A Theory of Business Writing
Or, What are the Assignments and Why?


Table of Contents:

 

Our approach to Business Writing sees writing in business organizations as a type of rhetorical practice-a situated action. Furthermore, we feel strongly that such actions should be informed by--indeed are interrelated with--research (research itself is situated action). Thus the success or failure of business communications isn't primarily a function of textual practice, although clearly poor mechanical performance causes problems. What is of prior importance to us is helping students see that organizations act through discourse, and that their ability to be successful in business organizations is related to their ability to understand the organization. Student/worker success is enhanced by their ability to analyze workplace situations and conduct the additional research necessary to act intelligently and ethically at work.

Below we explain what we mean by some of the terms in the previous paragraph because these terms drive the assignments. In what follows, then, we attempt to articulate the senses of rhetoric, research, writing technologies, and our students that inform this course.

rhetoric
One of the most powerful notions of rhetoric, particularly for professional writing, sees rhetoric as comprising three elements: ideology, practice, and method
(1). Ideology tells us something about what human (or corporate) relations should be or about how humans should relate to each other through writing. Practice tells us something about how people actually do relate to each other and/or how they actually write (in a given situation). Method tells us something about how people inquire--their tactics, heuristics, and procedures for invention (including research).

These three elements of rhetoric can help us understand writing in business organizations and design pedagogical practices that can enable our students to become better writers. Rhetoric is a productive art, the continual, iterative process of creating and deploying plans for writing for specific purposes within specific situations. The key, we think, is being able to understand the audiences, problems, and purposes that constitute typical types of writing situations in business organizations. A rhetorical frame helps us do this by forcing us to examine ideological presences and pressures, typical writing practices (in a given situation or organization), and common or expected methods of inquiry (research).

Our course assignments, then, will often place students in complex fictional or real workplace situations and ask them to write their way out of the problems that arise in those situations. To help them, we will use various methods to analyze situations--ideologies and practices--so that they might act effectively in the workplace. Our hope is to produce students who can become intellectuals in the workplace, workers who have the practical wisdom (phronesis) to act ethically and intelligently within and outside their particular organizations.

research
Research, as the previous paragraphs suggest, is of great importance in business writing. We use the term "research" rather loosely. We count audience and situation analyses as research as well as more common types of data-gathering strategies. Of particular importance is the need to introduce students to online research as an increasingly common practice (including what works and what doesn't). In short, every assignment entails some research, and so it is important to structure into our day-to-day activities time to help students with research. Finally, we hope to help students understand that research is itself a type of rhetorical practice. We mean this in two senses. First, "research" is a name for a number of inventional practices they may choose to deploy in a given situation. Second, research is situated. That is, there are no "set" methods that people use unerringly from situation to situation. Rather, as we have suggested, "research" names a number of methods that people choose to use and adapt according to the needs of the situation. We can do our students a great service by teaching them to be critical and flexible in how they approach developing the information they need to solve a problem.

writing technologies
One cannot choose to avoid technology in workplaces, including computer writing technologies. The choice is about which technologies we choose to use and how we choose to use them. "Internetworked writing," or writing and research with and for remote audiences and databases, is increasingly the norm. So it is important to teach some computer technologies in this course. But it is arguably more important that we help students teach themselves technology. Most importantly, however, we need to help students understand how critically to understand and use writing technologies--to decide which technologies are appropriate for a given task/situation and which aren't. Each assignment will involve writing technologies in some way.

student identity
Student identity is not often discussed in conjunction with a particular course or pedagogy outside scholarly publication. But we feel that student identity is one of the most important issues in professional writing classes. Put simply, this course is designed in a way that sees students as "workers," not "students." This is not to say that learning won't happen (we hope!). Rather, what we are suggesting is that we approach this class and the people who are taking it as workers. This is what we mean by viewing those who take this class as "workers":

  • Students are given a certain amount of work ("assignments") and are responsible for getting it done--for planning their time, finding the necessary resources, and asking for the assistance and expertise of others as needed
  • Teachers have a more facilitative role. Their job is to provide students with the information and resources necessary for getting started and for being available to students for consultation and assistance

