(This post will take about 8 minutes to read.)
When most people think about “writing,” they think of the sentences, the choice of words, proper punctuation and grammar, how sentences are clustered into paragraphs. But writing is far, far more than that.
When teachers of business/technical writing classes think about their subject, they usually think in terms of generic genres—types of writing like email, memos, good-news letters, bad-news letters, blog posts, infographics, social media, the proposal, the process report, the analytical report, the résumé and cover letter, etc., etc. But workplace writing is far, far more than that.
We formulated a radically reader/user-focused approach to workplace writing based on the model of a conversation (see our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing--https://www.amazon.com/Mastering-Workplace-Writing-Harvey-Lillywhite/dp/0692520082) back in the mid-1990s, a model we’d been developing since the mid-1980s.
As we ask the question "How do you teach people to write well in the digital age?" we think this new approach to workplace writing is finally beginning to change the conversation about workplace writing. Here are five ways we’re making a big difference….
1. Instead of thinking of writing as proper punctuation and grammar, think of writing as developing USEFUL CONTENT and DESIGNING A READING EXPERIENCE that makes the content very easy for the reader to navigate and understand.
One of our key mantras is that WRITING IS 90% ABOUT THE CONTENT & 10% ABOUT THE PRESENTATION! This is true in the same way a cargo ship is 90% about the cargo and 10% about the ship itself. We acknowledge that, if the ship sinks, all is lost. So that 10% is pretty darn important. But without the cargo, this ship is empty…useless.
2. Instead of thinking of CONTENT as the facts, details, information we have to transmit out into the world, think of it as a discrete 4-part system.
Yes, our content is, partly, the information, but it’s also one of the BIG 7 systems that operate in any text/document (see #3 below). It’s a 4-part system, which includes the following parts:
· The ISSUE—the area of shared interest between the writer and the reader. It’s the reason the writer is writing and the reader will be reading.
· The pertinent READER QUESTIONS about the ISSUE—a writer must factor that ISSUE into the set of questions the reader must have answered about it (we call this “question factoring.”)
· The ANSWERS to those pertinent reader-questions—a writer uses her expertise, experience, and research to find answers that will FIT the pertinent questions the reader has about the ISSUE.
· The SUPPORTING INFORMATION—a writer must support the answers with evidence, examples, etc. The supporting information turns out to be the smaller questions that come up when the big questions are answered. It’s like pushing a huge rock down a mountain…smaller rocks fall…and then smaller rocks…and then the gravelly pebbles—each of these are reader questions, bigger and smaller.
Writers need to understand these four parts and use them to develop content that will be most useful for the reader.
3. Instead of thinking of any document, any piece of writing (paper or electronic), as a linear process we must follow from the first word to the end, think of any document as A BODY OF INFORMATION THAT DELIVERS ITS MESSAGE THROUGH 7 SEPARATE BUT INTERACTIVE SYSTEMS…what we call the HOCs and LOCs.
When I watch editors edit and teachers grade writing, I usually see them move through a document in a very linear fashion, editing/correcting as they go…word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, section by section. They’re looking for “mistakes” or “errors” or “areas that need improvement.”
But that’s like a doctor examining us molecule by molecule. Doctors see patients as a body with many separate but interactive systems: the nervous system, the skeletal system, the digestive system, the rest of the systems…you get the idea. Doctors ask us questions about how we feel and isolate the symptoms to the associated system. Editors/teachers should do the same.
Any text delivers its message via the 7 systems that affect usefulness and readability: the 3 HOCs (HIGHER ORDER CONCERNS) and 4 LOCs (lower order concerns):
2. ORGANIZATION (logical structure)
3. DOCUMENT DESIGN (visible structure)
6. word choices
All 7 systems are crucial to delivering a message effectively. We don’t rank them by importance so much as we rank them by precedence; that is, CONTENT must come before ORGANIZATION, which must come before DOC DESIGN, which must come before paragraphs/sentences/words/mechanics. Said another way, if you alter content (issue--> reader --> questions--> answers--> support) everything below is subject to some change…if you alter organization, likewise…if you alter paragraphs, ditto.
Every system is crucial, just as all systems in the human body are crucial. If any system fails, we may perish. But we edit/grade/design a reading experience most efficiently when we work from HOCs to LOCs.
[BTW, our formulation of HOCs and LOCs is original and dates from the mid-1980s—yes, we’ve been at this a LONG time. It predates and differs from other approaches that mention higher and lower order concerns as they apply to tutorial practice in university writing labs, practices that derive from the incomparable Muriel Harris’ early work with college writing labs—you can see this version published on such helpful sites as Purdue’s On-line Writing Lab—OWL. (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/690/01/. ]
4. Instead of worrying about the rhetorical approach, just look to see if the document is USEFUL and highly READABLE—does is keep the reader’s LEVEL OF INTEREST high and the LEVEL OF EFFORT low?
Okay, we know, all writing is situated rhetorically. All writing persuades (to some degree or other) using the means available….Aristotle: the rhetorician has a complete grasp of his method, if he discovers the available means of persuasion. Okay. We’re changing the way we talk about the available means of persuasion then! But allow us to drop the word “rhetorical,” which turns students off and suggests an overly academic approach.
So…writing is USEFUL when it keeps the reader’s level of interest high. It does this by addressing all the reader’s pertinent questions about an ISSUE that interests both writer and reader. Questions are the manifestation of our interest.
Writing is READABLE when it keeps the reader’s level of effort as low as possible. It does this through organization, document design, and style (the LOCs).
5. Instead of using the Transmission Model of Communication (TMC) to describe human communication, use “CONVERSATION” as the model.
The TMC was created by Shannon and Weaver, engineers who worked at Bell Labs, in 1949. See their book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (https://www.amazon.com/Mathematical-Theory-Communication-Claude-Shannon/dp/0252725484) They were NOT describing human communication. [As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.” (If you don’t know who he was, look it up—he was a GREAT and ORIGINAL rhetorician!)]
Their model was NOT meaning-centered. They were describing how to TRANSMIT radio waves from a transmitter to a receiver. For a short critique of this model and a brief explanation of why it’s a BAD model to describe human communication, see: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/short/trans.html.)
Writing that merely “transmits” fails. We “receivers” are NOT simply open vessels waiting for information to pour in. We receivers are very aggressive. We read ALL workplace writing with one finger firmly on the DELETE key at all times! Who, I ask you, really has the power in this transaction?
A much simpler and better model for human communication is a simple conversation. This word means “with turns,” so “going back and forth.” But what goes back and forth in a conversation? A loose string of questions and answers.
Questions are the manifestation of our interest. When we’re interested, we ask questions and expect direct answers in return. Now THAT’S communication…a conversation on the page/screen. Writers should never forget it.
So every document must simulate a conversation on the page/screen by…as we’ve said…factoring an ISSUE into the relevant reader questions and then answering them clearly and concisely.
Okay, I could go on all day talking about all the HOCs and LOCs systems…and, in fact, I do in my graduate and undergraduate classes and in my writing consultation practice and in our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing. (None of these involves a theoretical presentation, btw. All workplace writing concepts/skills must be 100% practical.)
I can tell you, for instance, how your very brain is physically wired to understand sentences in one way and in one way only. I can show you how to improve your paragraph coherence by observing the known/new contract. I can talk to you about what plain English really is....
Suffice it to say that we’re interested in changing the conversation about workplace writing. Let’s ditch all the talk about rhetoric and the multitude of workplace-writing genres. Let’s focus on real-world techniques that help writers design useful reading experiences for their readers.