Why Good Teachers Makes Us Bad Business Writers

by Anna Thompson on November 15, 2011

Does high school teach us to write in a way that’s counterproductive in the real world? Most high schools teach us to write in a formal, literary style, usually by studying the ‘classics.’

But does this make sense in today’s economy? When you go out and find your first job, what’s the first thing you do?

Change your writing style! You develop a new writing style that goes against many of the rules you were taught in high school.

To develop your (and your kid’s) career, wouldn’t it make sense to learn business writing skills instead of elegant, academic writing styles?

Of course, it’s not the teacher’s fault. They’re following the curriculum. But, if you had a magic wand, what would you change?

Here’s some ideas.

1. Format and Structure

  • In school, you’re encouraged to write long essays. Sometimes you’re told there is a minimum word count. You write the essay in large blocks of text and then submit it for review. The teacher scores the paper, shows you what you need to change, and you start again.
  • In business, you have to fight to be read. Your colleagues, customers, and managers are under siege. Another document is the last thing they want to read. So, to get through the noise, you need clear headlines, short bullet lists, easy to scan text, and action points that encourage the reader what to do next.

2. Structure: Start, Middle & End

  • In school, you use the start, middle, end writing format.

This is fine when writing a thesis or an essay. But how many of these will you write every day at work?

  • In business, you need to be more direct.

You often have to ditch the summary and get straight to the point. Why? Because the reader may already have the background information. They want to know what to do next. Emails, memos and other business communications use ‘Call To Actions’ to drive the reader forward.

3. Quantity Not Quality

  • In school, the teacher demands you write at least ten pages for an essay.

This creates all types of problems. Instead of focusing on the reader’s needs, you look for ways to pad out the text, add fluff, and repeat points… just to increase the page count.

  • In business, you do the opposite.

A lot of my work with clients is reducing the page count; removing text that distracts the reader; merging ideas together; making documents more useful.

4. Big v Little Words

  • In school, you’re encouraged to develop your vocabulary.

You’ll get higher points if you can demonstrate a better grasp of the language. That makes sense, up to a point.

  • In business, a direct writing style works better.

As many of your readers may not be native English speakers, using long, complex words will intimidate them and lose their readership. Focus on simplicity. Get instead of procure. Height instead of elevation.

5. Intellectual v Emotional

  • In school, one learns to distance oneself from the prose.

And one learns to use the word ‘one’ quite a bit. It gives the document a neutral, objective tone. This is fine for legal or scientific documents. But it sounds inappropriate in less formal settings.

  • In business, it’s about ‘you’.

Study how Social Media writers such as Neal Schaffer write. Notice how they keep talking to you, you, you. They write as though they were sitting across the table from you. And that’s what works when you want to create a connection with someone else.

6. Grammar Rulz

  • In school, the emphasis is on good grammar.

There’s nothing wrong with this. But there are drawbacks. Language is organic. It changes, develops and morphs. The writing style of Dickens, Conrad, and Bronte were appropriate for their time. But you wouldn’t write like that today, would you?

  • In business, you need to be aware of grammar rules, but also how to bend them when needed.

It’s ok to start a sentence with because or and. Not all the time but if it helps the reader. Many of my emails, written in a hurry, have grammar errors. Yours are probably the same. But we accept this as the priority is to communicate, even if a few split infinites enter the text.

Summary

Who decides if you’re writing well?

It’s not your teacher, it’s the customer. Who may be internal or external. But this is the person you’re writing for.

Do you agree?

Do you think the way we learn to write in school does more harm than good? What would you change?

Ivan Walsh, Editor at Klariti About Ivan Walsh

Got a question about improving your business? Contact me on Google Plus, @KlaritiDotCom, and Facebook

  • http://www.encouragingexcellence.ie/ Mairéad Kelly

    I think you need to be taught the proper way of writing from the beginning and then business writing in secondary school. Like anything, getting the foundations right from the beginning supports the structure forever.

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      Hi Mairead,

      I guess it depends on what we define as ‘foundations’.

      I heard of some 10 yos that were learning ‘structured writing’.

      I thought this was great and wish more schools taught this instead of flowery prose, which is what I learnt and then had to kind of unlearn if that makes sense when I went into the biz world.

      Ivan

      • http://www.encouragingexcellence.ie/ Mairéad Kelly

        I call that “flowery writing” the foundations. If you can’t get the basics right, you’re not going to get the rest of it right.

        Most people don’t set up in business for themselve and for those that do, that is exactly what marketing courses are for.

        Just like setting up in business it isn’t recommend that people just start, that they have a plan, do some market research, have funding etc, basically put the foundations in place.

        I have absolutely no problem learning how to write for marketing, which is different to writing for business, which still prefers the formal “flowery prose” to marketing language or text speak.

  • http://twitter.com/ClockwiseVA Linda

    I agree with Mairead that the formal, more structured writing style creates a good foundation and should still be taught. But then being taught to adapt those principles to suit a business format is a great next step. It means students will be prepared for all styles of writing.

    Good article!

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      Thanks Linda,

      Exactly, it’s the continuity that makes it work. I’m a bit concerned that some kids I know aren’t getting enough exposure to the structured writing techniques you mentioned.

