On Writing Well: An E-Mail Dialogue

By Dieterich, Dan; Bowman, Joel | Business Communication Quarterly, September 1996 | Go to article overview

On Writing Well: An E-Mail Dialogue


Dieterich, Dan, Bowman, Joel, Business Communication Quarterly


To initiate a discussion of what it means to "write well," I sent a message to the BIZCOM listserv - an automated electronic mailing list sponsored by the Association for Business Communication. Many of the leaders in our profession subscribe to BIZCOM, so this was an easy way to ask them their opinions on this topic. Several ABC members contributed, but Joel Bowman and I provided most of the dialogue. What follows is an edited version of that dialogue. - DD

Dan Dieterich: What's the function of the business writing instructor/writing consultant? Is it to help people to write as much as possible like others in the discourse community to which they aspire/belong? Or is it to help people "write well"? Even though no two of us would define "writing well" in exactly the same way, I imagine that most business writing instructors and consultants make that our goal. One instructor works to achieve clarity and conciseness. For him, that's "writing well," and he finds that his students (like mine) value knowing how to do that. I can imagine a discourse community, however, in which writing clear, concise correspondence would be viewed by readers as a dangerous aberration. We can solve the dilemma by defining "writing well" as adapting writing to the discourse community that will read it. I wonder, however, how many of us do define it that way. I wonder also about the ethical implications of that definition.

Janet Novotny: Well, I agree with you, Dan. As I do more and more consulting, I realize that we have to define "good" in a specific context, and that does not always include what we would consider good, that is, excellent from our technical criteria as writers and instructors of writing.

Deborah Bosley: Dan, what about instead of defining writing well as adapting to the discourse community, we say that "writing well" is writing that is. adapted to the needs of the audience (who may not be a member of the discourse community that generates the text). For example, I can teach accountants to write great "accountese" if necessary, but will that help them communicate with people like me who don't understand accounting jargon? I'm not part of their discourse community (at least as I think of it; other accountants are part of that community). I'm part of the "other" who isn't a member, and doesn't want to be a member (meaning I don't want to learn their jargon). What I want is to be able to understand and use the message they might send me.

In Search of Excellence

Joel Bowman: If writing "well" is nothing more than adapting one's text to a particular audience or discourse community, what happens to writing "well" in the advent of declining scores on standardized verbal tests, declining reading skills, a general lack of distinction between such words as "affect" and "effect," and a tendency of even professional communicators (TV and radio announcers) to say "conGRADulations"? Note, for example, the "dumbing down" of textbooks (including business communication books) since the 1960s.

What exactly is the standard to which we aspire? It seems to me that there's a difference between "effective communication" and "writing well," that the one focuses on the audience and the audience's response, while the other focuses on certain qualities of prose that should transcend any one audience at any given time. The Harlequin romances outsell Charles Dickens and George Eliot these days, but which would you say is well-written?

If we were teaching high jumping, we'd be after excellence, for people to do more, be more, achieve more than others in their community. We'd be trying to get them to raise the bar. Just because certain "discourse communities" have a high tolerance for bad writing doesn't mean that they don't appreciate better writing when they see it.

It seems to me that we should have some sense of raising the bar when we claim to teach students to "write well," that we should have the aspiration of increasing the standard of excellence for written expression rather than of simply helping people "fit in" with a particular discourse community. …

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