We should be teaching workplace writing the way they teach golf. Break it into its parts, explain techniques for each, then practice, practice, practice…on a real golf course!
They don’t teach you golf by setting you up with a program that simulates golf…”Tiger Woods PGA Tour PlayStation 2 Gameplay.” That’s a fun game, but it doesn’t teach you how to golf.
You need to learn to grip the actual club (and adjust the grip for various shots). You need to learn the proper stance for different clubs and different lies. You need to learn the three equal parts of the swing (backswing—“DON’T PICK UP THE CLUB!”; downswing—“START WITH THE HIPS!”; follow-through—“BACK HEEL UP!”); You learn the fade and the draw, the sandwedge, chipping, and putting.
The way golf instructors isolate each aspect of golf and give the student specific techniques to manage them all, writing teachers should break workplace writing down to isolate each aspect so students can learn specific techniques to better manage every aspect:
· generating useful reader-based content,
· organizing with the message first then the details,
· designing docs of any kind with the reader’s eye,
· organizing message-first paragraphs,
· structuring sentences the eye-brain system can readily decode,
· using plain English, and
· maintaining correct mechanics.
What follows is my saga as a college business writing teacher who ventured innocently out into the “real world” and back again, and how that trip radically changed my approach to teaching workplace writing. You may need a canteen and some trail mix. Good luck. . . .
Let me confess here at the start…I’m a convert and possess a convert’s zeal. I feel strongly about how we teach students business/technical writing (I guess that makes me a special kind of nerd, as well). Here is my two-part story, with a final part that addresses the most important question we college writing teachers face: how can we equip students to write well in the workplace in the digital age?
I LEARN AS A GRAD STUDENT TO TEACH BUSINESS/TECHNICAL WRITING OUT OF A TEXTBOOK TO COLLEGE STUDENTS, KEEPING 1 STEP AHEAD
As a PhD student in a writing program, I just wanted to write. To earn my keep, I had to teach classes. I was required to teach business and tech writing. I had no idea what that was, but I was given a syllabus and an expensive textbook and told to keep at least a week ahead of my students.
Assignments for business writing included writing a memo, a good-news letter, a bad-news letter, a persuasive-request letter, a cover letter, a résumé, a short report and a longer report. It was the same for tech writing, but the assignments replaced some of the letters with so-called technical formats: process narration, sets of directions, end-user documentation, etc.
So I followed the very expensive textbooks, which explained in some detail how to produce these generic formats. After a while, it felt like I was teaching the real thing. The textbook seemed to know where to lead, and I followed. Students never questioned this approach. We all got along just fine.
As for teaching writing, I was a little surprised that only a few pages of the textbooks actually focused on specific writing techniques. There was nothing on how to develop truly useful content for a living, breathing reader who was busy but needed the information. In fact, I was the only real reader, and I didn’t much care what students wrote about. Sometimes we had a case study with make-believe situations and make-believe characters. I liked creative writing, so what the heck.
The textbook told the students to be VERY AWARE of “audience.” But what did that mean exactly? One textbook advised students to learn all about their audience, their likes and dislikes, preferences of all kinds, where they lived, where they went to school, everything they could learn. That did seem a little over the top, not to mention border-line voyeuristic. So I glossed over that. Obviously, I reasoned, writers should think a little about the “audience.” But I told students this with a little wink. There never really was a real audience. Just me.
The textbooks proclaimed that writing is a process, which it spelled out as PLAN/DRAFT/REVISE. I had to admit that pretty much everything I’d ever written had involved these three elements, so I repeated this idea to students. However, the textbook never really drilled down into the particulars of these recursive steps.
PLANNING seemed to boil down to knowing your audience and brainstorming what you thought you wanted to say. Maybe you could make an outline of your main points. DRAFTING was simply typing up the draft…after all, you’d brainstormed and maybe had an outline to follow of all the things you wanted to say to your “audience.” REVISING dwindled to proofreading.
Some textbooks made a big deal about revision, telling students to RE-ENVISION the whole document. I was never sure what that meant. Students basically tried to fix mistakes on their first draft, if they had time. I realized that students were doing a lot of their “drafting” in the middle of the night just before the assignment was due. There wasn’t a lot of time to fix the typos. But was I any more committed to bus/tech writing than they were? We all plowed ahead...credits offered, credits earned.
The textbooks admonished students to write clearly and concisely. But how to do this specifically wasn’t discussed much. The textbooks all emphasized 100% correctness.
