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.