Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Business Style of Writing

"Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." - E.L. Doctorow

"The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought." - Nathaniel Hawthorne

"In your business writing, you must choose between boredom, shouting, and seduction.  Which do you choose?" - Roy H. Williams

Okay, so I blew it.

Lately I've reveled in the opportunity and need to write in a fairly conversational style.  It works well, I think, for the fiction works I've taken on, and it also works well for blog posting.  At the same time, you've heard me whimper, moan, and even cry out in disgust over the perils of academic writing.  Pure hell, that is, it being prose with all the interesting stuff distilled right out of it.  If there are a thousand interesting ways and one mind-numbingly dull way to describe the results of a study, the academic writer is supposed to pick the dull way without even considering the others. 

Don't get me wrong, now--I appreciate academic writing.  It's the only way that we can preserve the accumulated knowledge of science over the years.  I've accessed and devoured it many times myself, both on subjects I needed to investigate for work or school and on subjects that were merely interests or topics of conversation.  There's definitely a need for it.

That said, I don't enjoy writing in that style.  I can, quite successfully, and I plan to, as I continue my academic career and submit, soon, my first paper for a conference.  It's just that I look forward to writing that abstract with as much joy as I look forward to brushing my teeth next.

So--two different writing styles.  Very different, in fact; as much so as, to pull a horrible cliche out of my hat, night and day.

But there's a third style, and I forgot it.  I tend to use it at work, and when in front of career classes I've always recommended using it.  It's work prose.  "Business English."  It's not nearly as boring as academic writing, to be sure; I've seen plenty of managers prove their knowledge of tremendous repertoires of adjectives and adverbs, many of which I wouldn't put in print here if you paid me to.  But it does have one common characteristic, a standard for which I use the acronym "BLUF": Bottom Line Up Front.

Put simply, people doing or considering work don't want to spend time reading wonderfully-wrought prose to get to what you are suggesting.  They want it spelled out in the first line, and very clearly, please, while you're at it.  If, for instance, the dog died, you shouldn't tell the tale of how the dog, a present from a husband to his wife whose "biological clock was ticking," was a troublemaker but the kid loved him but the dog-sitter couldn't handle him and how the man and woman go through job and relationship issues and then, finally, get around to the death of the dog.  No, you start with "The dog died."  Then you provide as much detail as is pertinent to the situation.

That is the nature of writing with BLUF.

Doesn't work with fiction.  If they'd started the movie with "The dog died," nobody would've watched it, would they?  If I'd started my first novel with "And Matt and Crystal kicked Aphrodite's butt and then lived happily ever after" (granted, it wasn't quite like that, but--well, read the book) you wouldn't have read any farther, would you?  And that's not a bad thing; I like stories, too, that begin at an interesting point, worm their way around and into my heart, and finally come loping or screeching to a graceful (or not) end. Just--not when I'm trying to get crap done.

No, seriously.  BLUF me, please. 

You're probably looking for an example, right?  Especially considering how I started this post?

I've been working on a project.  Not for my day job, but with other colleagues.  I sent a missive last night with a list of contacts and the letter that would be merged to go to each attached.  In the missive I noted, in my flowery prose, that the list of contacts was on its second revision and it needed a once-over to make sure revisions were acceptable, and--um, so on.  Hell, I even forget what I wrote.  But in the second paragraph I said, "More importantly," to please review the letter as I'd made significant changes and needed their input.

Got their input.  At least, got one of the four's.  She complimented me, of course, on how well I'd managed the list of contacts, and then right when I thought she'd get to the changes to the letter, she signed her name. 

First thought: damn, next time I won't use paragraphs.

Second thought: okay, it's not the paragraphs' fault.  It's mine, for forgetting BLUF.  I didn't start with the part that was most important, the bottom line.  My fault for writing it like a pleasure reading rather than a business message.

Even when you're writing to writers, you still want to keep business and pleasure separate, even down to the style and structure of the message.


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