The textbooks covered group projects just a little. So we did them, too. We didn’t discuss any real techniques for getting a group report done. I put students into teams and told them to work together. I gave a little class time once in a while for them to huddle up in their groups and talk.
The books told students that giving oral presentations would be important to them. Again, not a lot of space was dedicated to techniques. Just, speak up, make eye contact, avoid the UHs and UMs, don’t fidget, (imagine your audience naked???), etc. So I assigned them to give a five-minute oral presentation with some kind of graphic…another topic that was covered only briefly. The students got over their abject stage fright and did the best they could. We all applauded.
Textbooks also discussed international communication, just a bit. Never wear a green shirt when you do business in Belgium??? Never look anyone in the eye when you do business in Japan??? We skipped that chapter because, when you’re in Salt Lake City, DENVER is about as far east as any of us could imagine.
The textbooks covered topics about a mile wide but only about an inch deep.
When I got hired as an Assistant tenure-track Professor after grad school, I continued to teach these “service” courses that other English professors disparaged. ALL WAS WELL. I HAD IT DOWN.
(refill canteens and trail mix at this juncture....)
I ENTER THE “REAL WORLD” AND LEARN TO TEACH WORKPLACE WRITING TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE TO DO IT FOR A LIVING
To make a few extra bucks after our first child was born, I followed up on an opportunity I wasn’t looking for that had fallen right into my lap. Someone from the GAO (Government Accountability Office—I’d never heard of it) in Washington, D. C., seeing that I had a PhD in writing, asked me to help GAO with its own writing training.
That’s when my professorial ideas about writing were obliterated and replaced by a no-nonsense approach to writing, not for an “audience,” but for extremely busy real people who cared a great deal about what was written.
It was like they needed to be professional golfers and I was the guy from PlayStation 2 sent to teach them.
The participants in these training classes needed, wanted, and expected to get real writing techniques they could use when they returned to their offices. I knew nothing about writing reports for Congress. I did realize very quickly that I had little to teach these very smart and very busy people about writing that they hadn’t heard before, academic techniques they had already discarded not a few moments after they’d crossed the threshold to begin their work at the GAO.
The business/technical writing approach from the textbooks, which I’d kind of mastered, was useless. Nobody at the GAO was writing good-news/bad-news/persuasive-request letters. Nor were they engaged in cranking out fluff reports for nobody in particular. Much of their work was highly technical, but I never saw an employee write a process narration or a set of directions, etc.
For the first few training classes, I pretty much made a fool of myself, bluffing and pretending to know what they needed me to talk about. But it wasn’t pretty. Luckily I always taught with another instructor who was an insider. Humiliated more than once, I became very humble. Essentially I shut up and listened carefully and asked a ton of questions.
Now, some 30 years later, I have continued my work with the GAO. I’ve gotten pretty good at teaching people who must write for a living how to improve and become more efficient. I’ve now worked with most of the federal Inspector General community. I’ve worked with many state offices of legislative audit. I’ve worked with audit report writers from all corners of the earth.
You could say, I’ve turned myself into a respected, legit golf instructor whom professionals seek out!
What surprised me is that when I’ve gotten requests from engineers, from science labs, from social workers, from health-care workers, from police, from executive staffs in business, from Big 6 Management Consulting firms, and others to provide writing training, the specific techniques I helped develop at the GAO have proven effective, no matter what kind of business/technical work is being done, no matter what mode or multi-modal approach is used to deliver the information in print or electronically.
So let me ask the question we began with one more time….
HOW CAN WE EQUIP STUDENTS TO WRITE WELL IN THE WORKPLACE IN THE DIGITAL AGE?
When I see how business/technical writing is still being taught in college, I’m disappointed. Though it's constantly updated, new editions of the same old textbooks, it’s the same as it was 35 years ago. There may be less emphasis on writing letters, but these have been replaced by teaching email etiquette, blogging, managing social media pages, making infographics, texting for business, corporate tweeting, writing for mobile-phone apps, and, of course, writing the cover letter, résumé, and the long and short report. Oh my goodness.
The emphasis is still on formats, not on very specific, practical critical-thinking and writing techniques that a student could use in any workplace setting for any kind of workplace communication…to become a better golfer, not a better PlayStation 2 gamer.
I just don’t see how this newly updated old-fashioned kind of class can actually equip students to write for the rest of their working lives. Really, it can’t.
