About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Teaching business writing

Tony Karrer had a post on what makes "good writing" which sparked a great conversation. In response to his post, I thought I would post a section of the paper written and presented at AERA by myself and Marilyn Easter (Yonkers, V. & Easter, M. (2007). College student perceptions of good professional writing in an international context. American Educational Research Association Conference: Writing and Literacies SIG, presented April 10, Chicago, IL.)

Teaching Business Writing

Because of the diverse academic backgrounds in the field of business communication, there is little consensus on what and how business writing should be taught (Alpern et al., 2004; Pultsky, 1996). In this section we will look at the methodologies used to teach writing and try to define the attributes of good business writing as identified by academics and professionals in the field.

Teaching Approaches

As discussed in the previous section, students come into the business communication class with varying preparations. Their perceptions of what constitutes good writing is often formed in primary and secondary schools. In fact, the approach and writing curriculum in which they were instructed creates the basis for their writing skills (Hillocks, 2002; Layet al. 1999; Sengupta & Falvey, 1998).

The traditional way of teaching business writing in the last century was to provide a format in which student would plug in information. Business writing used formulaic genres depending on the location and purpose of the written form (Amidon, 2004). Since business writing often doubled as legal documents, there was little variation of the form within a given country. However, with the advent of the internet and a growing reliance on written communication in the workplace, the genres began to become more flexible and less static (Amidon; Diaset al. 1999; Paltridge; 2004).

Research in the area of applied linguistics and contrastive rhetoric has allowed writing instruction to cross cultures, situating genres in cultural and social processes (Conaway & Wardrope, 2004; Hanna & de Nooy, 2003; Martin, 1993; Matsuda, 2001). It is no longer sufficient to teach genres without establishing the social processes that affect and are affected by particular genres (Kress, 1993).

Electronic communication, for example, has created a more informal genre in which there is flexibility in register and organization. On the other hand, formal reports still embed cultural and social processes that make it situated in the power structure of an organization. In other words, students are taught the parameters of a genre based on the interaction of the reader and writer. In some cases, there is flexibility and in others there is none.

One shortcoming to this approach is that students may not have the writing experience on which to base their genre choices. As such, they may continue to use outmoded or inappropriate genres. In addition, those who have limited access to diverse discourse communities may be limited in their ability to accommodate their writing to conventions and genres used by other groups (such as the business community or an international business organization) (Diaz et al., 1999).

The most common methods of instruction for writing, especially in the US, either takes the form of grammar/structure (a traditional approach) or process (prewriting, drafting, revision, and edit). The grammar/structure approach focuses on the minimization of grammatical errors. Students are taught grammar rules, rhetorical structures (i.e. narratives, expository, persuasive), and mastery of English (Hartman & Tarone, 1999; Hillocks, 2002; Layet al. 1999; Martin, 1993; Sengupta & Falvey, 1998). This approach does not necessarily take style or audience into consideration (Sengupta & Falvey; Syrquin, 2006). As a result, the reader may feel disconnected from the writing and have difficulty in understanding the writer’s message, although the writing conforms to a standard format and may be error free.

The process approach came out of research by Flowers and Hays (Saunders & Scialfa, 2003; Thorson, 2000). For most, the process approach includes prewriting planning, drafting, revising, and editing. In business communication or academic writing, these processes may include audience analysis (Alpern, et al.; Rogers & Rymer, 2001;Thorson), task analysis (Rogers & Rymer; Saunders & Scialfa); message design (Alpern, et al.); identifying and organizing supporting information (Myles, 2002; Saunders & Scialfa; Thorson); collaborating and revising during drafting (Saunders & Scialfa; Diaset al. 1999); and editing according to the guidelines for style defined by the university, the instructor, or a professional organization (such as APA or American Marketing Association). While many students may be taught the steps of the writing process, not all are given the time to develop these skills in class (NEAP, 2005).

Within foreign language instruction and business communication is a fourth approach to teaching business writing. The communicative approach focuses on minimizing misunderstandings. Writing is approached as a negotiated dialog between the reader and the writer. An outgrowth of the process approach and foreign language teaching, students spend a great deal of time trying to understand their readers’ situations, assumptions, and abilities (Alpernet al. 2004; Myles, 2002; Rogers & Rymer, 2001). They focus on the most effective way to encode and transmit their message while minimizing interference that could cause misunderstandings as readers decode their message. Just as important as the development of the message is feedback that the reader gives to the writer. This interaction between the reader and writer is what distinguishes the communicative approach from the process approach. Non-standard English is an error when it is distracting to the reader, thus interfering with communication (Rogers & Rymer, 2001). As a result, there is much more flexibility in the parameters of proficient business writing standards with the level of proficiency situated in the context of the reader and writer.

