During my time at the 2018 STC Summit, I asked knowledgable professionals about things that young professionals or fresh-out-of-school university students needed to work on to be more effective in the workplace. One topic that came up was using “academic-style” writing vs. “business style.” I struggled with this myself on my first writing job, so it’s obviously not a new concern. Let’s take a look at what this means.
I had to learn the hard way (as always) that writing used to impress college professors was not useful in a business environment. At the time, the job was answering guest letters for the Walt Disney World Resort. It was brought to my attention at the time that my writing style was a bit “windy.” In short, I used too many words to get my point across, and it took me a couple years to unlearn the habit.
If you’re in a college or university now, you probably know the “joy” of paper writing. You might have a minimum page or word count to meet, so you pad your writing with extra words and phrases to make the text longer or loftier. You might be tempted to add extended sidebars on some topic of interest to show your professor how witty you are; how hard you worked; how clever your argument is; or how many ten-dollar words you learned from your reading.
Academic writing in the sciences or engineering isn’t much better, with the added handicap of writing in passive voice or a third-person narrative. I have a friend who is convinced, like Calvin in the comic below, that academic writing (specifically, postmodernism) is designed to deliberately obfuscate. Mind you, I wouldn’t go that far, but anyone who has “enjoyed” a long essay by Michel Foucault or Claude Lévi-Strauss–or even a book by Carl Sagan–can testify to the fact that academic writing isn’t always the same as communicating clearly.
When you get to a business environment, like human resources, education and outreach, or public relations, all of those literary hoops you had to jump through don’t matter anymore. Instead, your employer and audience want:
- Plain language, i.e., using the fewest words necessary to communicate your point clearly: think Hemingway, not Faulkner.
- A minimum of jargon.
- A friendly or professional voice vs. a condescending or superior-sounding tone.
The good news about writing for the business world is that most of the time it’s a lot more straightforward than writing for the academic world. As my coworker Cindy Lou put it to me when I was training her to take over my area of responsibility, “Why don’t you just write what you mean?” And what you mean should be relatively straightforward:
- You are not getting a free vacation because…
- Thank you for sharing your idea, but it doesn’t fit our company’s needs right now.
- We apologize for [X situation].
- You can submit your content with the following caveats…
- Your check is in the mail and will arrive by [X date].
American business writing is concerned with expedience and getting things done efficiently. That is not to say it’s rude–at least not by American standards–but it does eliminate a lot of the introductory “fluff” that goes into academic writing because time is money. If your audience is spending several minutes deciphering what your document means, you’re wasting their time and money. Or worse: the reader will get so bored that they won’t buy what you’re selling, costing your company money.
To summarize: you’re not trying to prove how smart you are in business writing, you’re trying to show how great your company is by communicating succinctly what you can do for the reader. Writing for business shouldn’t be rocket science, nor should it read like it (even if you are writing about rocket science!).