Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Business Writing

Thanks to JS whose comment on another posting spawned this posting. He wrote: "Also, why are students learning how to write an email/business letter in college? Is this an ESL course?"

Let's keep our focus on now, not on the past. Today there is virtually no college or university that does not give at least one course in Business Writing; many of these schools give multiple courses on the subject (UNLV has an entire department of business writing). It is no longer considered sufficient to "merely" provide education in a student's major. What is of importance to prospective employers is not so much what you majored in--after all, there is an assumption that if you majored in accounting you can add 2+2--but how effectively you can communicate what you know when in a business environment. And no, merely being a native American educated here in the US and a primary speaker of English will not give you the specific skills necessary to produce all the types of business writing/communication required when on the job.

Let's look at e-mail for a moment. Is there anyone reading this who has not already sent thousands of e-mails during his/her lifetime? Of course we all have done so. However, a whole lot of those e-mails have been to friends. E-mails sent for business reasons require a different approach than those sent to friends. It might be perfectly fine to write "Hiya Ari boy" on an e-mail to a friend, but that's a no-no in a business environment. The etiquette of business e-mail writing is quite different from our usual e-mails.

Now business letters. Business letters is a general category with many different types under that rubric, types that can differ greatly one from the other. Are you writing with an inquiry? With a request? Are you sending a sales letter? An appeal for charitable purposes? Are you applying for a job? Are you responding after an interview? Are you making a complaint? Are you writing what is called an adjustment letter? Is your content neutral, positive or negative? Are you giving good news or bad news? Each of these different types of business letters requires a different approach, both as to formatting and to content.

Most high school students who have held part-time or summer jobs have not had the type of job that requires them to write in a business environment. In point of fact, most college students, certainly in their first few years, don't hold jobs that require business writing as part of their jobs either. Just where is it that we expect that our young people will have learned the rules of how to write in a business environment? That is one reason why colleges have responded by giving business writing courses. (Note: for frum students there may be almost no work experience or none. Being a camp counselor doesn't give you writing skills, nor does tutoring someone in gemorah or chumash.) A second reason is that academic writing, the type required in college, differs greatly from business-required writing, in formatting, style, tone, use of vocabulary etc..

A word about content of these business writing courses; they aren't at all limited to only e-mails and letters. Covered in most curricula are e-mails, memos, a variety of letter types, short reports, long reports, instruction writing, the use of appropriate visuals (tables, graphs etc.) to accompany text, resumes, the job interview process, writing to an overseas reader or one known to be ESL, the collaborative writing process, the ethics of writing in the workplace, executive summaries, informative abstracts, descriptive abstracts, how to do proper research, documenting sources, and, of course, grammar and appropriate vocabulary.

So, to summarize, no my students aren't ESL (although a few are), but it's insufficient in the workplace to "merely" be a native English speaker. And let me end with this. All law schools in the first year require students to take Legal Writing courses. Why? Because there are formatting and citation and content rules in the legal field that lawyers need to abide by. The same is true of other business fields, and courses in Business Writing address the specifics that need to be known.


Anonymous said...

"Being a camp councilor doesn't give you writing skills"

Nor does being a camp counselor

ProfK said...

Thank you Anon--correction made.

Anonymous said...

This is a bit shocking... I learned letter writing in approximately the 6th grade. I'm 30 now.

I wonder whether people who need this sort of remedial education belong in college at all.

But that opens the whole can of worms about how college degrees have become the new baseline credentials for a job, which has in turn resulted in the proliferation of watered-down colleges.

JS said...

I remember doing similar exercises in grade school. I think it was related to writing to our representatives and writing to a company for product information or something like that. Regardless, most of this has to do with tone and formality.

Even in a business setting, most emails are quite casual. Blackberries and other smartphones have exacerbated this trend. But, writing an actual business email or letter is not rocket science for someone who knows how to write decently and has a modicum of common sense. Learning where to put the business's address and the proper salutation is trivial.

The best resource for improving these skills is learning from co-workers and those with jobs. It's rare a junior person will interface directly with a client without some form of supervision (e.g., "send me a draft of that email or letter so I can mark it up before it goes to the client"). Even if you've taken such a course, the people you work with may write with a different style or format. Certain things may not be appropriate for email or a letter in a certain business environment. Similarly, you want someone in your desired field to look at your resume as a resume for a music teacher is sure to be formatted and styled differently than a resume for a business consultant.

