Paradox in the Business Writing Classroom:
Teaching Nonacademic Writing in the Academic Setting

by Traci Gardner
Project Paper. Southwestern Virginia Writing Project. July 1987.

Writing teachers face a curious paradox in the business writing classroom: they must teach students theories of effective communication in an academic setting, yet they must also teach students how to apply those theories practically in a nonacademic setting. This paradoxical situation is compounded by most instructors’ superficial knowledge of the demands of writing in the business world. To give students general strategies which they can apply in practical situations, business writing instructors need a fuller awareness of how constraints and restrictions in a nonacademic setting shape and influence writing practices. Business writing instructors can, then, reconcile theory and practice by structuring a teaching model which adequately and realistically prepares students for writing in the business world.

What Research Tells Us

Research on the demands of business writing is not difficult to find; unfortunately, most studies end with theoretical implications for teachers rather than suggesting ways the teacher can change writing instruction to meet the demands of the business world.

Most research concludes that the rhetorical situations which writers function dominate their decision-making processes, suggesting that the most important concern in the business writing classroom might well be rhetorical analysis of writing situations.

Rhetorical Situations

Paul Anderson’s comprehensive study of nonacademic writing surveys, for instance, draws precise implications for teaching business writing. After analyzing fifty studies which “constitut[e] a very substantial part of what we know through empirical research about writing in nonacademic settings” (3-4), Anderson outlines five “general objectives” for business writing instruction:

  1. Career-related writing courses should explain to students that writing will probably play a large and important role in the students’ careers, regardless of the students’ majors.
  2. Career-related writing courses should focus on general writing strategies that students can apply in a variety of work-related rhetorical situations.
  3. Career-related writing courses should teach students how to write communications that people in the workplace will perceive to be clear, concise, well-organized, and grammatically correct.
  4. Career-related writing courses should provide students with instruction and practice in writing for a variety of kinds of readers.
  5. Career-related writing courses should provide students with instruction and practice in writing a variety of kinds of communication. (75-77)

Anderson’s suggestions emphasize the writers’ practical, rhetorical skills as their primary concern when composing. While he mentions theoretical issues, Anderson focuses on specific writing skills such as correctness, audience, and style and format, implicitly showing their significance.

In his case study of proposal writers, “Intentionality in the Writing Process,” C. H. Knoblauch states that these business writers “set out to achieve conflicting purposes simultaneously while responding to the needs of several, quite different, intended readers, each with different expectations of the writing” (214). Knoblauch’s research iterates that the rhetorical rhetorical situation is basic to all the decisions the business writer makes. Knoblauch explains that “compound purposes interact to direct the writer’s choices” and that “the needs of diverse readers affect strategy as well” (216). Primarily, then, the writer’s purpose and audience elicit their rhetorical choices, according to Knoblauch’s findings.

Echoing the importance of rhetorical considerations, Lee Odell reaches similar conclusions based on his ethnographic study of state workers. His essay, “Beyond the Text,” focuses on how inquiry techniques can be used to evaluate the writing situation. Specifically, Odell suggests that “instead of teaching students a generalized analytic procedure, we need to help them understand the specific questions that can help them explore the topics they must write about”—in essence, business writing teachers must, according to Odell, help students analyze their assignment to accurately determine their purpose (277).

In addition, “we need to help students make the process of inquiry a social process,” Odell advises, “One that begins well before students have written a draft” (278). This self and group questioning focuses on the importance of analyzing a writing situation within a collaborative environment, where other writers can aid in the analysis. In his explanation of this use of the inquiry method, Odell implies that this collaborative nature also helps the writers determine their audience’s goals and interests. He states that the writers “had a very definite sense of questions their readers might ask” (270). For instance, in an interview, one analyst responded that “she would not be willing to delete some explanatory material” because “somebody would ask, ‘Where are you getting this from?’” if it were missing (258). She continues, stating that putting in the information “saves the reader a lot of trouble and it saves a lot of phone calls from people who are reviewing [the piece]” (258). While Odell indicates the importance of a kind of peer review, clearly, his underlying justification is the significance of audience awareness.

