Andrew J. Ogilvie, University of Southern California
A research project I’m currently working on examines how new employees, mostly recent college grads, learn to write within an organization. One of my interview questions is, “Are you a different writer today than you were when you first joined the organization?” And the answer is usually, with few exceptions, yes. And many interviewees then tell a story about learning to write at their organization that goes something like this: when they first started, they would write e-mails comprised of long sentences–and even longer paragraphs–, multiple paragraphs of text without any guideposts for reading, and lots of general information targeted at no specific audience. They quickly realized, however, that their reader (a boss, a client) didn’t want all of that—instead, the reader wanted something short and to the point.
One conclusion I’ve drawn from these stories is that these employees perhaps brought to the workplace a predominantly writer-centric understanding of writing; their central focus was on their own needs in composing the e-mail and what they as the writer wanted to say. Instead of centering their writing approach on learning about the reader/user, and knowing how the reader would use the information and would like to receive it, these new employees were more focused on demonstrating that they were knowledgeable and valuable.
There is perhaps an interesting link between these stories of new employees learning to write in organizations, and of grads leaving college with a predominantly writer-centric approach, and what Joseph Petraglia calls the problem of “pseudotransactional writing” (21). Petraglia defines this kind of writing as “solely intended to meet teacher expectations rather than engage in a transference of information for the purposes of informing the uninformed or demonstrating mastery over content” (21). In other words, pseudotransactional writing occurs when students’ central purpose is to show teachers they have met the assignment’s expectations. One characteristic of pseudotransactional writing is that it prioritizes verbosity and complexity over audience awareness. Despite the fact that the student has been asked to write to an imaginary client, colleague or boss, the student views the reader as the teacher. As a result, the writing often feels inauthentic and forced because the students are writing to meet the needs of two very different audiences, one of which will actually be responding to them and grading them.
What we want students to have rich experiences with, in contrast, is transactional writing, “which does not pretend to function in any way other than it does” (Petraglia, 21). Transactional writing involves real readers and writers who bring authentic needs and expectations to the production and reception of texts. Some examples of transactional writing for undergraduates would be a personal statement for graduate school, a scholarship application, or a networking email sent to secure an internship. This kind of writing is generative, substantive and most importantly, it is the kind of writing students will have to negotiate in the workplace.
One of the most significant pedagogical implications of pseudotransactional writing tasks in the classroom is that students are less likely to develop reader-centric approaches to writing. Students aren’t learning to build texts up from a rich and complex understanding of the reader’s needs, expectations, and prior knowledge. They aren’t learning how to make difficult choices about content, tone, evidence, or structure that are informed by their understanding of the reader.
Scholars like Berkenkotter (1981) and Paretti (2008) have proposed insightful approaches to creating communication tasks that are transactional and help students become more reader-centric writers. In other words, students view writing something that writers do to accomplish a specific goal that goes beyond rehearsing what the teacher has stated, to get a task done, or to solve a theoretical or practical problem. To communicate this aspect of functional or transactional writing, I have students participate in short case studies organized around a reader’s experience of a text. These case studies involve real writing situations and real readers, and the primary goal is to center the reader’s experience of a text so that students can observe and understand the transactional nature of writing from the reader’s perspective. This purposefulness of writing, particularly in the workplace, can also be taught through cases and scenarios that ask students to solve real world problems which also require the communication of the results of the problem-solving activity (See the case by Breward included in this issue of the Bulletin).
In one of the case studies I’ve developed, I first ask students to read an e-mail that I had received from the university administration. As will become clear, the impetus for this university e-mail was that university employees were not submitting their reimbursements in a timely manner, and because they submitted their reimbursements late employees were having to pay taxes on the reimbursements. The central purpose of the e-mail was to inform employees so that they would submit reimbursements within 60 days and thus they would not have to pay taxes on their expenses.
The text of this original email reads:
“As a reminder, university policy requires expense reimbursements be submitted in a timely manner. When they are not, the IRS requires the university to report the expense as taxable income to the employee who incurred the expense.
The university has updated its Reimbursements policy to align with IRS standards regarding reasonable time limits for determining the tax treatment of reimbursements. To qualify as non-taxable income, employees must:
- Submit travel expense reimbursements within 60 calendar days of the trip return date
- Submit non-travel expense reimbursements within 60 calendar days of the expense transaction date
More information is available on the Business Information website[Note included in the original email without a link.].
After reading the email, students are asked to give the text an effectiveness score on a scale of 1-10 (10=extremely effective). A text’s effectiveness, I discuss with them, reflects the degree to which a reader can successfully find the key message of the communication, understand its purpose, and can locate the necessary detail or information to act on the on a email message.
I then have students discuss their effectiveness score in small groups, and then as a class we discuss their scores, their overall impression of the email, and what effectiveness score I gave the e-mail. On average, students gave the e-mail a score of 6, while three students gave the e-mail a score of 8. Only two students gave the e-mail a score below 3. I tell them that I gave the e-mail an effectiveness score of 0 and that I didn’t even finish reading it.