Defining Good Business Writing

As mentioned in previous sections, the business communication profession has multiple definitions of good business writing, depending on the field from which instructors were trained. There have been numerous studies of writing instructors’, business communication instructors’, and business professionals’ perceptions of errors and business writing (Beason, 2001; Gilsdorf & Leonard, 2001; Hairston, 1981; Plutsky, 1996; Rogers & Rymer, 2001; Saunders & Scialfa & Scialfa, 2003). The results from each of these studies have been surprisingly consistent, with the most disruptive errors being run-on sentences or sentence fragments, poor organization, poor development of ideas and arguments, and grammar errors that act as a social marker (i.e. he brung; Hairston) (Beason, Gilsdorf & Leonard; Hairston; Rogers & Rymer; Saunders & Scialfa & Scialfa) .

Beason’s (2001) research went further and identified how these errors affected a writer’s image. Through in depth follow-up interviews, she found that business professionals perceived writers as hasty, careless, uncaring, or uninformed if the reader identified multiple errors. This then influenced their image of the writer as a business professional who was: a) a faulty thinker, b) not a detail person, c) poor oral communicator, d) poorly educated, or e) sarcastic, pretentious, aggressive. Since writing in the workplace often takes the form of negotiation between various levels of power structures, these perceptions can have a serious impact on a graduating student’s career (Diaset al. 1999; Hairston, 1981).

Just as important as what constitutes good writing, was what the non-distracting errors were, especially since business professionals and instructors disagreed (Dias et al., 1999; Gilsdorf & Leonard, 2001; Plutsky, 1996). Gilsdorf & Leonard found that instructors tended to focus on the mechanics of writing, while business professionals focused on the style. For example, many of the errors that business professionals identified as distracting were, in fact, grammatically correct, such as beginning a sentence with but. On the other hand, business professionals overlooked errors that did not slow down their reading. It is possible, therefore, that even an error free piece of writing, could be perceived poorly if it does not conform to the organization’s style. Therefore, a focus on writing error free without taking into consideration style, organization, content, purpose, and audience, will produce graduates that are unprepared for business writing in the workplace.

The international workplace presents more challenges to what is considered good business writing. As Gilsdorf & Leonard (2001) point out, “No ready means exists to measure the influence of global English and e-mail on Standard English…These two pressures on the language, however do argue for an effort to measure again whether readers continue to perceive the various questionable usage elements as errors. (p. 2).”


Alpern, B., Odett, D., & Pietila, R. (2004). Improving MBA students’ communication proficiency: An orientation pilot study that incorporates technology and plagiarism issues. In Proceedings of the 2004 Association for Business Communication annual convention, pp. 269-280. Association for Business Communication.

Amidon, S. (2004). Change agents or followers: Analyzing genres in the business writing classroom. In Proceedings of the 2004 Association for Business Communication annual convention, pp. 121-126. Association for Business Communication.

Beason, L. (2001). Ethos and error: How business people react to errors. College Composition and Communication, 53 (1), 33-64.

Berkenkotter, C. & Huckin, T. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: cognition/culture/power. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Conaway, R. & Wardrope, W. (2004). Communication in Latin America: An analysis of Guatemalan business letters. Business Communication Quarterly, 67 (4), 465-474.

Dias, P., Freedman, A., Medway, P., & Pare, A. (1999). Worlds apart: Acting and writing in workplace contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Economist, (2006). Inculcating culture: The Toyota way. In The new organization: A survey of the company, pp. 11, The Economist, January 21, 2006.

Gilsdorf, J. & Leonard, D. (2001). Big stuff, little stuff: A decennial measurement of executives’ and academics’ reactions to questionable usage elements. The Journal of Business Communication, 38 (4), 439. Retrieved December 14, 2005 from Ingenta Expanded Academic ASAP Plus Database.

Hairston, M. (1981). Not all errors are created equal: Nonacademic readers in the professions respond to lapses in usage. College English, 43 (8), 794-806.

Hartman, B. & Tarone, E. (1999). Preparation for college writing: Teachers talk about writing instruction for southeast Asian American students in secondary school. In Harklau, L., Losey, K., & Siegal, M. (eds.) Generation 1.5 meets college composition, pp. 99-118. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hillocks, G., Jr. (2002). The testing trap: How writing assessments control learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Martin, J. (1993). Grammar: A contextual theory of language. In Cope, B. & Kalantzis (eds.), The powers of literacy: A genre approach to teaching writing, pp. 116-136. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Myles, J. (2002). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. TESL-EJ, 6 (2), A-1. Retrieved December 20, 2005 from www-weiting.berkeley.edu/test-ej/ej22/al.html.

