I’M PROUD TO POSSESS dual citizenship in liberal arts and business. My doctorate is in theater, but I paid for it by coaching business speakers. I’ve published four novels, but I’ve also published four business books. I’ve been a dean of arts and sciences, and now I’m writer-in-residence in a business school. I live in the boundary land between business and liberal arts, and I have never enjoyed an intellectual home more.
I’m not alone here, of course. Liberal arts colleagues cross into business territory all the time. They’re usually on temporary work visas, because specific projects call for expertise in philosophy, art, literature, or language. Only one discipline that I can think of, however, offers a permanent passport, and that’s writing. Professionals on both sides of the border need good writing all the time.
Here are three principles of writing that I believe can be imported across the border from liberal arts to business:
1. THE BEST WRITING IS CONVERSATIONAL.
Professors should emphasize to students the relationship between writing and speaking. Today most writing assignments are presented as calls for five- or ten-page papers. But manufacturing pages is not the same thing as composing words. Writing is not the production of print, but the reproduction of voice. One exists for the eye, the other for the ear.
The typical rate of speech in the United States is 130 words per minute. A typical page of double-spaced print is 260 words. Therefore, one page of print equals two minutes of talk. Almost all the writing assignments that I give are one or two pages, because I want students to grasp the equation between speaking and writing. I tell them that if, in their professional lives, they can’t explain a topic in two minutes of uninterrupted talk—i.e., one page—they’re unlikely to hold the attention of their audience. I also tell them they should learn to make a sophisticated argument, complete with documentation, in no more than two pages. After all, on how many occasions will they be permitted to talk without interruption for more than four minutes?
You can apply this lesson in the classroom in two ways. First, instruct students to write out loud. Ask them to listen to the words as they come out of their mouths, rather than watching words as they scroll onto a screen. Tell them to imagine that they are speaking to a specific listener, or writing for a specific reader—someone who is bright, well informed, capable of following a nuanced argument, and, at the same time, skeptical.
Second, as you assess papers, try reading them out loud. If you can’t hear a recognizably human voice, rather than one that sounds like it was produced by a computer, why should you continue reading? Grading with this approach requires no specialized training. It’s easy to tell the difference between writing that’s rooted in speech and writing that merely jumps from the fingers to the screen.
2. WORDS, PARAGRAPHS, AND SENTENCES SERVE DIFFERENT PURPOSES.
In elementary school, we were taught that words, sentences, and paragraphs are extensions of one another—grammatical structures of increasing length and complexity. Mature writing, however, demands a different understanding.
Words are the measure of a writer’s knowledge. When words are used correctly and precisely, readers assume that writers know what they’re talking about. The converse is also true.
Paragraphs are the measure of a writer’s reasoning. Paragraphs put on display how a writer thinks—how he or she moves from Point A to Point B or connects individual dots to make a cohesive whole.
Sentences are the measure of a writer’s voice. Even when two writers set out to express the same idea, their sentences will include subtle differences that distinguish one from the other. The expressiveness of sentences projects the kind of person who wrote the document.
To summarize: words say what a writer knows. Paragraphs say how a writer thinks. And sentences say who a writer is.
As a business professor, how can you apply this lesson? When assessing every instance of student writing, look for the implied writer, an idea borrowed from Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. Block out everything you already know about an individual student and deduce his or her profile solely from the writing. How much does this implied writer know? How well does he or she reason? What kind of person must have written this? In most professional settings, a reader can use only the writing itself to draw conclusions about the author. By profiling an implied writer, you draw attention to a process that goes on intuitively in every reading experience.
3. WRITING SHOULD BE BOTH CLEAR AND MEMORABLE.
Good writing, regardless of context, must meet a single standard of correctness. The writer must employ proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. He or she must know when to capitalize and when to italicize—when to quote, when to paraphrase, and when to lay claim to intellectual property—and, yes when to lie and when to lay. Correct writing aims at clarity, ensuring shared meaning between writer and reader. Anyone can acquire the necessary skills to achieve this standard. But greater compensation lies just beyond.
The big payoff goes to those who can write memorably. Leaders know this. Warren Buffet isn’t called the “Oracle of Omaha” for nothing. Audiences don’t “lean in” to Sheryl Sandberg for no reason. Clear writing measures the half-life of words. Memorable writing increases the shelf-life of ideas. Writing correctly is a required skill for business success. Writing memorably is powerful leverage for business leadership.
At the same time that we teach students the value of good writing, we need to teach them the high cost of avoidance. I put it to my students like this: “Do not outsource your writing. Do not turn it over to an administrative assistant. If you do so, you will have silenced your own voice, given away your own power, and sacrificed opportunities for leadership.”
This lesson can be applied in a way that benefits students and alums alike. Create a website dedicated to business communication, then invite one and all to post examples of memorable writing. (To get started, see “Writing Resources” below.) Request verbatim quotations, including author and context. There’s no need to explain or theorize about the quotations you’ve posted. Simply invite students and alums to read and emulate their examples of memorable writing.
Business and liberal arts are natural allies, not intellectual adversaries, and both profit from a strong partnership. This is especially true today as we learn and cope with so many communication innovations. What opportunities and limitations are embedded in social media? How might a group learn to write together? By working together, students in business and liberal arts can address these and other challenges to contemporary writing.
To launch a website devoted to strong business communication skills, you might start with an educational site maintained by TED Talks, specifically its “playing with language” videos. A few to consider:
Other lively and unusual sites:
James VanOosting is writer-in-residence at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York City.