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.
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?
About Ivan Walsh