Russell Bither-Terry reflects on his experience working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing. Whether you are an MPA student or a city manager, Russell’s tips can help you in your everyday writing.
People are still grading your writing
August 14, 2014
One of the most obvious differences in writing outside of school is that it doesn’t get graded. I mean this in the narrow sense: it usually doesn’t get handed back with an “88/100 B+” on it.
But in the broader sense, it still gets graded. It’s just that those grades tend to be decisions:
- Read the whole thing vs. stop after one paragraph
- Share with others vs. don’t waste their time
- Fund this project vs. spend money elsewhere
- Approve policy change vs. reject
- Let this person do more writing vs. avoid at all costs
In other words, we often have far more at stake in professional writing than in an essay for a class taken to fill a requirement.
Another difference is that people aren’t required to tell us what they thought of a piece. Constructive criticism is often a thankless task. College instructors and teaching assistants are paid to tell you how to do better next time; most readers aren’t and won’t.
An effective college instructor will clearly communicate expectations, perhaps in a rubric explaining how many points each item on a list of criteria is worth. Most other impressions of your writing won’t be nearly this well thought out.
This means writers need to anticipate those concerns by thinking about our audience. (It also means we need to find people to give constructive, honest feedback, but that’s a topic for some other time).
Effective writers constantly ask themselves: “Who will read this? What is it I want them to do or think because of reading it?” With a term paper the reader is the TA or professor (even if they make students pretend to be writing for a “general academic audience”); the ultimate goal is usually to get a good grade.
In Grownup Land audience and purpose vary more. This makes it even more important to keeping thinking about our readers and how they are likely to “grade” our writing.