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Business Writing Versus Classroom Writing
By Jane Watson   Printer Friendly Version

On the morning of a second day of a business writing workshop, one of my participants said, "My wife is an English teacher. When I told her about the changes in writing that you taught us yesterday, she got very upset. She said if I ever start a sentence with the word "and" or if I ever write a one sentence paragraph she will slap my wrist."

The man-and his wife-hadn't understood. Business writing is different from the writing you learn in the classroom. This is because both the readers and the image you want to project of yourself are different.

In school, the teacher assigns or negotiates a topic with the students. There is a specific word count involved. A student may be asked to write a 1,000 word essay comparing the use of symbolism in George Orwell's book 1984 and Margaret Atwood's Handmaiden's Tale. Sound familiar? The student then scrambles to read the books (not having quite completed the earlier reading assignments), looks up the word symbolism and tries to make sense of the task.

The student runs into three problems. First, understanding the assignment and pulling the information from the texts. Second, producing the required word count. Students soon clue into the idea that these two problems can be solved by writing about the same point several times but using different words. This hides the fact that the writer isn't too clear on the topic and adds to the word count.

The third problem revolves around image. If a student can make himself sound ten years older and give a pompous flavour to his paper, he will get top marks. This is difficult because of the vocabulary level. If you listen to many teenagers words such as like, rad, yo (now in the dictionary), duh, dissing are sprinkled throughout their conversations. None of these will fit into an English assignment. But the solution lies in the thesaurus.

One young man I know writes his essays according to his normal speech patterns and when he is finished, uses the thesaurus to upgrade all the nouns to polysyllables. It changes an easy-to-read document into a more complicated one and certainly gives in a more ponderous flavor. And, yes, he always receives top marks.

So this is what we learn in school: how to disguise our thoughts if we are not sure what we are saying, how to pad sentences with unnecessary words, and how to project the image of someone we are not.

Does this style of writing work in the business world? Absolutely not.

Our readers do not receive a salary for pouring over our efforts. Our readers are busy people who want to pick up documents, read them quickly and know what they are to do next. They also want to feel there is a live, warm-blooded person writing to them-not the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.

Here are some tips for today's writing:

Begin with the idea you are speaking face-to-face with your reader.

Use the same words you would use when talking.

Change nouns to verbs when possible. (For example: An announcement was made by the president. Better: The president announced)

Start sentences with and, but or because, if the message calls for an informal tone.

Remove words that don't add to the message. (For example, remove this useless filler: I would like to take this opportunity to…)

Use personal pronouns: I, we and you. (Use you more often than I.)

Leave in the words of courtesy-please, thank you, I appreciate.

Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher once said, "Little men use big words, big men use little words."


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