I recently showed my composition class an example of overblown writing. The paragraph was full of multi-syllabic words that pretty much required a dictionary to decipher.
I asked them what they thought of the paragraph.
“Sounds smart,” one said, a common response.
“But can you understand what the writer is saying?” I asked. As they shook their heads, I asked, “So how ‘smart’ is the writer?”
In business, especially in the digital age, clarity is important. People need to access information swiftly, so writers need to make their point clearly and quickly.
I wonder, though, if we do a disservice to our students when we put all our stress on academic writing. Learning the rigors of academic writing helps build research and organizational skills essential to good written communication. It also tends to encourage writing that is loaded with pretentious vocabulary, unnecessary wordiness, and passive voice as the students try to sound “smart.”
Most of my students are not headed toward careers in academia. They need to develop writing skills that will make them successful in the workplace. Even in business writing, they will need to beware the pitfalls of jargon and overused, trendy phrases.
How do I reconcile an academic-based syllabus with the needs of business-focused students? I stress that what we do in class is like the wind sprints football players do to get them ready for game day. I constantly try to point out how what they are learning is relevant to what they’ll need in the workplace.
I show them why good grammar is essential to keep the reader focused on ideas rather than mechanics. I demonstrate why they need to supply adequate supporting evidence for their ideas. We talk about how to write differently for different audiences and purposes.
One thing I try hard to do is to translate what we are learning into real-world applications. For instance, after learning to write descriptive essays, I have the students view a video of a work accident then ask them to write an incident report for their “supervisor.” Summary and response as well as persuasive essays are followed by students finding a job posting then writing a cover letter to apply for it.
I try to wed academic writing skills with workplace requirements. When I show my students that what they are learning in class will be useful in their careers, they see the benefit of working hard to hone their writing skills.