Obviously, the education we get in school and college is important, but some things simply get in the way. One obstacle to good writing is that once we leave school, we need to begin to write for completely different purposes, and old habits tend to die hard.

In our professional lives, we write to inform, to persuade, to document, to explain, and perhaps even to sell. In school, we tend to write to impress our professors to get the good grades we need to progress to the next chapter in our lives. The problem with a lot of professional writing is that many writers still write using the habits that seemed to earn the praise of educators.

So what’s the difference? I think there are three important ones: knowledge, sophistication, and assumption of shared knowledge.

  1. Knowledge. When we write an academic paper for a grade, we often try to demonstrate that we are thoroughly familiar with a topic. So we tend to write down everything we know about it. In our professional lives, our readers neither need nor want to know everything about a topic. Try to focus only on what your reader needs to know.
  2. Sophistication. Sophistication might or not impress a typical professor, but students often like to show off their sophistication believing that this will impress a professor and earn a better grade. This tempts writers to use long words, complex sentences, and “clever” arguments. In our professional lives, those are unlikely to be valued in the way they were when we were at school. In the workplace, keep your writing simple.
  3. Assumption of Shared Knowledge. When we are in school, we can (and should) make the assumption that our professor is thoroughly familiar with the topics we write about. You don’t need to explain technical terms, acronyms, and background information for your professor. But, if you are writing for your boss, the last thing you want is to confuse him/her by assuming thorough familiarity with the subject.

So, as you plan to write, focus on the purpose of what you’re writing. If it isn’t clear to you, it’s unlikely to be clear to the reader. Quite often, it’s a good idea to tell your reader your purpose in your first sentence. (“I am writing to you to ask you to approve my proposed trip to Honolulu.”)

But don’t be tempted to show off! You aren’t writing for a grade any more.

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