Environmental Situations

In their analysis of the writing of two proposal writers for an international management-consulting company, however, Glenn J. Broadhead and Richard C. Freed come to a different conclusion, stating that “under the working conditions of a business environment, constraints of both time and space might significantly influence the writing process” (125). Broadhead and Freed intimate that environmental factors influence the business writer’s process more than rhetorical situations. Specifically, Broadhead and Freed found that the two writers they examined used a decidedly linear process—with successive stages of prewriting, writing, and revision (122), particularly because of their Firm’s1 expectations and formats:

  1. Their writing was a “task-specific response assigned by the Firm (rather than self-initiated).”
  2. Their writings “always develop the same overall line of thought (problem, methods, implementation).”
  3. Their work is “applied to a fairly limited range of subjects.”
  4. Their strategies and procedures “are prescribed by the Firm.”
  5. Their use of computers makes “fresh typescripts . . .readily available.”
  6. Their deadlines are “normally quite short; so they are forced to adopt relatively time-efficient methods and to prioritize goals.” (Broadhead and Freed 123-24)

These rhetorical constraints, for the most part, repeat Anderson’s, Knoblauch’s and Odell’s emphasis on rhetorical skills. Nonetheless, Broadhead and Freed’s conclusions differ substantially because the two researchers consider how the nonacademic writing process is affected by the writers’ use and knowledge of rhetorical skills, rather than the importance of these skills to the writer’s final product. Essentially, Broadhead and Freed found that so many of the business writers’ decisions are established by the employing businesses that writers work very quickly and mechanically, focusing more on deadlines than on analytical skills.

Broadhead and Freed’s findings could be expected in light of the social theory of writing in nonacademic settings. Lester Faigley explains that writing “is a social act that takes place in a structure of authority, changes constantly as society changes, has consequences in the economic and political realms, and shapes the writer as much as it is shaped by the writer” (236). For Broadhead and Freed’s subjects, the Firm itself constituted a specific discourse community which shaped a set of rhetorical constraints they worked within.

Each discourse community would, similarly, establish its own rhetorical constraints usually addressing the same concerns as the Firm’s expectations and practices do. Though each community would have its own “in-house language and certain local discourse conventions” (Faigley 238), the constraints which the community establishes would function within the context of the writer’s situation and environment.

Based on these research findings, nonacademic constraints seem to fall into two categories which the business writing instructor must consider as she plans her curriculum. Some are constant and unchanging considerations for the writer, regardless of the social community. The rhetorical situation and the concerns of format, style, and subject are important regardless of the business. The variable will be different but the concerns and, usually, the writer’s analysis technique, are fixed.

To the contrary, environmental constraints fluctuate from one business to the next. While one company may give writers private office space, another may place them in a huge work area among a sea of desks. Indeed within a single company, one writer might work only on proposals—with a built-in time period for production—while another might answer consumer complaints—with little time for research, generating, or analysis. An ideal business writing program would address both areas, showing students the importance of analyzing their writing situation but instilling a sense of writing efficiency in various social environments.

How Research Affects the Classroom

The business writing instructor is challenged with quite a task. Research proposes that she show students how theoretical writing analysis applies to a specific writing situation and writing environment, but she must remain general enough to address all writing situations and environments. To solve this dilemma, she must consider the traditional pedagogy for nonacademic writing as well as educational psychology so that she can devise a model which allows for appropriate learning.

Rhetorical Situations

Business writing teachers often respond to the task by explaining general theories while having students practice within very specifically-constructed scenarios. A logical practice since students need exposure to realistic writing situations, scenario assignments hold more relevancy than open assignments. C. W. Griffin’s business writing text, Writing: A Guide for Business Professionals, offers both kinds of assignments in the chapter on “Letters and Memos that Inform”:

  1. You work in the employee relations department of a large corporation and have been put in charge of implementing an employee fitness program. The company has furnished one room as a gym with a universal weight machine and other exercise equipment. A small outdoor jogging track has also been prepared. In addition, there will be aerobic dancing and exercise sessions, as well as classes on special subjects such as preventing heart attacks, the dangers of smoking, and the effects of alcohol.

    Write a memo to everyone in the company, from hourly people to executives, telling them about the program and its various components. Your goal is to inform people about the new program and to convince them to take part . . . .

  2. Use your current job or a past job experience to do the following tasks:

    1. Write a letter asking someone for information that you need to complete a task.
    2. Write a letter or memo giving someone information that has been requested.
    3. Write a memo giving someone instructions on how to do something. (Griffin 145)

While both of these assignments ask students to write in the context of a specific business situation, the first provides an assignment more like that a business writer would actually receive. The second assignment is far too liberal to provide students with a sense of the business world’s rhetorical constraints. The first assignment better fulfills the requirements that research has set for business writing instruction by focusing on a task-specific response with definite, established goals and readers.

