Tales from the Writing Center: Business Communications Word Puzzles

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

My university has a mammoth business school, a mammoth business school that is even more finicky about grammar than the English, Communications, and Journalism departments put together.  Every freshman business student is required to take a Business Communications class, where they learn how to write memos and executive summaries and such.  My first year staffing the writing center, the faculty head of that particular program came to a training session to tell us what to expect from these students and assignments.  During that session, we learned that writing for Business is different from writing for English class in the following ways:

  • Writing in business is audience-oriented
  • Writing in business is about solving problems
  • Writing in business is clear
  • When writing in business, we don’t use flowery language
  • When writing in business, we use a lot of bullet points

Got that?  Also, we were told that in Business Communications, they do not tolerate grammar errors.  Also, if Business Communications students were to come into the Writing Center, we should totally just focus on grammar, because we weren’t qualified to comment on any other aspect of their assignments.

It gets better.  They told their students this as well, so often times, the business students who wandered into the Writing Center on their way to a networking lunch carried the same prejudices and obsessions that their professors did.  The typical Business Communications student walked in looking for help–not with drafting readable, engaging prose–but navigating the byzantine style rules they are supposed to follow.

For example, this freshman girl comes in for a consultation with me.  Her task for this class is to write an email to a prospective career mentor, describing her expectations for the mentorship and the duties of the mentor.  The email was supposed to be exactly one page long.  Additionally, she was only allowed to use any first person pronoun (I, me, my, or mine) a maximum of five times.  Also, passive voice was strictly verboten.  Now, let me start by saying that I understand the spirit of these rules.  Writing that contains a surplus of first person constructions tends to be overly centered on the writer, the writer’s expectations, and the writer’s needs.  Similarly, the passive voice tends to obscure agency, though the professor who came to train us informed us that passive voice is acceptable in business if you are trying to avoid responsibility for something:  “Mistakes Were Made.”  Yes, she actually said that.  Out loud.

Just for fun, in your spare time, try writing a one page message to someone you want to work with while avoiding using yourself as the subject or direct object of the sentence.  If you were able to do this and still produce prose that sounds natural, you deserve a giant freaking gold star, because we were not able to do this within the 45 minutes allotted for the consultation.  Just for fun, let’s give it a shot here.

Dear So and So,

Thank you for agreeing to be my [1] career mentor this year.  During our time together, I [2] will be following you during your work day once a month.  I [3] look forward to learning more about your field and your responsibilities in the position of X.  Before the mentorship begins, I [4] want to take a moment to describe what you can expect during this mentorship.  If you have further questions after reading this message, feel free to contact me [5] or my [6] faculty mentor.

So that was 6 in one paragraph, and this assignment was supposed to take up an entire page.  The thing is, I find the above paragraph to be a perfectly lucid introduction to a collaborative relationship.  While there are six first person pronouns (3 subjects, 1 direct object, 2 adjectives), each sentence in that paragraph speaks directly to the reader and attempts to address the reader’s concerns.  So, while it would have been entirely feasible to have gotten rid of, say 3 of those first person pronouns, it is actually extremely difficult to abstain from doing so over the course of three or four, especially while avoiding passive voice or irritating imperative constructions.  Furthermore, I’m just not sure that it’s necessary. If you want the piece to be audience-oriented, give your students some better guidelines regarding how one avoids making a piece of writing all about the speaker while still conveying appreciation and investment in the relationship.

Otherwise, the assignment becomes a damn word puzzle, not an actual writing assignment.

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