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Academic and business writing – debts and burdens

August 16, 2011

What is striking about the patterns of writing in business is how much they owe to the academic world.  And the cursed ‘gift’ of writing in the passive voice is just one of them. Since the incidence of graduates in business roles that require report writing is high, it is not surprising they adopt an approach that owes so much to producing essays. Are there differences between the academic and business writer? Look at the typical characteristics of academic writing: complexity, formality, objectivity, explicitness, hedging, and responsibility. These are common in business writing, except the overt ‘hedging’.  But the academic approach is consensual, seeking acceptance, whereas business documents record or provide information for decision-making; so business writing is generally more functional. Except when it has to be persuasive; marketing exploits an emotional response to the subject matter – something very far from the academic ideal.

The gap

Despite academic influences, a complaint of managers is how poorly equipped many graduates are for business writing. This is largely anecdotal but we in Freshword have encountered this performance gap on a regular basis. There is statistical information on this (see our own Freshword survey) but we suspect it is not so much an understanding of the function of business writing that is the main challenge, but competence in the basics of good writing, such as grammar, spelling and effective sentence construction. I sense graduates leave the academic world celebrating the fact that they never have to do an essay again, only to be confronted by the greater risks and tighter deadlines of business reports.

The pursuit of truth

It is said that academic inquiry (and writing) is the pursuit of truth, where facts are distinguished from opinions and relative truths are distinguished from absolute truths. These are subtleties that the business world doesn’t really recognise. Adjusting to them can be a confusing process.

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