Apparently based on the pertinence of such task-specific cases and the importance of establishing a discourse community, teachers have developed scenario teaching strategies which actually turn the classroom into a fictitious business for the duration of the course. In his “The ‘Business’ of Communication Courses: A Simulation Approach,” David Covington explains a scenario teaching strategy which “simulat[es] employer/employee relationships.” Under Covington’s scenario,

Students are “paid” (graded) by their teacher/employer according to the quality of their work and are evaluated on the basis of work done, attitude, effort, and personality, just as they would be on the job. . . . In their roles as “employees,” students learn why as well as how they communicate, and teachers are spared the annoyance of late papers and poor attendance. (91)

By placing students in a business situation, Covington forces them to realize the significant effect of a discourse community upon their writing. Yet, such scenario systems do not necessarily provide the kind of learning students can apply generally. The student may be able to write a letter firing Mr. Monroe, of the Century Insurance Company, who has failed to meet his contracted sales quota for the last six consecutive months, but can she write a letter to fire, for example, a production line worker in an explosives factory who failed her drug test, or a manager who has been exchanging promotions for Redskins tickets?

Instead of providing a variety of societies, simulation techniques teach students acceptable responses for an isolated society. Since no evidence shows that an ability to communicate in one discourse community transfers to another community, providing students with an explicit discourse society in the classroom cannot insure their effective communication in the business world.

Consequently, rather than a series of interrelated task-specific writings, a variety of assignments more completely prepares students for the business world, fulfilling Anderson’s requirement that students are exposed to a variety of “work-related rhetorical situations,” of “kinds of readers,” and of “kinds of communication” (76-77). Following business writing research, the business writing instructor should design specific writing scenarios, but she should not structure her curriculum around a single scenario if she wants to prepare her students as fully as possible for the constraints of the business world. With a variety of assignments, readying students for the rhetorical situations they will meet in the business world becomes an easier task since students need to learn general analytical and rhetorical strategies which they would then apply specifically, in the different cases.

Environmental Situations

Teaching students general writing strategies to meet specific writing environments is a more formidable task for the business writing teacher. Usually, instructors focus on the business world’s time constraints by giving specific, fixed deadlines for assignments. Late papers are not tolerated in the business world, so, teachers rationalize that they should not be accepted in the business writing classroom either, and, indeed, this approach does adequately mirror business writing practices.

Nonetheless, because it forces students’ learning to fit a fixed pattern, this methodology fails to stimulate effective cognitive development. Students learn most effectively when the learning process is egocentric, focused on their needs and their learning. Although these deadline-oriented systems are realistic, they reward only the students who understand the concept or skill on schedule and punish those who do not. As a result, such teaching seems wholly focused on manufacturing a product according to a pre-planned, inflexible schedule—a very business-like attitude, but inappropriate for a learning environment. The systems are essentially product, rather than process, oriented; they reward students who submit finished, polished products but punish those who deliver developmental stages in the process. Such classroom methods seem interested not in cognitive learning but in absolute skills acquisition and demonstration.

Finding a more appropriate learning system is not difficult, behavioral grading provides a relevant alternative to deadline-oriented teaching since it allows students to focus on learning how to write effectively rather than on demonstrating effective writing. Caryl P. Freeman and Richard A. Hatch outline a basic behavioral grading system which rewards students for writing acceptable papers but does not punish them for their failures, allowing them to learn from their mistakes. In a classroom handout, Freeman and Hatch explain the program to students:

Each paper you hand in will be rated either “acceptable” (checkmark) or “needs revision” (no checkmark). [The checkmark was verbally defined as equivalent to B or better work.]2 Only checkmarked papers will be entered in the grade book. Noncheckmarked papers may be revised and resubmitted within a reasonable length of time; a checkmark on a paper that has been revised will count just as much as a checkmark on a first try. You may revise and resubmit a paper as many times as necessary. (171)

Though the papers in the class were graded essentially on a pass/fail basis, letter grades were assigned for the number of acceptable papers which the student could produce during the grading period; for instance, Freeman and Hatch’s class based grades on the following “equivalents”:

This behavioral model instills more intellectual development than deadline systems because it centers on learning. According to Freeman and Hatch, behavioral grading is, in fact, the ONLY system which completely meets the essential conditions for skill learning on which learning theorists now agree:

  1. The student’s goal is immediately and clearly defined.
  2. Every correct or desirable response made by the student as he or she attempts to reach the goal is rewarded (reinforced).
  3. Every incorrect or undesirable response made by the student as he or she attempts to reach the goal is either: a) Corrected (thereby becoming desirable and rewarded), or b) Ignored (to be crowded out by an increasing number of correct responses). (173)

Freeman and Hatch seem content here to point out the positive reinforcement of their system; however, its focus on developmental learning is equally important.

