Friday Rant: “Business Writing” — There Is No Formula

Do you ever find it ironic that you can only communicate about writing through words? 26 arbitrary characters arrange themselves into patterns that you learn to recognize as a small child, and these signs and signifiers form the bulk of the way you communicate and relate to everyone on a day-to-day basis. Translation: the way we communicate through writing is important.

The WSJ agrees, and points out a problem within the business community. In the article Students Struggle for Words: Business Schools Put More Emphasis on Writing Amid Employer Complaints, the author talks about the gap between analytical skills and how to effectively communicate the data, saying "while M.B.A. students' quantitative skills are prized by employers, their writing and presentation skills have been a perennial complaint." MBA programs have responded through various means. Wharton is doubling its communications coursework, and all first-year students now have to compete in a mandatory writing competition. The University of Rochester has gone so far as to hire "writing coaches," and at Northeastern, the writing coaches actually double grade alongside the professor.

While all this is very well and good, we see several major problems with this "solution." Back in the 1960's and 70's, business schools like Wharton actually struggled with their image -- many actually viewed it as a trade school, and questioned its appropriateness as part of a "Great Ivy League Institution." Business school, as opposed to the "legitimate" academic institutions is still viewed by some as an underclass (perhaps with good reason, but maybe some wrong reasons too). Perhaps an M.B.A. degree is more in line with a form of finishing school, but not a grammar school. If B-schools wish to impress the recruiters -- and they most certainly do -- then they should have more stringent admission standards that are as focused on pre-requisite writing ability as quantitative aptitude.

Inherent in that point, however, is that students coming into a graduate program (any graduate program, for that matter) are expected to know how to write before they get there. Nobody seems to think about the fact that writing is an art form, and it can take decades to achieve mere competence, let alone excel at the practice. English students get their rep for flowery prose for a reason. But English, Poli Sci, Sociology, Journalism, Philosophy, History, and other "traditional" students are arguably the best off, writing-skills wise. Why? Shakespeare? Read it. Deleuze & Guittari? Read it. Supreme Court case decisions, business plans, the Magna Carta, ancient shipping receipts, speeches, poetry: read those too. All of these disciplines require a broad and varied reading list, and if you don't read, you can't write. Period.

That being said, we don't believe that there can ever be a magical, formulaic, and all encompassing "business writing" that will effectively communicate concisely and precisely what you mean, causing legions of clients to make orders, sign dotted lines, and commit to extensive contracts having read a few words that you learned how to compose in business school.

You want to know how to effectively communicate with someone? Learn a company's culture, read their website, and incorporate their focus in your writing. Without proper connective grammar and personal style, mere words are boring at best and meaningless at worst. Read personalities. Ask what they're reading for fun, and take it into consideration. And take some advice from Kurt Vonnegut.

- William Busch and Sheena Moore

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