Control over ideas in workplace writing
by Stephen de Paul, Ph.D.

For effective workplace training in writing skills, the unwritten objective increasingly is to free learners from their own sense of limitation, sometimes even an outright fear and loathing of writing. Beneath the mechanics of grammar, style, and structure lies the very human struggle to gain control over ideas and the confidence to advance them to a reader– without the anxiety and toil remembered from school days.

The writing instructor’s job is, therefore, more than transferring ideas, techniques, and even craft. It’s also recognizing that writing involves a degree of liberation from past lessons and present obstacles.
Remembrance of things past

“The super-consciousness of the rules is often
squandered on half-truths, at best.”

They show up in writing classes, vaguely uncomfortable, apprehensive: they are the graduates of the school of hard knocks. And now they’re expecting more of those knocks, dished up this time–they hope–with a little more compassion than they received years ago. Confronting these initially reluctant learners on a daily basis, a good writing instructor quickly adjusts to involve the adult student in a bit of unlearning before the transfer of any more substantial wisdom can begin.

The traditional aim of growing a literate generation of workplace writers sometimes seems to have come at a high price. Participants in training sessions on workplace writing sometimes arrive with an unhealthy fear of the wrong style, of transgression from the rules, and in general, of the writing process itself. In fact, their focus on the rules alone has eroded their otherwise instinctive sense of creative process. As many university professors have long noted, students of writing often seem surprised by the governing notion that good writing is a thinking process first and a compliance with the rules second.

What’s more, some of those “rules” that shackle these writers are not now–nor ever were–rules! The super-consciousness of the rules is often squandered on half-truths, at best. So, in the name of liberating us from the burdens of the past, here are some myths shattered:

You certainly can start sentences with “and,” “but,” or “because.”
To end a sentence with a preposition is not an offence.
The split infinitive can be your stylistic friend; do not fear it.
You don’t have to avoid at all costs the personal pronouns “I” and “we.”

No one is arguing that the rules are themselves outmoded or obsolete. But knowledge of a rule does not instill in a writer a sense of control over, or confidence in, his or her writing. It’s the process of getting control over one’s ideas that builds the confidence. The rules can shore up that confidence, but as static principles they can’t substitute for the dynamic process of thinking one’s way though the writing activity.

The power of precedence on the job

“Another source of weary precedence in the workplace can be the document template–a mixed blessing if ever there was one.”

Some of these burdensome notions still reign in the modern workplace under different guises. Workplace writers often assume incorrectly that the chain of command in the office is also the one-way pipeline to them for sound principles for writing. For example, many participants in writing workshops introduce themselves by stating that they want to “write like my manager,” never suspecting that, once back at the office, they’re more likely to be the authority on good writing techniques. It’s a seasoned writing instructor who can stress the proactive role of new-found confidence in a better approach that will effect change back at the shop.

Another source of weary precedence in the workplace can be the document template–a mixed blessing if ever there was one. In their intent, templates are excellent tools for consistency of message, format, and scope. But, in practice, templates can propagate bad writing across an entire organization. For one thing, the author of the template may have only a limited knowledge of document design, making every writer using the tool an accomplice to structural flaws. For another, the template removes control from writers, control that better resides with them than with the passive shell of the document.

Templates are valuable when they are used in a dynamic writing process that continuously validates document structure against the changes in the audience’s needs. In today’s business, such changes are rapid and frequent. Without this built-in flexibility of vision, the document template risks becoming an instant artifact for its users, condemning reader and writer alike to a view of the world as it once was. Can there be anything worse for the organization that desires to be seen as cutting edge in every way?

Writing training needs to be built–as the WordTask curriculum is built–on the changing demands of the workplace in which actual writing is done. The workplace is not school, after all; there’s not the luxury of endless dry runs with purely remedial corrections. Nor does it stay still long enough for writers to indulge in precedence for its own sake.

Stephen de Paul, Ph.D has worked with technical and administrative writers since 1985. He founded WordTask Information Strategies in 1991, and since then has helped clients in the private and public sectors with their communications skills and processes. His recent clients include Nortel Networks, Cognos Incorporated, MDS Nordion, EDS Systemhouse, and Bell Canada, to name only a few. Since 1980, he has taught part time in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. You can contact him through his website