The behavioral grading system also adopts learning strategies encouraged by Piaget’s and Bruner’s cognitive systems. Educational psychologists, N. L. Gage and David C. Berliner assert that “the effect of Piaget’s and Bruner’s ideas is to encourage ‘discovery’ and other inductive approaches to teaching and learning” (156). The behavioral system’s concentration on discovery provides as much a positive reinforcement as the checkmarks that the students earn. By forcing students into a state of cognitive dissonance which they must resolve, the behavioral system allows for meaningful intellectual assimilation and accommodation. Students adapt their schemata for egocentric reasons: they want to write acceptably. To the contrary, negative reinforcement systems (where students are punished for their failure to learn as in a deadline system) often fail because they attempt to force students to adapt their schemata without understanding what is incorrect with their current practices, without necessarily recognizing any dissonance in their schemata. Behavioral grading succeeds, then, because students are provided ample, unrestricted opportunities for learning.

Nevertheless, while behavioral grading allows students to discover the best ways to write in the business world, it cannot provide a pedagogical panacea. The business writing instructor is faced with a Catch-22: placing students in a business writing environment does not foster the best learning environment, yet allowing them to work outside a deadline-oriented system misrepresents the business environment. Even though it focuses on learning to write, on the developing writing process, behavioral grading should provide students with a reasonable understanding of the environmental situations they will face in the business world and of how their efforts in a business writing class will transfer to that business world. The system’s largest discrepancy is its violation of the business world’s deadlines—a fact that they should be aware of in their learning rather than be surprised with when they actually enter the business world.

Freeman and Hatch suggest that once students get used to the system, teachers rarely receive poorly written or average papers and, thus, students do less rewriting. In the end, the system does duplicate the business world’s environment by establishing an incentive to create a good product the first time (rather than through multiple attempts). Freeman and Hatch note that

A mediocre paper will have to be rewritten, and the students know it. They quickly figure out that it’s not rational to make extra work for themselves. Having to do the paper all over again the next day is a much more impressive motivator than the risk of a poor course grade two months away! (176).

The system provides a strong motivation to develop an effective writing process which can transfer to the nonacademic setting; nevertheless, problems with the system develop because the students have no realization of what they are working towards. Though they are developing effective writing processes, their reasons are rather myopic: they do not want “to do the paper all over again the next day” (176). They have no understanding of how that same incentive will affect them (in fact, will become a demand) in the business world.

Though students’ efforts in a behavioral system are perhaps appropriately egocentric, providing a personal and introspective goal for their improvement, they cannot see the application of their actions. Students can learn effectively with only immediate goals established for their efforts; however, students can learn more effectively with an immediate and enduring purpose. A business writing class implementing the behavioral grading system must begin, then, with a complete justification for its demands and expectations. Students should be told that the behavioral grading system is being used because it provides the best learning situation, not because it is an accurate reflection of the business world’s environment. Moreover, students need some knowledge of precisely what the nonacademic world’s expectations are so that they can focus their efforts on how their learning will transfer from the classroom to that world. In short, students must recognize that their goal in the business writing classroom is not only to produce appropriate, acceptable pieces but also to learn how they write appropriate, acceptable pieces most effectively. The focus in the business writing classroom should be on specifically how students change their writing processes and practices to meet the demands of different scenarios, that is, how different discourse communities affect their writing. Essentially, then, students must concentrate on evaluating their processes as much as on creating products.

To help students understand their processes, the teacher must ask them to observe what they do when they write, so that they become conscious of the decisions that they make as a part of their writing processes. This self-consciousness is vital, for according to Bruner’s theory of cognitive growth,

Intellectual development involves an increasing capacity to say to oneself and others, by words or symbols, what one has done and what one will do. This point really deals with self-consciousness. Without the development of abilities to describe past and future actions, no analytical behavior directed toward oneself or toward the environment can take place. (Gage and Berliner 154)

In effect, students who are aware of what they are doing as they write and revise under the behavioral system will be better able to apply successes from one piece of writing to the next. Further, by tracing how time constraints and other aspects of their physical environment affect their successes and failures, students should be able to conjecture what writing environment constraints change their writing processes and adapt their practices accordingly.

Such awareness will benefit their understanding of the effects of the rhetorical situations on their writing as well. Just as they analyze the effects of environmental constraints, business writing students can examine the way different rhetorical situations change their writing processes. Ultimately, because they can analyze how their processes made them successful in different rhetorical situations and how the situations changed their processes, students will be better able to apply their writing skills in new discourse communities.

