The Imperative for Teaching Business Writing in the Digital Age

Article excerpt


This article is a description of a teaching tactic by two professors in an attempt to address business writing errors. The motivation was based on repeated observation of the same errors in online discussion postings, essay questions on exams, journal reviews, research projects and term papers across courses and time. Writing is defined herein as social versus business writing (Danet 2002). Social writing is casual 'home talk' and business writing is academic and professional 'school talk'. School talk uses conventional writing rules in coursework and in the workplace (Nelson & Feinstein 2007) and is the subject of this article.


The background information that follows has greatly assisted these authors, who are not writing experts, in understanding the context in which business students are making writing convention errors.

The Plain Language Movement in the 1970s set out to make bureaucratic language more comprehensible to laypersons. Documents became more speech-like, and schools moved from emphasis on conventional writing in favor of the message students wanted to express.

Consequently, the focus of teaching shifted to a personal voice. At the time of The Movement, there was a generally held belief that the knowledge of grammar is 'innate' and will 'shine through' with practice (Nelson & Feinstein, 2007). However, knowledge of domain content must both exist and be practiced to become efficient (Willingham, 2007).

The 1993 National Commission on Excellence in Education reported that 17 year-olds did not possess the 'higher-order intellectual skills' needed to draw inferences from written material (Willingham, 2007). The1999 National Association of Educational Progress noted most students scored at the basic writing level; and, the 2003 ACT National Curriculum Survey confirmed that half of college freshmen needed a remedial course to address the 'muttled writing mess' (Nelson & Feinstein, 2007). The new Millennials, defined by Gans 2007 as persons born between 1981 and 2000 and comprising 27.5% of the U.S. population, excel in technology utilization but tend to be weak in oral and written communications (Alsop, 2007). Traditional writing in standardized test scores for language assessment has decreased in recent years while math scores have unilaterally increased (Craig, 2003; Chaker, 2007).

The boundaries between social and business writing began blurring in the late 19th century due to preoccupation with function-related business communication; thus, the memo format and forfeiture of custom and courtesy in name of efficiency. The dividing line contains wide variation in punctuation; spelling; capitalization; graphic depictions for words; abbreviations; run-on sentences; and contractions (Danet, 2002).

Technology Links

There are three kinds of literacy: oral, print and electracy with the latter defined as 'fluency in the new digital media with the Internet being the fundamental element' (Leibowitz, 1999, pp 4, 7). The Internet has become the dominant medium of both expression and communication and has changed the way the world communicates by combing speech and writing that escapes standard conventions of English. 'Thoughts pour out with all the structure of a small child's speech'. The emphasis is on speed resulting in a new language, Netspeak. Leaders of The Plain Language Movement did not anticipate that students daily practice their 'innate knowledge' of writing, or the absence thereof, with their friends (Nelson & Feinstein, 2007).

Emails are unstructured streams-of-consciousness that Leibowitz (1999) described as 'anal-expulsive'. People under age 25 see no need for manners in email, and most say they do not fret over trivialities such as punctuation, grammar and style. There is an assumption that conventions of writing are unnecessary on the Internet. However, while the speaking part of Netspeak does not require conventions, the writing part of online communications must still be organized (Nelson & Feinstein, 2007). …