Keep it brief

Berlin12 088We were sitting in the conference room listen to the project director for a new educational e-learning venture aimed at the failing intercity public schools. “Now when you are putting together proposals write a short introduction – one hundred words or less. Then, use bullets to list main points. Keep it brief and to the point,” the team leader insisted. I’m sure that many students would prefer to write their mandatory state assessments essays or their senior English term paper in this same manner.

In secondary education the emphasis in writing is on including details: painting a descriptive picture of a scene, supporting claims with exact examples and quotes, explaining step by step how to perform a simple procedure. The plethora of papers in post-secondary education encourage even greater verbosity.  After all, no matter how quickly students can make sense of a topic they must still aim to reach the all important word count. In post-graduate writing use of abstruse language is expected; how else can one demonstrate their expertise?

Despite its extensiveness and depth, research papers written by students are rarely original in content. Students are expected to collect other’s ideas and regurgitate them in a ten page paper. They may learn from their time spent in research. However, the ideas have to be written down in order for them to receive credit. The resulting papers are usually not particularly useful for anyone to read. Sometimes we believe we are aiming students at the pinnacle of writing. However, the manner in which they are learning to write does not match what is expected of them after they leave school. How do we instruct students in the kind of writing most will actually be doing at work?

Rather than writing another personal narrative, detailed how-to instructions, or quote-filled research paper it may be wiser for them to study the principals of information mapping. This kind of writing is not based on paragraphs. Information mapping divides content in a way that makes it easier to recall and use. If a student goes on to work in the corporate world, the point of writing will be to provide new information to a specific audience in a direct and concise manner.

To practice writing in this manner, students must have a real reason to write. As a teacher/instructor assign them something that you have to write (lesson plan, curriculum outline, reference letter, etc.). Next, have them examine examples of writing such as the following:

  • Personal references/evaluations
  • Newsletters
  • Handbooks
  • Memorandum
  • Reference material
  • Conference briefs
  • Program evaluations

Then, have students discuss their current involvement with other groups of people such as teams, performing groups, civic organizations or clubs. Have them determine what the people in the group really need to know and which type of documents listed above would be the best way to disseminate this information. Finally, have them compose that business document and see if it achieves what they intended it to do. Of course, they will have to write the results in the form of an evaluation.

The first time students try to practice the principals of business writing will not be a quick and easy. Collecting data that is really needed and expressing information in well organized, concise form will take longer than the traditional wordy retelling of already known facts. Remind them that people are not going to bother to read what they have written unless they “keep it brief.”

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