Before I address the big question posed at the start of this post again, let me relate one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received when it comes to teaching writing in college.
I was recently asked by the Director of a grad program at American University if I could give writing seminars to a group of grad students who would be writing and then presenting documents to actual congressmen and congresswomen and to Generals in the U.S. Army.
I was flattered to be asked, but I told this Director that American University had a great English department full of great writing teachers. I asked her why she didn’t pick one of them to do this seminar. She said, “It’s because you’re not one of them.” I knew what she meant. She wanted real-world writing experience and real-world instruction for her grad students. And that was the big compliment. There no doubt are writing professors at AU who could have done a great job. But I loved the way she thought of me. I wore her flattery as a badge of honor.
The 4-hour seminar was optional the first time, just a perq for grad students. But it became a requirement for all students in the program. The techniques they learned in the seminar, they told me, were perfect for what they had to do (communicate with real people who were real busy about real things that were really important), and very different from the kinds of advice they’d gotten in college about writing of any kind.
So here’s my answer again: You equip students to write well in the workplace in the digital age first by defining your terms. What does “writing well” mean?
Check out this article by McNamara, Crossley, and McCarthy, “Linguistic Features of Writing Quality, (http://wcx.sagepub.com/content/27/1/57.abstract), in which the authors show evidence that college writing teachers give better grades to writing that seems to them more sophisticated. They find three linguistic features that writing teachers reward with higher grades, writing that has
· More complex syntax—essentially more periodic sentences;
· Greater lexical diversity—using a variety of words to refer to the same thing;
· Use of less frequent words—using SAT words.
However, they also show that these three lexical features make writing harder for readers to understand.
As this article demonstrates, college writing teachers reward efforts at eloquence, not plain English.
These lexical features do not define “writing well” for me.
To write well, in the workplace, you need to produce truly useful content for a real reader who needs the information, content that keeps the reader’s level of effort as high as possible and presents that information in a way that keeps the reader’s level of effort as low as possible.
I hardly have space here to detail my ideas about writing. Dr. Dungey and I have put them together in our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing. It takes a radically different approach to teaching workplace writing, different from any other business/technical writing book I’ve ever used or seen. As a golf teacher would do, it isolates the key aspects of workplace writing and provides specific techniques students can use to master that aspect…then it’s practice, practice, practice…on a real golf course.
But I will give a broad outline of the skills students need in the digital age no matter what kind of workplace writing they’ll need to do. This gives a sense of how I teach golf….
1. Students need to write ALWAYS and only for a real reader who needs the information, not just for a make-believe person in a case study and not to an uninterested teacher who’s graciously playing along. That real reader should have a say in the grade. (Practice on a real golf course.)
2. Students need to understand that all workplace writing originates in an ISSUE—an area of shared interest between the writer and reader. They need to articulate the ISSUE before they begin writing. (Grip the club.)
3. Students need to understand that CONTENT comes from the reader’s pertinent questions about that ISSUE not from what they want to say. Developing content is a matter of learning and answering the real reader's real questions. (Take your stance.)
4. Students need to learn to answer those questions directly from their own expertise, experience, or research. If they do research, they need to be informed about creating an appropriate methodology. (Swing.)
5. Students need to learn some principles of document design so they can “design a reading experience,” not merely write. (Follow through.)
6. Students need to learn how to write using deductive structure—placing the answer first then the details. (Hit the draw.)
7. Students need to learn specific skills for managing paragraphs and sentences. (Use the best equipment.)
8. Students need to learn all the techniques that constitute plain English. (You get the idea.)
9. Students need to learn to edit for content first. RE-VISION is mainly about adding and deleting content, not merely fiddling with syntax and diction.
10. It wouldn’t hurt students to know the fundamentals of grammar. Although grammar has been described as the “skunk in the garden,” it’s really no more than the specialized set of terms we need to discuss writing. Any activity, from knitting to nursing, from boxing to baking, from glassblowing to golf, has its own set of special terms that one must learn to do that activity. Grammar is the language of writing. Students should learn it!
Yes, there are very specific skills to teach in all 10 areas. But this is a good overview. We could throw in knowing the elements of argumentation and the incisive analytical algorithm used by performance auditors, the rules for evidence, etc., but there’s golf and advanced golf….
We have students in a business/tech writing class for 14 weeks—just under 40 hours. We need to focus. Drill down. This is the Digital Age, but no more PlayStation2! REAL GOLF!
Let me know your thoughts....