Students will be more comfortable in this class if they understand and "feel" this transition (computers will help because they tend to push classes toward workshops). Unlike much of their educational experience in which they are too often spoon-fed information and given structured opportunities for repeating it back to their instructors, this class has no decontextualized right answers, only situated best judgements. In addition, students will be given multiple assignments at the same time--a new experience for some--and expected to plan and work accordingly. In short, we give them work to do and expect them to use the resources and time available to them to find ways to accomplish the work. Some students will struggle to understand this implicit transition (it is embedded in the curriculum), so it may help to make it explicit for them early in the class and remind them of the shift in our perception of them and their role throughout the class.

collaborative and individual work
Most professional writing classes and curricula include a significant amount of collaborative work, and our approach is no exception. It is commonplace that collaboration is part of college curricula because our students will work collaboratively in the workplace. The commonplace is particularly true for professional writing because professional writing historically has been attentive to the needs and desires of "real world workplaces." We understand these pressures, but we also structure collaborative work into Business Writing because collaboration allows us to tackle projects that are too large and complicated for individual student work. In short, we can do more sophisticated work in Business Writing when we ask our students to work together.

The most difficult issue regarding collaboration is to take seriously the notion of "collaborative learning." One pedagogical reason for asking students to work together is that they are capable of learning from each other through the processes of collaboration. But students also need to learn how to collaborate. Thus, we need to teach collaboration. This is not easy.

Students will come to class with collaborative learning experiences. Unfortunately, many of them are likely negative. So we often begin with the extra burden of persuading students to collaborate. We hope to teach students to collaborate effectively and therefore learn from the collaboration through the following principles:

  • Asking students to examine their own personalities and preferred ways of working
  • Teaching students project management skills
  • Expecting students to practice good project management skills (e.g., by making project management part of the writing expected of them for a given project)
  • Mixing individual work within the contexts of a collaborative project
  • Supervising group work to facilitate good work (and workers) while refusing to tolerate bad work (and workers)

There are no easy answers to questions about how to structure effective collaboration within a writing class. Our hope is that collectively we can establish tactics and strategies that are effective for Georgia State students.

 

some principles
Before we discuss actual assignments, consider the following list of principles as embodying much of what we have written (2):

  • Effective in-house writing and communication push workplaces forward and hold them together
  • Written documents an organization distributes to the public represent/reflect that organization's corporate image (ethos)
  • The corporation is the author (workers are writers within the corporation)
  • While good writing won't necessarily improve your standing in a company, bad writing will hurt you
  • Reports' complex organization reflect the needs of a variety of readers (thus audience needs must be attended to throughout the writing process)
  • Workplace writing exists in a context of corporate culture, economic conditions, project histories, writers' track records, project importance, previous writing conventions, and so on
  • Electronic writing is increasingly important in workplaces
  • Computers allow workers to produce more writing, which in turn makes managing information more important
  • Computer research will be an important tool for competitiveness

The next list of principles we offer as an introduction to what we hope the assignments embody:

  • Writing happens constantly, not just at the end of a project
  • Clear and effective writing is associated with careful research and thinking
  • Effective visual presentation is associated with careful research and thinking
  • Much of the important writing is done in groups
  • The visual organization of a written document carries meaning to readers

assignments: cases, technology, and research
In the following linked pages, we will introduce the assignments for Business Writing followed by a discussion of the assignments that will cover issues like how the assignments fit into our theory of the course and tactics and ideas for teaching them. The structure of these pages is as follows: (1) we provide the assignment/materials that students will see; (2) we discuss the assignment.

United Drill Case
About the United Drill Case

Mini-Project
About the Mini-Project

BCIA
About BCIA

Note 1: Patricia Sullivan & James Porter. (1997). Opening spaces: Writing technologies and critical research practices. (Back to Text)

Note 2: Taken from Patricia Sullivan, Writing in workplaces: Technical writing in a near-virtual age. (Back to Text)