We then talk about how students generated their score. One student, who gave the e-mail a score of 8, noted that the e-mail sounded “professional in a good way” and that it upheld the authority of the university. This student’s comment is helpful in my attempt to show them that they could read a text and think that the writing was effective but that in fact the actual reader (me) of the text found it ineffective. A key point I want them to understand is that reader-centric business writing isn’t necessarily formal or ‘professional ‘sounding’; instead, the text’s look and feel, as well as its details are driven by the reader’s needs.
I then go into some detail and explain to students the specifics of my interpretation of the e-mail: it was too long, I didn’t feel like it was speaking directly to me, and I did not understand its practical purpose. I am busy and didn’t have the time to re-read it to identify the big idea or its real purpose. I talk about how through our definition of effectiveness, the e-mail failed; I couldn’t understand if the e-mail was telling me I was submitting my reimbursements correctly, nor was I sure what really at stake if I was, in fact, not following the reimbursement process correctly. I couldn’t act or change how I was submitting my reimbursements because I didn’t understand how this policy actually affected me.
I then ask students to use the reader information that I just gave them—that I’m busy, that I want something short and direct, that I don’t want to work very hard to find the key message and want it stated up front—and rewrite the email to make it more reader-centric.
Ideally, this is the moment where students begins to see me as a real reader who wants the writing to do something functional for him and are adopting a reader-centric approach to thinking about writing; they aren’t thinking about a grade, or meeting the requirements of an assignment for their teacher. Hopefully, they are just thinking about how to create a text that meets Andrew’s needs.
I next have students share what they’ve written in small groups and discuss their choices, and from there we broaden the conversation to include the entire class. A few students offer up their rewrites and I ask them to explain the thinking behind their changes.
We next reflect on the specific kinds of communication that we, as readers, want to receive and we discuss how and why some texts don’t work for us. We discuss the emails students receive from the university and why they don’t read them. We discuss the qualities of these email are not reader-centric. In particular, they note how the university e-mails are impersonal, too wordy, and don’t convey to the students any real reason that the e-mail content is important. One student noted ,“I take one look at it and know that there’s no reason for me to read it”. We then discuss how the university could write purposeful emails in order to get students to actually read, understand, and use or act on them.
What’s interesting about this particular case study is that a vice dean actually followed up the original administration email with one of his own where he reduced the original email to a single sentence, which was loosely constructed as:
Get your expense reports in on time or you will have to pay taxes on the reimbursement!
What appears to have happened is that the vice dean sent this one-sentence, follow up e-mail because he felt that the original e-mail was too long and indirect. Moreover, he perhaps realized that faculty were busy and didn’t have time to read a lengthy e-mail. I show students the vice dean’s e-mail and we discuss the differences between his and the original one from the administration. I explain how the tone, length, and directness of the vice dean’s e-mail worked for me; I could find the key information, understand it, and could act on it. I will submit my expense reports within sixty days and I know if I don’t, I will be taxed on the reimbursement.
There are at least three pedagogical dimensions to this case study that I think are key in helping students become more reader-centric writers:
- Authenticity: In providing my first-person account as the reader of the university e-mail, I feel the students are getting a more explicit illustration of reader-centric writing. I don’t think students really see how texts operate and circulate among writers and readers, or deeply understand what it looks like when a reader finds a text effective. Much of their writing in college is limited to production; they write a paper, maybe draft it once, turn it in, receive a grade and move on.
- Engagement: I feel like students were relatively engaged in this class session because the example we were working with was real and interesting. Additionally, I asked students to take on the role of the administration and re-write the so+” they are not passively learning about reader-centric writing, but right away are trying to produce it, even if it is in a low-stakes situation. Lastly, they are writing for a real reader (me) rather than an imagined one, as is the case with many assignments.
- Analysis and Reflection: Throughout our class session on the case study, I ask students to analyze and reflect on the e-mails, both in small groups and large groups. I want them to think about the choices they made when they wrote their own version of the original, ineffective e-mail from the administration.
Berkenkotter, C. (1981). Understanding a writer’s awareness of audience. College composition and communication, 32(4), 388-399..’
Paretti, M. C. (2008). Teaching Communication in Capstone Design: The Role of the Instructor in Situated Learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(4), 491–503
Petraglia, J. (1995). Spinning Like a Kite: A Closer Look at the Pseudotransactional Function of Writing. Journal of Advanced Composition, 15, 19–33.
Andrew (AJ) Ogilvie is an assistant professor of clinical business communication at University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in business writing and communication. Dr. Ogilvie has designed and taught university writing and communication courses at the undergraduate and MBA level for nearly a decade. His primary research interests are writing development, knowledge transfer, and communication curriculum in higher education. His publications include articles on contemporary liberal arts education as well as writing curriculum in general education courses.
Recommended Citation: Andrew J. Ogilvie. (2019). Moving students away from teacher-centric writing to reader-centric business communication. Western ABC Bulletin, 1.2.