Are you sure your students exit your class with workplace writing skills they will use confidently when they go to work? Can you name those skills? Can they? Can you explain how every class activity contributes to this goal?
Equipped with a standard (ridiculously expensive) 600-page business writing textbook, are you actually conducting a college-level business writing class that meets departmental expectations, fits into your comfort zone, keeps the students adequately engaged for 15 weeks, and gives you something to grade? Be honest.
I aspire to the first and can name the writing skills I "teach" (as can my students), though I’ll admit that leaving my comfort zone is…well, not very comfortable. But I’ve found that adopting a classroom style that tends more toward “training” than “teaching” helps get students where they need to be when they leave my class, go to work, and suddenly have to write for real. I know because they've written to tell me!
- let me explain briefly how I see “training” and “teaching” as different approaches;
- let me state the primary skills I think students need to learn in order to write more confidently on the job; and
- let me bemoan the state of the business writing textbook and offer an alternative that includes incorporating training into the classroom.
TRAINING & TEACHING ARE DIFFERENT
In the thirty+ years I’ve been training folks in businesses to write more efficiently and effectively, I’ve been criticized by participants a few times for being “too academic.” I think that means I’m sometimes prone to small lecture jags, forgetting for a few minutes the all-important classroom conversation and losing sight of the main objective of any training:
- isolate a skill (or skills),
- show how it’s done,
- allow participants to practice and ask questions if they get stuck.
In a training, participants should leave the session with a practical skill they didn’t have when they came in. Participants demand a good take-away that will, demonstrably, make their jobs a little or a lot easier.
In the classroom, where I’ve also perorated for 30+ years, I can be fascinating.... There seems to be more latitude to be humorous, tell stories, put concepts in wide context, explain the wheres and why-fors, and provide a broad grounding in the topic so students can appreciate how important the information I’m trying to impart actually is in the “real world.” After all, my students don’t leave class having to use the particular skill I’m teaching. They might bank it and use it in the dim and distant future. More likely it adds to the collegiate patina they’re taking on, almost unconsciously.
Because students don’t need to use the workplace writing skills immediately, they don’t demand that it be taught in a more obviously practical manner and usually don’t even know what information they’re “being forced to learn" will be important and useful when they do go off to work.
Teaching isn’t bad. But it is different from training. I’ll say it’s more conceptual and less practical, or less immediately practical.
But I advocate a decidedly “training-oriented” approach in a so-called “business/technical writing” classroom that imparts specific/practical writing skills to students whether they can use them immediately or not.
SKILLS CAN’T BE VAGUE
When I ask teachers of business/technical writing to name the specific skills they teach, I often get puzzled looks and a list of skills that lack precision. The puzzled looks come, I think, mainly from incredulity: after all, everyone knows the standard writing skills that are taught in any writing class, so why are you asking such a stupid question? But when pressed to name the writing skills they teach, professors of writing often give me the usual bucket list:
- better understand the writing process,
- analyze the audience,
- understand common business writing formats,
- write clearly,
- write correctly.
These are essentially the top-five responses.
But none of these is a skill. They’re goals. Or are they objectives?
According to Mikal E. Belicove (http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikalbelicove/2013/09/27/understanding-goals-strategies-objectives-and-tactics-in-the-age-of-social/), accomplishing a task involves goals, strategies, objectives, and tactics, which he defines in this way:
- A goal is a broad primary outcome.
- A strategy is the approach you take to achieve a goal.
- An objective is a measurable step you take to achieve a strategy.
- A tactic is a tool you use in pursuing an objective associated with a strategy.
Given this definition, the top 5 so-called skills listed above are, at best, merely goals.
When I say skill, I’m referring to a tactic, a tool that will allow you to accomplish an objective, which will then allow you to accomplish a goal.
Okay, there are general, so-called soft skills, such as the ability to
- Manage your time,
- Work in a team,
- Act as the Leader for a team or larger group,
- Motivate yourself.
But I’m trying to get at specific skills: a.k.a., expertise, a particular ability.
So here are some of the specific skills I require my workplace writing (I use this term instead of business or technical writing) students to learn, practice, and demonstrate to me for a grade in my workplace writing class:
- Summarize, in a single paragraph, the ISSUE at the heart of any workplace document (digital or print), which includes naming the REAL-LIFE READER who actually NEEDS and will actually USE the information and why it’s important to her.
- Generate a list of actual questions the real-life reader needs to have answered about this ISSUE.
- Gather information that will answer the reader’s questions, along with necessary supporting information.
- Develop an appropriate methodology to ensure the quality of the information.
- Write a sentence outline of the document.
- Write a draft of the document with a clear three-part structure that addresses the reader’s three macro-questions: 1)What is this and why should I care?: introdution that states the issue and previews the main points that the document will cover; 2)What’s the “story”?: body that addresses all the reader’s pertinent questions and supports the answers; 3) What, if anything, is next?: ending that tells the reader what action will be taken or is needed, if any.
- Organize the information deductively (message first, then the explanation).
- Create a document design that imparts proper visual emphasis and makes the document very easy for the reader to navigate.
- Manage paragraphs, sentences, word choices, and mechanics appropriately.
- Proofread and publish.
