You have students for only 14 weeks, about 40 actual classroom hours, to teach them business/technical writing. Instead of trying to teach them a little about many things and having them mimic generic print and electronic formats, teach them a few really important fundamental concepts and skills they will cherish as forever knowledge and use for the rest of their lives. Workplace writing is about a few simple principles relentlessly applied. Here's my top 10 list--should keep you and the class plenty busy and excited....

1. Make sure every single assignment you ask the students to write is for a real person who actually needs some information about a particular issue (not a case study or some other make-believe situation). That person with the issue should also have some say in the grading. This can be fun for everyone!

So let’s unpack that first step.

All workplace writing in the “real world” originates in an ISSUE—some area of interest/concern for the reader. You tap into your reader’s interest by addressing an actual issue they’re interested in…you don’t create it out of the blue. As Dan Pink says in To Sell is Human, to win your reader’s attention, you must be of service. That’s very simple. Every customer comes to a business with a question: CAN YOU HELP ME? Every business must be a fulfillment center! Workplace writing is the same way. Teach your students this.

So this person your students should write to could be you, the teacher. But you have to have a real issue you’d actually like the students to research and inform you about (think of students as your own analytical/research crew). Here are some examples I’ve recently used in class.

· I’m seriously considering getting an all-electric car. I tell the students my driving habits and my budget, and they do my research for me. The big question (assignments should always be based on a big question—the issue) was: Should I buy an all-electric car, and if so, which one? (see the next steps in my top 10 list to follow this assignment through…)

· What’s the best toaster oven?

· What services does your university provide for students who are trying to get a job? (I actually needed to know that.)

. Summarize the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath ( and explain to you how you can use their ideas in your business writing class. (Or substitute another book you've been meaning to read.)

Really any issue you have is fine. But it must be a real issue for you so you can see if they’re giving you good information.

OR, find another person who has an issue and would appreciate getting some truly useful information. Have the students send their writing to that person, and have that person send you a note saying whether the information was okay and presented okay. Consider that information when you give your grade.

This is a great situation for service learning if you can swing it. (check it out:

2. Have students interview that real person to find out what their questions are about that issue (what do they want to know?). Content comes from the reader’s questions about an issue, not out of the blue. Have students write a brief paragraph summarizing that issue. Have them write a question outline that covers all the reader’s pertinent questions about the issue. Give feedback. Have the eventual reader give feedback on the outline.

3. Have students answer the questions through research. Talk to them about the importance of an appropriate methodology. Talk to them about sources, evidence, bias, abundance, etc.

4. Have them pick a format to deliver their information. Will it be a simple email/short memo report? Will it be an infographic? Will it be a PechaKucha? Will it be some other kind of print or electronic product? Talk to your students about the possibilities. See what they think. Get them involved. Above all, a business writing class should never be just about following directions. Give students problems and make them solve the problems—with your guidance. (Is there a small community group that needs a web page? Great. Can one of your students do that??? Go for it.)

I actually prefer to use what I call a short email report for many of the assignments--it's great basic training for a business writing boot camp. They can’t practice that form enough. It relates to just about any other form they need to write. So here’s a quick overview.

They must use the subject line of the email to state the main message of their document (Buy a Nissan Leaf—or whatever). The subject line is prime real estate in the workplace-writing world. It should be used for messages that get the reader’s attention.

Readers read by asking questions. There are three macro-questions we all ask as we cycle through any form of workplace writing. These three questions are answered in the three sections of a document:




1A. What is this and why should I care?

1B. INTRODUCTION: This should begin with a very brief statement of why the writer is writing and why the reader should care (the ISSUE). It should then preview the main reader-questions it will address.

2A. What’s the “story”?

2B. DISCUSSION: This should address each of the reader’s major questions in order of importance or other appropriate logical order. Each section should be announced by a heading. If there are sub-questions under a major question, these are announced by sub-headings. You want to create a strong VISIBLE STRUCTURE for the reader to reduce the reader’s level of effort.

3A. What (if anything) is next?

3B. ENDING: Don’t repeat what’s been said. Tell the reader what, if anything, the writer or reader must do next, or just thank the reader for her attention.


Whether we’re reading our daily email, our snail mail, a magazine in the doctor’s office, a report at work, we use these three questions to cycle through the material. If we’re not interested in the issue or the questions, we hit DELETE.

This email report assignment will help students experience how content originates in an issue the reader is interested in and is then generated by the reader’s questions about that issue. The answers to those questions and the support for those answers are the chunks of information we convey to our reader, whether it’s an email, a blog (like this one), a marketing proposal, a letter, a résumé, a webpage, whatever.

5. Teach students to begin with the answer in any section of sub-section and then explain, not vice versa. Students tend to put main points after explanations (inductive writing approach). Readers totally prefer answers first, then the explanation (deductive writing approach). Look at some GAO reports for pretty good examples of this deductive structure in a report. (

6. Teach students to use headings: topic headings, question headings, or message-style headings (like newspaper headlines). We call this skill “chunking and labeling.” Chunk related information. Label it with a heading. This creates a VISIBLE STRUCTURE that makes a document easier for the reader to navigate...reduces the reader's level of effort.

7. Get students to include graphics (but NEVER Powerpoints). See Edward Tufte on the horrors of PowerPoints (  or Have them write reports for YOU about the possibilities of graphics. A great assignment. Remember to have fun! (Ask them to read the Tufte info and report back to you about the horrors of Pp; they can include other sources/opinions.)

8. Get them to be aware of paragraphs. Don’t let them get much beyond 10 LINES. Try for deductive paragraphs (topic sentence first). Show them that topic sentences have two parts: a subject (what noun are we talking about?) and a controlling idea (what about it?). Tell them about paragraph development: it should address the questions the reader has once he reads the topic sentence. About unity. About coherence. Teach them the known-new contract ( or just Google it!)

9. Read Joseph Williams’ book STYLE. ( Teach students to write clear sentences. Make them identify nominalizations and convert them into verbs.

10. Teach them to understand and use plain English. ( or just Google it. So many incredible resources. In fact, have students write you a report about how to use plain English…or better yet, how to teach it to college students. They’ll have a ball with that one. It could be an oral presentation to the class. Why not teach them some basic grammar so you can have a vocabulary to use when you discuss sentence structures?

Workplace writing is about a few simple principles relentlessly applied. This top 10 list is a great start. Get our textbook to go into more depth. But have fun. Get the students excited. No following directions. Explore. Discover. Change lives. Give students forever knowledge they can use for the rest of their lives.

Talk to me. I’m here to help and to learn. Come on business-writing teachers. Go for it….