Throughout your academic career, most of your writing will be written solely for your instructors.
As you enter into the business world, however, you will be writing to a variety of different readers, whose preferences for written text will vary. You will learn that you may have to reformat a document and change your writing style for various readers because readers have different needs.
Effective professional writing involves understanding the
- primary differences between academic and business writing,
- common types of audiences
Academic vs. Business Writing
The five primary differences between work and academic writing are
- Writing at work focuses on problem solving. Unlike academic writing where you write to persuade your professor how much you know, at work you write to help you perform your job. Primarily, you are trying to achieve a specific goal and to complete a job task.
- Work-related writing targets multiple audiences with different perspectives. In college our primary and, typically, only audience is our professor. Professors approach student writing similarly. They want to read what you've written and they're trying to determine if you've mastered the course content. The professor is also an expert or authority on the subject matter. But, as an employee you may write to many readers with varied backgrounds--some highly educated experts and some less knowledgeable than you are. You will also write to people within and outside your department and organization. These readers won't necessarily read what you've written unless you persuade them your message is relevant and will help them perform their jobs. You have to make your message relevant, clear, and easy to read.
- Writing at work may be read by unknown readers. At school, professors rarely share students' writing with others, and students rarely target multiple audiences. But, on the job, you not only target a primary reader but also secondary and tertiary readers who may or may not be known to you. For example, your boss (the primary reader) may decide to give your report to her boss (secondary reader) who decides to pass it along to one of her employees (tertiary reader).
You always need to assume that others will read your documents, that photocopies could be mailed, and that copies of your documents could be filed for further use.
- Writing produced at work can be used indefinitely and can be used in legal proceedings. While college papers have a limited life span (typically for 1 class), work documents can be filed and used indefinitely. Moreover, parts or all of documents can be used out of context in situations unrelated to the original scenario. Thus, work documents could be used in legal proceedings. You should word your documents carefully to prevent them from being misused. Ultimately, you are responsible for the document, and others can use parts or all of it to support their claims in litigation.
- The format for work documents varies greatly from the format for academic documents. In school, you primarily write essays, research papers, lab reports, etc. But you rarely write memos, letters, procedures, policies, or employee evaluations--all common work documents. You need to become very comfortable with different organizational patterns and different formats for your writing.
Most readers will easily fit into one or more of the following groups.
Consumers (General Readers, Novices)
Characteristics of Consumers
- Little or no knowledge of subject
- No requirement to read message.
- General information rather than technical information preferred.
Guidelines for Writing to Consumers
- Use simple language with minimal technical vocabulary
- Keep graphs/visual aids simple
- Maintain an informal tone
- Use common words
- Provide definitions
- Use simple sentences
- Use organizers
- Explain technical information
Characteristics of Technicians
- Know their fields, but have limited knowledge of related fields
- Are interested in "how to" type information
Guidelines for Writing to Technicians
- Simple language, but use technical terms where appropriate
- Tone should be encouraging, helpful, not intimidating
- Direct, imperative sentences (e.g. "Connect the machines.")
- Many informative headings for easy reference
Experts (Degreed Individuals)
Characteristics of Experts
- Prefer specific information
- Have technical expertise in a particular field
- Know their fields but specializations tend to be narrow
Guidelines for Writing to Experts
- Use plain language when no good reason to use technical vocabulary
- Use a more formal format when appropriate
- Provide relevant, topic-specific information
Decision Makers (Executives/Managers)
Characteristics of Decision Makers
- Are typically executives and managers
- Have progressed through the ranks
- May or may not have technical background
- Prefer information to allow decision making
- Make decisions based on cost/benefit analyses
Guidelines for Writing to Decision Makers
- Assume they know their own fields well
- Use simple language when no reason to use technical vocabulary
- Strive for brevity and conciseness
- Organize for bottom line up front