      Our guy is very lucky and has a great English teacher. Of course, when he asks me what’s a compound noun, I make a quick exit :)

      • http://twitter.com/ClockwiseVA Linda

        I’m horrified by some of the writing and language skills (or lack thereof) that I see coming from the younger generation. It’s good to hear that your guy has a great teacher – it can make all the difference.

        • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

          I think the underlying problem isn’t writing per se but a corrosive attitude that accepts sloppiness and, in a weird way, sees it as a form of self-expression.

          Maybe it goes back to rap in the 80s and the beginning of dumbing down language, text, songs and what now.

          I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel recently and thought there is no way someone could write that today. Just wouldn’t happen.

          Showing my age, huh :)

  • Sharon Lippincott

    I suppose it depends on your purpose for writing. Your method exactly parallels the approach my father intuitively developed about sixty years ago that stood him in good stead throughout his illustrious career in the nuclear industry.

    On the other hand, I teach lifestory writing and memoir, and most students work hard to break the shackles of academic and/or business writing.

    In either case, writing as art or writing as basic communication, getting your message clear is a primary challenge.

    Bottom line: do I think schools are doing more harm than good? No, but I do think they should include a course or at least a unit on business writing as a core requirement. But of course that won’t happen because they are too busy with Test Prep!

    BTW, I have three grandchildren in high school, and they are all excellent writers by any measure.

  • Sharon Lippincott

    I suppose it depends on your purpose for writing. Your method exactly parallels the approach my father intuitively developed about sixty years ago that stood him in good stead throughout his illustrious career in the nuclear industry.

    On the other hand, I teach lifestory writing and memoir, and most students work hard to break the shackles of academic and/or business writing.

    In either case, writing as art or writing as basic communication, getting your message clear is a primary challenge.

    Bottom line: do I think schools are doing more harm than good? No, but I do think they should include a course or at least a unit on business writing as a core requirement. But of course that won’t happen because they are too busy with Test Prep!

    BTW, I have three grandchildren in high school, and they are all excellent writers by any measure.

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      I have three grandchildren in high school, and they are all excellent writers by any measure.

      That’s great to hear, Sharon.

      Do you that’s because of their respective schooling or values they’ve picked up at home?

  • http://www.charlotterainsdixon.com Charlotte

    I remember the old adage: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” Probably doesn’t work so well for business writing these days!

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      Hi Charlotte,

      I think social media has changed quite a bit, especially the way we look to others (not authority figures) for recommendations.

      Business writers need to look at ways to use the ‘voice to the crowd’ to make their point and stop broadcasting at consumers.

      Ivan

  • Don’t lower your standards

    Ah he dumbing down of America

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      he dumbing down… in deed :)

  • http://windmillnetworking.com/ nealschaffer

    Ivan, I am honored that you used my writing style as a role model here. To be honest with you, there is a reason why I write the way I do. You see, up until college graduation I was a decent writer. Then I lived in Japan for 15 years where I spoke Japanese and Chinese and spoke/wrote/read very little English for more than a decade! When I returned back to the United States in 2005, I almost had a hard time adjusting on the language side, so I made a conscious attempt to try to make my verbal and written skills as clean, concise, and direct as possible. This culminated in the writing style of my first book, Windmill Networking: Maximizing LinkedIn, where I literally wrote it as if I was having a conversation with someone at a (pick your favorite coffee house).

    I do agree that, with the advent of social media, brands HAVE had to “dumb down” their message and make it more conversational, which of course is more natural. On the other hand, if you are trying to sell to a technical crowd or a B2B scenario, the traditional business style may be the best.

    Therefore, “reading the air” and being able to be flexible to your audience means that those old traditional writing skills are still important – even if they might not be employed as often as they used.

    That’s my two cents at least ;-)

    Cheers!

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      Hi Neal,

      Didn’t know you lived in Japan for so long. We were there briefly and really loved the place.

      …On the other hand, if you are trying to sell to a technical crowd or a B2B scenario, the traditional business style may be the best.

      That’s a good point as to get ‘respect’ with technologists you need to speak their language and establish that you have deep subject matter expertise. This is probably the one place where jargon is accepted, if not encouraged.

      Ivan

  • http://couchable.co Tyler Herman

    I think part of this has to do with English teachers being in love with classical literature and their curriculum reflecting that. They probably all have a dream that one of their students becomes a famous author.

    And I guess there is nothing wrong with that. The vast majority of what is taught in our education system, in the US at least, is not practical to our future careers in any way. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. Becoming a well rounded person has its own benefits.

    As a designer, our education system, if you can even call it that, is horribly flawed. It is taught like an art but really it is a trade and should be taught as one.

    An education is for personal development, a trade is for financial benefit.

    Both are important and both should be taught at least on a basic level in schools but you are right, it really isn’t happening in writing courses.

    • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh, Media Writer

      Hi Tyler,

      One of our friends is a teacher and made the point that schools aren’t just about education, e.g. Learning math, but civilizing children.

      He meant that school was there to teach kids how to get together, even though learning may suffer as a consequence.

      I feel this is very unfortunate as teachers are relegated to crowd controllers rather than educators.

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