Writing Styles: Academic Versus Business

Why do some people – even though they have gotten great marks in their essays in school – have difficulty when writing in the business world?

They may not realize a major factor: There are many different writing styles, e.g., academic, business, legal, literary, technical, and scientific. Each style has its own audience, purpose, and guidelines.

It is wonderful when people do well in academic writing. I believe it is the basis for all other styles. However, it does not always work in the business world. Why? The answer is in the readership and the purpose.

Major Differences

In the academic world (from grade school, high school, college, and undergraduate level at university), you write for one reader who already knows the topic. Your reader’s objective is to read your paper and mark it according to how well you understand the assignment. Ideally, the marker reads the entire document, determines a mark for individual points, adds them up, and assigns an overall score. Organization and visual appeal, while important, are not crucial as all parts are usually read – if the marker takes his or her job seriously. The tone is normally formal because you are trying to impress your reader with your knowledge and literary skill.

In the business world, you write to busy people who are not necessarily conversant with the topic. In addition, they are working under time constraints and are overwhelmed with the amount of information to be read. These readers appreciate simple words, short sentences, and visual appeal (white space, lists and subheads). Although business and academic readers may have the same educational background, how they read is different. Business readers tend to skim documents. They need a strong organizational structure and a document that appears easy to read.

Advice for Business Writing

Never require your reader to interpret your message. State your thoughts clearly. As the writer, C.S. Lewis once said, “I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it.”

A business reader should be driven through a document with sentences that start with connecting words, such as in addition, however, therefore, as a result, for example, and, but, etc. First, second, third and last also work well.

Yes, I did use and and but. Business writing is all about relationship building and selling — not only products and services but ideas, courses of action, recommendations, and your personal and company image. Therefore, an effective business writer must be able to use three tones: formal, neutral, and informal. A formal tone is usually used for reports, a neutral for some letters, and an informal tone for most emails. Remember when you want reader buy-in, your best bet is an informal tone.

By the way, informal does not mean sloppy. It just means more conversational. “And” and “but” are great words to connect thoughts and to create a warm, friendly tone.

In addition, the most persuasive business documents are those that use personal pronouns, active voice sentences, and contractions. This is a far cry from academic writing, which does not require – or need – these things.

Another difference between academic and business writing is the word emphasis. Academic writing tends to focus on nouns. For example, in a school essay, I would write, “A decision was reached.” But, in a workplace document, I would say, “We decided.” The focus is on verbs. That is why I tell participants in my writing workshops to unsmother the verbs when they edit their documents.

In the academic world, you are taught one thought per paragraph. In the business world, this might intimidate your reader. Short paragraphs appear easier to read. That’s why I recommend paragraphs in the body of a print document be no longer than eight lines and no longer than five lines in a screen (email or web) document. Naturally, the first paragraph on a page or screen should be the shortest paragraph. The shorter the length the more likely it is to be read.

These are just a few of the differences between academic and business writing. However, you should now have a basic understanding of what your manager is talking about when he says your style needs to be adjusted. In the business world, your goal for written communication should be to deliver a clear, easy to read message – with the appropriate tone – to a busy reader.

Jane Watson is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications at Ontario Training Network. Jane’s Writing for Clarity workshop can be delivered as a ½-day session or incorporated into another session, e.g., report, letter or email writing.

How to Interview: Interviewing for the Best New Hire

By Chris Pohlkamp

I was speaking with an interviewer the other day, and she said that her challenges lay in asking the right interview questions and being organized for the interview. I asked her what kind of questions she thought were the “right” questions. She said ones that “go beyond what the interviewee has memorized about themselves.’ As with most interviewers, she was facing interviewees who were better prepared and educated in the art of interviewing than she was. Interviewees have often received training in responding to behavioural interview questions. They have memorized questions and answers for interviews. And they are taught proper body language and proper voice inflections. In this case, the interviewer had only received the basic training from a peer 10 minutes prior to conducting the interviews. In many ways, interviewers have the odds stacked against them before they even sit down with the ideal candidate. Picture this. A job opens up and needs to be filled yesterday. The job description is sketchy at best. The organization wants someone who can do double duty, that job and possibly others. The ad results in thousands of resumes, and there are a lot that fill the requirements. The first interview which is a phone interview eliminates some, but still leaves a lot that are “ideal.” There is no set guideline in place to assist in setting up the interviews, so the interviewer starts booking 10 interviews per day. There are no interview questions or tests in place to help vet the candidates and, by the end of the first day, the interviewer has no idea who was even in the interview with her. So before she even starts, she is in trouble. Here are some suggestions that could have made her interviews more organized and fruitful.

  1. Know what you are interviewing for. Make sure the job description is current and has enough detail in it.
  2. Don’t be pressured to fill the position right away, take the time to prepare for the interview by writing up an ad that vets folks who are applying for every job available. The ad should state the salary, job expectations, and educational requirements.
  3. Organize the resumes by salary needed, job experience, interests and by professionalism.
  4. Create an interview guide of behavioural interview questions based on job competencies. The guide should cover at least six areas including integrity. Each competency should have three questions with room to write under each question. Each question should have a number of follow-up questions to probe deeper.
  5. Book no more than five interviews per day. Allow one hour per interview and time to write down follow-up thoughts and, of course, time to eat.
  6. If interviewing for a web designer ask them to create something, if interviewing for a bus driver have them drive through a set up driving course, if interviewing for a trainer have them conduct a short course. Test the candidates in the skills they have to perform on the job.
  7. Once the final five or so candidates have been chosen have those people go through a second interview with another interviewer or take part in a panel interview. More and different behavioural interview questions are asked and this process will identify the perfect person to fill that job.
  8. Another idea is to invite the team they will be working with to meet them and to conduct final interview questions.
  9. If everything in the reference checks match up, and the interviewers all agree, offer the candidate the job.

10. Keep all interview guides of all the people interviewed to avoid problems down the road. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. It has been documented that it costs the organization four times the person’s salary if they leave before the year is out. Why not take the time and do it right the first time? Chris Pohlkamp is a subject matter expert in the field of interviewing. One of Chris’s popular courses is Interviewing for the Best New Hire. Chris Pohlkamp conducts this workshop for the Ontario Training Network. Ontario Training offers corporate training with customized courses for both the public and private sectors.

Grammar – The Changing Rules

Although they may not like it, people are now aware that nothing remains the same. Everything changes. That’s why I find it amazing when some people appear stunned to hear grammar rules and writing styles change.

But why shouldn’t they?  Grammar and writing style rules were invented to meet a specific need. When the need changes or no longer works, shouldn’t the rule?

For instance, periods did not exist until the 4th century. At that point, St. Jerome decided he needed them to make his translations of the scriptures easier to understand. I am sure he probably got complaints about the strange mark in his writing style.

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10 Ways to Implement a Successful Companywide Business Writing Training Program

Many companies over the past few years have introduced business writing training programs to improve the quality of the letters, reports and emails of their staff. Some programs have been enormously successful; others have fizzled.

The reason: employees will change only if senior management is thoroughly sold on the need for change and announces that all employees are expected to co-operate. One of the most successful business writing training programs I was involved with had the president’s full backing; he demonstrated this by announcing that writing ability was to be considered in every job appraisal. And he wanted his employees to equally proficient in emails and report writing.

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