business/technical writing" is a different, more formal kind of writing with special formats they must learn. Wrong. Just as we talk to our co-workers, whatever level they're on in the office hierarchy, in a professional yet conversational manner, we should write that way. Students need to learn how to give readers valuable content (information that addresses their concerns=questions) as clearly as possible. Formats tend to differ from office to office. So I believe it's better for students to learn thinking and writing skills that can be applied to any electronic or analog text, short or long.

So those are a few reasons NOT to write for a teacher. To whom should students write? 

Any reader of any age who has "skin in the game" on some issue (an area of interest/concern/risk) is a perfect candidate to be a reader of a student document. It could be somebody the student knows, a friend, a classmate, or someone the teacher knows who agrees to be written to by students (here's where "service-learning" opportunities might be useful).

Also, the teacher herself or himself might assign students to research and write about an issue that the teacher NEEDS to know about, has "skin in the game" on. For example, last semester, I had students tell me if I should buy an all-electric car. I had them tell me what the the best practice acoustic guitar was for me to take on planes. I had them tell me how to make and serve ceviche. I also had them find a single problem with our university, identify someone who needed to know about that problem, and write a proposal to that person recommending specific fixes--this was essentially a program/performance audit report.

I've created a rubric for evaluating student writing, which I call the COS 3-PILLAR rubric. As specifically as I can (that is, without relying on any undefined adjectives/adverbs), I define standards for CONTENT, ORGANIZATION, and STYLE and both a holistic and numerical way to evaluate student writing. Instead of totaling numbers in each column, this rubric acknowledges that if any of the three big components fails, the whole document will be greatly impaired or ruined. (If you're interested, let me know and I can post the rubric on this site.)

Certainly any writing teacher should define with the class what standards are on the table for writing and assessing that writing. The more specific such standards can be, the better the odds that students can learn and meet the standards, of course.

One last thing...the person in the best position to "grade" student writing is the person who needs the information. You might ask that reader to rate, on a scale of 10 (where 5 is the average workplace writing text they see on the job), what their level of interest was as they went through the document AND what their level of effort was as they tried to extract important, truly useful bits of information (and invite comments). Clearly we'd want the first score (level of interest) to be high and the second score (level of effort) to be low.

Following this advice, creating opportunities for students to write for real readers who really need the information, and having the actual readers evaluate, even holistically, the writing, can make a "business/technical writing" course much more effective. (btw, I make no distinction between business writing or technical writing...to me it's all workplace writing. I've worked with MANY people on jobs that were highly technical or what might be called more traditionally a typical business setting, and I've found the writing needs to be identical. Certainly the workplace readers' needs are identical: truly useful information presented as clearly as possible in a way that's very easy to navigate.

Let me know your thoughts....