I was teaching a business writing workshop recently for an entire team at a company. Attendance was mandatory. When I stopped to look at a participant's laptop to coach the woman on her email, she said, "I don't need your help. I was an English major. I know how to write."
It was a sticky situation. Although she was an English major, one look at the message on her laptop told me she was not a good business writer--yet.
How could I tell at a glance that she didn't know how to write email?
Huge paragraphs filled the screen. Huge paragraphs do not work in business writing, especially in email.
Are English majors good business writers? Not necessarily. Not without making a successful shift:
- From well-constructed, complex paragraphs to well-constructed short chunks of text
- From big words such as "populate" to small words such as "fill"
- From long, complex sentences to short, simple sentences
- From focusing on a theme to focusing on a purpose
- From a discussion of ideas to a focus on results
English majors should not assume they know how to write for business, not without making the shifts above. I know--I was an English major, and I earned a master's degree in communication in my twenties. Yet when I remember my first business letters, I cringe, seeing my very long, dense paragraphs and my focus on myself rather than my readers.
It's no shame to have to learn to write differently for different purposes. Even Shakespeare would have to practice his craft differently if he were a business writer. Consider my experience:
I attended a recent production of "The Merchant of Venice" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Although I was enjoying the play, during the intermission I bought a "No Fear Shakespeare" version of it, which included both Shakespeare's original and a plain English translation. I bought it so I could be sure I understood what the characters were saying.
Below is a character's brief comment in both versions. Which one is easier to understand? Which one can you read more quickly?
Your worth is very dear in my regard.
I take it your own business calls on you
And you embrace th' occasion to depart.
You're both very precious to me. But I understand. You need to leave to take care of your own business.
I bet you are thinking we don't read Shakespeare or attend productions of his plays for quick understanding. Fair enough. But business readers do insist on being able to understand a message quickly and easily.
So English majors, can we agree to write a plain English version when we create emails, reports, proposals, recommendations, presentations, and other pieces?
We can express our literary imaginations as complexly and creatively as we want to on the weekend.
Farewell. I must away.