Again, this has a lot more to do with taking on a formal writing style and understanding the business environment. The legal writing that lawyers learn is not the same as this. That writing skill has more to do with formulating arguments and learning how to put the application of law to facts into writing.

Miami Al said...

Effective communication is critical, formatting isn't import, the ability to communicate is valuable.

However, collegiate level work? Hardly. To be honest, I can't imagine what course would be appropriate for such a remedial level assignment, middle school at best, sophomore year of high school as a refresher.

Persuasive writing is a type of assignment I'd expect a freshman (high school) English teacher to assign, not a post-secondary course.

That said, I'm terrified that in a "excuse for missing work" one would be giving such a personal medical example as their reason, for both school/work settings.

RBB said...

Doesn't sound much like any of the others commenting have ever taken a business writing course. Sure I learned how to write a letter in grade school, at least sort of. No relationship to the heavy writing I do at work. My business writing course gave me a head start when I started working and it gave me confidence that I knew what I was doing. It also got me a promotion faster than others I came in with, and they let me know it was because of my skills in writing for business. I give full credit to the course I took in college and the instructor who taught it.

And about those informal emails, depends on the business and on the position someone holds and on company policy. My company is strict about emails and doesn't want to see anything that doesn't look and sound business-like.

Miami Al said...

I have an MBA from a top 10 business school.

Never learned how to write an email in school.

Rae said...

And that proves just what Al? Did you ever take a business writing course? If no, then you had to learn everything you've needed to know on your own and/or relying on others in the company you work for. A course given on the college level is a practical item and no, colleges, all colleges, are not exactly known for providing practical information. This is one area where they are finally doing the right thing.

Miami Al said...


This is at best high school level vocational training, NOT collegiate level academic work, that's my point. Business writing is NOT an academic discipline, legal writing is teaching a skill, writing briefs, that while nominally English (with lots of Latin phrases as well), are written in a specific language.

Business email is standard conversation English without curse words and often fully spelt words.

I'd have ZERO issue with the school offering a seminar through the career office on this sort of material, they are useful skills if you lack them.

However, this sort of "assignment" does not strike me as a post-secondary level of academic rigor, write a persuasive email, the work setting is secondary (note: the assignment was boss OR instructor), grasp the format/content rules for writing a business email.

Two things from this: one, this sort of formatting/content rules for a letter is normally taught in high school, therefore doing it in college is remedial. Two, given the decision to immediately pick a medical condition demonstrates that no, they do NOT grasp the format/content rules.

So ProfK knows her students quite well, this was a valid assignment. That said, these college age students in a college level class are clearly at a middle/high school level of English writing skills, and that is terrifying... especially since her "experiment" at other schools demonstrates that this is UNIQUE to this particular from school.

Rae said...

Al, you could use some remediation yourself. First, "Business writing is NOT an academic discipline." The Prof didn't say it was. Read carefully and you'll see that it is a COURSE, coming under the rubric of the English Department. Courses are not disciplines. Legal writing is also not a "discipline," also being a sub-category of either Law and/or English, and being taught as a course.

You may not consider a personal health or medical issue as correct as an excuse for absence in a work environment, but it's acceptable to a whole lot of people other than yourself, and is used frequently.

Al, you're not a professor of English and don't teach this course. On the basis of one report dealing with one assignment you are calling the course remedial and the students in the course poor writers of English. Here's what a logical person would do: they would ask the prof what types of other assignments are given and how many. That logical person would not make a general statement purporting knowledge not in evidence based on one sample taken out of context. And before you presume that the prof's students are at a "middle/high school level of English writing skills," you might want to edit your own writing.

Like the prof, I, too, am a professor of English (different college), and if you have an MBA from a top-ten business school, I can't say much about the writing skills that school considered as adequate. You might consider taking one of the hundreds of college business writing courses available, since you clearly didn't get everything you needed to learn back in high school.

If this comment seems snippy, you might look at your comment for the source.

Miami Al said...


A medical condition is obvious a reason to miss work, one fully protected by law and requiring no make up of work.

The assignment was to write a letter and talk about making up work, hence my comment about grasping for the serious medical condition, and getting SUPER detailed into it.

I think I communicated my opinion properly in a blog comment, therefore, the writing was appropriate for the forum...

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