NEAP (2002). Writing Report Card. Retrieved October 10, 2005 from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2002/2003529c.pdf.

Paltridge, B (2004). Academic writing. Language Teaching, 37, 87-105.

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Saunders, P. & Scialfa, C. (2003). The effects of pre-exam instruction on students’ performance on an effective writing exam. Written Communication, 20 (2), 195-212.
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Sengupta, S. & Falvey, P. (1998). The role of the teaching context in Hong Kong English teachers’ perceptions of L2 writing pedagogy. Evaluation and Research in Education, 12 (2), 72-95.

Syrquin, A. (2006). Registers in the academic writing of African American college students. Written Communication, 23 (1), 63-90.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia

I have long been aware that style of writing can be used as a criterion for criticism, as can format (and even font!)

Years ago, I used to draft documents for the manager of the training unit I worked in. She was very good at being able to keep me right with how to format what I wrote.

Executive summaries were all the rage in those days. Bullets likewise were to the fore, when used properly. I believe these formats are still in favour.

All this amused me. It would seem that the research into communication over the decades is right. It's not what's said in words that's so important when communicated - and this applies to spoken as well as written words.

It's how it's said, and how it's presented. The verbiage is only conveyed if all these other non-verbal things are administered correctly.

And I sigh. To me, it's simply another form of discrimination.

Catchya later

Nancy Devine said...

Wow...excellent post with a terrific host of sources. Do you think a process approach and a communicative approach are compatible?

V Yonkers said...

@Ken: There is a group of literacy/writing theorists originally out of Britain and now active in Australia (including Gee) who have been working on Genre Theory. Basically, they contend that students should learn about the various genres of writing, breaking it down to understand the components so they can recreate the genres they need to be successful.

Communicators understand this, but go further to try to have students be more flexible and choose those genres that meet the readers' expectations. My understanding of genre theory is that they believe the genre should be taught without that flexibility as readers will expect standard formats. I believe this has changed as we are able to change formats as needed due to the digital age.

@ Nancy. Thank-you for the feedback. I think any good writing teacher will use all the best of the theories (yes, even grammar) but usually with tendencies towards one theory. Some writing instructors feel that students need to understand the writing process in order to produce a good piece of writing. Others feel that the finished product is important because it reflects on the writer. Others still feel that the discipline of learning grammar and writing structures will give students the writing structures they need to be successful writers. I myself feel that by focusing on the dialogue between writer and reader, students will understand which grammar is appropriate, the structures that should be used in writing, and use a process that helps them to understand the audience's view point.

bonya said...

This is an excellent overview of the writing strategies used to teach business writing today. I've been teaching writing in the business world (after years in academia). I keep up with the research, but I can tell you that a writing consulting working one week with executives, the next week with engineers, and the next with folks from the production line has to assess which strategies work best with which groups. The point I believe is to get writer's to think and problem solve and to do it most efficiently since they write under pressure every day. A writing instructor must give them all kinds of tools (planning sheet, audience analysis, dialog, etc.). In the real world, you have one or two days to change a skill that takes years to develop.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

I revisited this post and recognised all that you are saying here as rich.

I so much agree with you that the digital age could provide a pathway towards breaking down some of the barriers to font, form and format of writing as areas of discernment. I hope it does just that.

It has long been an impatience of mine that these genre-barriers should cause breakdown in communication, unnecessarily between people of like minds but who have different backgrounds.

Thank you, again, for this incisive post.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

@bonya: I think the main role of the writing instructor today is to make professionals aware that there is no "good" business writing without having an understanding of the audience, situation, or forms appropriate to communicate a message.

I remember when I was teaching esl to business professionals how many of them wrote My dearest sir or madam: as they had been taught in school. Many of the phrases they used were outdated and sounded funny. English as a whole, however, due to the internet, changes based on context. But unfortunately, many writing consultants I have met are tied to the form and format they have been taught is "proper".

Students are even worse as they have been told is definitively "correct" or "incorrect". Making them AWARE is half the battle and as you point out, often the only thing you can do within the small time frame.

@Ken: I agree. Coming from an interdisciplinary background myself, I have learned to move between those genres. Looking at my blog, I think you can see the different genre depending on the topic, something I've noticed in your own writing. If we could just get more people to learn how to do that!