Anyone receiving a bachelor’s or master’s degree has learned how to produce a lengthy paper on a complex topic. But that’s not the only writing skill needed in the workplace. To set students up for professional success, universities should also prepare them in the art of boiling their ideas down into concise, compelling communications.
Writing on the job is different from writing in the academy. A busy manager or client is looking for the bottom line, not a step-by-step unpacking of an issue until the conclusion finally emerges. In business communications, it’s bottom line up front, or BLUF, as they say in the U.S. military. Careful analysis is still necessary, but a premium is placed on the ability to efficiently deliver the takeaway points. This is true across for-profit, non-profit, and government settings.
Workplace technologies also reward succinct writing. Messaging platforms and small-screen devices are where much business writing is composed and read. Neither is well suited to essay-length expositions of an issue.
While formatting tools like bullets and bolding are used sparingly in academic journals, they are real assets in the workplace. They break the text up into bite-size pieces and help organize material so the reader can get through it more quickly. Reading an academic colleague’s writing can involve settling in for an hour or two; in the business world, it might be more like a minute or two.
And speaking of journal articles, the data visualizations found in scholarly publications often fall below the expectations students will encounter in other professional settings. Exporting data into a bar chart or line graph should be just the first step. The visualizations that get attention in the workplace are well designed, with helpful titles that convey the takeaway point, data arranged in a logical pattern, informative labels, strategic use of color, and no unnecessary elements like extraneous gridlines or legends.
Lastly, writing on the job should be lively, not stuffy. Good workplace writing is easy to follow, and free of academic-style jargon and abstract terms that are not well defined. Providing examples can help avoid this trap, because it is far easier to understand an idea or an argument if it has been illustrated with a concrete example.
It’s not just students who stand to benefit from lightening up their prose—there’s a physician, heal thyself takeaway here too. Studies have found that scientists are more likely to cite papers that aren’t laden with jargon, and economists prefer papers that are concise and readable. Helen Sword and Deirdre McCloskey have both written guides for fellow academics who want to learn how to make their writing sparkle.
So how can universities train their students to be effective workplace writers? Give them assignments that simulate what they’ll be asked to do on the job, as many professional schools do in their writing courses. That doesn’t mean abandoning papers, which remain a useful tool for thoroughly analyzing an issue. But students could be asked to create a companion short piece, such as a slide deck, a fact sheet, a press release, or even a tweet. Summarizing an idea in no more than 280 characters of plain English is a great way to test your own understanding. It can be a humbling but clarifying exercise.
Take it from Robert Caro—yes, that Robert Caro, famous for his prize-winning tomes chronicling the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Some of his books are more than a thousand pages long, yet he begins each writing journey with a single, simple step. As Caro explained in an interview with the Paris Review, he won’t start writing a new book until he has first managed to condense what he wants to say into a few paragraphs.
Wisdom for the digital age from a man who still uses a typewriter. All universities should prepare their students to communicate succinctly, so they can thrive in the workplace that awaits them.
Martha B. Coven is the author of Writing on the Job: Best Practices for Communicating in the Digital Age. She is a visiting professor and lecturer at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, where she teaches writing courses and workshops.