These are my top ten skills. Several, I know, have been truncated into objectives. But each bulleted item is a specific skill or is attained through a set of specific, identifiable hard skills (actual tools) that allow the item to be accomplished. For instance, some of the hard skills I teach to “manage paragraphs” would include, write a topic sentence that tells the reader what? (the topic of that paragraph is) and what about it? Begin with the topic sentence. Develop the topic sentence so that each of the reader’s questions will be addressed. Ensure that sentences are coherent by observing the “known/new contract.” (https://www.cmu.edu/gcc/handouts/Old-New%20handout%20.pdf)
Each skill is named in my class rubric (my COS-Three Pillar Rubric), which states specific skills for
- generating appropriate CONTENT,
- creating a logical, helpful ORGANIZATION, and
- expressing the information using a clear STYLE.
My entire workplace writing class is a series of training sessions to explain these skills and allow students to understand them, to practice them, and, with some luck and hard work, to develop the ability to use the skill, mindfully.
The Workplace Writing Class Should Be Skill-Based Not Genre-Based
Going back some hundreds of years, workplace writing instruction has been about genres, not so much about actual writing writing skills. Samuel Richardson, in 1741, wrote Familiar Letters for All Occasions. He found he could be of service (and make money) by writing sample letters for all occasions for those who were unable to indite such letters themselves. (http://umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/self-improvement/letterwriting.htm). He was not the first to write such a book. In fact, you could say Aristotle’s Rhetoric was a how-to for being persuasive in various legal situations.
I examined one of the three best-selling textbooks for college business writing courses, which has over 600 pages and sells as a hardback for $250. I’d ask you to have a close look for yourself. Without even reading the table of contents, you thumb through the book and see a ridiculous amount of information covering topics that range from how to communicate with a Japanese business person to how to spell words correctly. They go maybe a half an inch deep and clearly a hundred miles wide. The actual number of pages dedicated even to the most general advice about “writing” is less than 50 pages.
But there’s primarily coverage of business document formats, what I call genres. There’s the memo, email, good news letter, bad news letter, persuasive request letter, résumé, résumé cover letter, the activity report, the proposal, the analytical report, etc.
Do we really believe a student today will read such a textbook carefully? Do we really believe that showing a student several particular, extremely generic formats and assigning them to write each one once will teach a student writing skills? Given these activities, what specific writing skills will a student gain, remember, and carry confidently into his job?
And, to top all this off, the writing that students do in these classes covering these formats has no REAL reader. At best, there are case studies with fictional readers. The teacher is the only actual reader. And the teacher can’t actually, truly USE the information. The teacher reads to grade.
We Can Solve These Problems
I co-wrote and published a workplace writing textbook that’s under 200 pages. When I asked Seth Godin (http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/) to read a draft, he thanked me for “endeavoring to raise standards that need raising.” He rightly noted, “I’m confident that you could teach more, to more people, if the book were 70% shorter.” He also said, “It may very well be an excellent textbook. But not a textbook that anyone is going to buy because they want to.”
I agree with his comments. He was advocating a 60-page textbook. But that’s probably still too long. The training manuals we develop for writing training in the workplace are usually 50 pages or fewer. And they are pointedly focused on writing SKILLS.
A semester is about 15 weeks. Each week a class meets for about 150 minutes. That’s about 2,250 minutes, or 37.5 hours of class time. That’s less time than one standard 40-hour work week.
We need to realize this limitation. What good do we do when we teach a pinch about everything?
We need to define a clear set of specific skills, teach them to our students, give them time to practice and work toward mastery. This is the training model. But, within the training model, the learning objectives must fit the time allotted for training. Training requires acute focus.
Here’s my approach. I find a real live reader who has an issue for which they want useful information. The student must write to this real reader (who then gives at least part of the grade.) Often I am that reader, other times I’m not. For instance, lately I’ve been wanting to buy an all-electric car. But will it fit my needs? That’s my real-life issue. So I set a list of “deliverables”:
- Write me a single paragraph summary of the issue and a list of the main questions I’d have about this issue.
We talk about how to do this summary and why it’s important. I demonstrate how all CONTENT is issue-driven and must be generated solely by the reader’s pertinent questions. I grade their summary and list of my questions. I ask them to re-write it if it’s not a useful, accurate document.
- Gather information to answer the reader’s questions and make a sentence outline that describes level-one and level-two topics (the large “roman-numeral questions” and the subsequent “A.B.C.-questions under those). Include a statement of methodology.
Again, we talk about how to do this and why it’s important. I grade their outline/methodology assignments. I ask them to re-write….
- Draft a report FOR ME of no more than 1,500 words, fewer if possible, that gives me USEFUL information (answers my questions).
We talk about drafting. I am clear in my expectations. We discuss document design principles. We discuss the deductive structure. When I grade this assignment, I pay attention only to content, organization, and document design. But I also give very general comments on the adequacy of the style.
- Draft a final report.
We discuss techniques for managing paragraphs and sentences. We discuss plain English and appropriate diction. We touch on mechanical correctness. If necessary, I send students to the university writing lab for mandatory remediation if any aspect of mechanics becomes an issue.
Over the course of 15 weeks, we have time for maybe 3 or 4 such assignments. (I do also try to wedge in a week on “the resume and cover email/letter.”)
But I do all these activities in the spirit of training.
I make it a point to “teach” as little as possible. Yes, dealing with inexperienced students who don’t need workplace writing skills yet may require me to venture into teaching from time to time. But I prefer to keep such forays to a minimum. Instead, I want to define a skill, make sure students understand the concept, then give them time to practice, practice, practice.
By the way, it’s always quite breath-taking how students can convince you that they get the concept, can pass "the test." But when they try to apply the concept they've "learned," things fall apart. And even though they show they can apply it quite successfully once, doesn’t mean they’ll apply it well the second, third, or fourth times. It takes practice, practice, and more practice to move from KNOWING to DOING.
Here’s to DOING!
Here's to TRAINING!