biz writing

Somewhere between “boring” and “horrifying” is how I would describe much of the writing I read during my business career.  The more competent business writers steer towards the bland, creating sentences that are technically correct (or close to it) but employ tired vocabulary, recycled words and phrases overly familiar to business readers.  The word choice leaves you numb.  The less competent “writers” sometimes struggle to master the basics:  subject, verb, object.  They have a long way to go to discover paragraphs, flow, rhythm, and it’s highly unlikely that, without considerable help, they’ll ever write something memorable for reasons other than how terrible it was.

Business knows it has a problem.  “Communication skills training” is all the rage, and classes in Business Writing are high on the list of favorites among corporate training departments.  These two- or three-day workshops promise students will learn “to present ideas clearly and persuasively,” “to select the best words,” to spot misused words, “to avoid communication misfires,” to use pronouns and punctuation correctly.

In three days?  That’s a heck of a promise.

Needless to say, it’s not possible to teach someone to write in two or three days.  Or a week.  Or a month—not that anyone in corporate America would send someone to a month-long writing class.  That would be an unimaginable luxury.  They want results NOW, not next month.

Business communication hasn’t improved, and one reason might be that sending people to three-day writing classes doesn’t help much.  It takes years to learn to write well, years of practice with feedback, years of thinking through how to organize ideas, synthesize key points, apply relevant detail.  It takes years of building vocabulary through reading and by making friends with a dictionary, maybe even a thesaurus.  It takes years of reading the works of people who write well to see how decent sentences comes together, or sometimes to be stopped cold by a breathtaking sentence.

That’s how people learn to write.

So why not take people who already know how to write (English majors, I’m talking about you now), who’ve spent years doing all that—practicing with feedback, looking up words, trying out different sentence structures, organizing qualitative information—and teach them the little bit they need to know to apply all that to business documents?  There’s an idea:  Business writing for writers.

What do you, as English majors, need to know about writing for business?  You need to know how to take your writing ability and use it to create proposals, corporate research reports, product testing documentation, RFP’s, contracts, business cases, Statements of Work.  You need to understand the context of these documents, the audience, the required elements and the formats.

It’s high time we had some cross-disciplinary education, like a class in “Business Writing for Writers,” teaching students to leverage the ability they’ve spent years developing so they are ready to apply it in business.  Not to mention it’d be a nice addition to an English major’s resume.

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