Of the many ways to foster self-observation of students’ writing processes, dialectical notebooks seem ideal since students must record not only what decisions they make and what actions they take but also why they make those decisions and take those actions. In these journals, students draw a line down the center of the page (or work with facing pages in a notebook). On one side, they record what they have done; on the other, they speculate on and analyze their actions. (For an example entry, see Appendix.) Ann Berthoff explains that this practice “helps writers enact revision as a mode of composing” (30). Because their writing is based on seeing and then re-seeing their observations, their speculation is based on the revision of their observations. Students are, essentially, “having a dialogue with themselves—as a dialectic, the beginning of thinking about thinking” (Berthoff 30). By thinking and rethinking about their writing, business writing students can learn how various rhetorical constraints—whether of the rhetorical situation or the writing environment—affect their writing’s success or failure. Finally, since students are to consciously consider their writing practices, they are better able to make informed, rather than accidental, choices about their writing, and leave the business writing classroom with a conscious and practical set of writing strategies.

Perhaps the notebook’s greatest value for business writing students, they can easily identify effective, time-efficient writing strategies. In their study, Broadhead and Freed found that time restrictions influenced the nonacademic writer’s process significantly. According to James Paradis, David Dobrin, and Richard Miller, who studied “Writing at Exxon ITD,” most new employees have not realized how important efficient writing is in the business world, nor have they found their most efficient writing strategies: “many younger employees, just out of the universities, have been accustomed to thinking that quality of writing effort counts. This university norm can lead to confusion later on” (302). Because they have limited time, nonacademic writers learn to draft perfectly the first time, doing what, if any, revision which is necessary in a distinctly different block of composing.

Unfortunately, Paradis et al. estimate that “the organizational savvy required to write successful documents may take . . . up to three or four years for a person to acquire” (302). Further, they explain that these younger writers are expected to learn these strategies on their own, apparently through experimental development: “Younger staff at ITD rarely received systematic guidance about how writing functions in the R[esearch] & D[evelopment] environment, possibly because few people know how to articulate the process” (302-303). If students can develop their strategies through behavioral grading and identify their best process before they leave the business writing classroom,they will be better prepared for the business environment. Even if the processes which students define in the course of the business writing class are inadequate for their nonacademic setting, because their dialectical notebooks provide them with a record of the different strategies they have used, these students will have a greater awareness of how changes in their processes affect their writing and of which kinds of changes are most beneficial.

The dialectical notebooks serve a double function then: if business writing students record their processes and their results, they can consult their notebooks to determine what their fastest processes are, and work to polish and refine them into appropriate, linear business writing processes before they leave the classroom. And once in the nonacademic setting, they can consult their notebooks for possible strategies to improve their performance. Indeed, if they learn the true value of dialectical notebooks, students might well record their writing activities, voluntarily, in the nonacademic setting until they are sure that their writing strategies fit the specific environment.

Though students are working within specific environmental constraints in the business writing classroom, with the use of behavioral grading and dialectical notebooks, they can still gain general strategies which they can apply to any setting. This discovery-oriented system cannot work, however, if teachers employ only one or the other of these teaching strategies. Without the dialectical notebooks, as noted earlier, students have no recognition of how their writing is changing, and without the behavioral system, students will have no developing processes to record in their notebooks. The model’s success and the students’ learning depend on the use of both.

Instead of strict deadlines, student business writers need time to develop and refine their business writing skills and a tool to recognize that development. Any deadline-oriented system would seem inadequate since its focus on scheduled perfection intimates that students have already developed their business writing strategies before they enter the business writing classroom. This developmental model seems one of the few ways teachers can meet Anderson’s suggestion that students “focus on general writing strategies that[they] can apply in a variety of work-related rhetorical situations”(76). Based on both cognitive psychology and research in writing in nonacademic settings, developmental, process-oriented teaching seems the easiest way to provide students with those general strategies they will need in the business world. Finally, by completing assignments within specific environmental constraints and analyzing their responses for overall patterns, students can learn general strategies within a system of specific applications.


Writing teachers still face a curious paradox in the business writing classroom—this suggested solution endorses a system of contradictions. To teach students how to write in a specific rhetorical situation, the teacher is to expose them to a general survey of situations. To teach students how to write in a specific discourse community, the teacher is to expose them to no community in particular. To teach students how to write in a specific deadline-oriented writing environment, the teacher is to expose them to a deadline-free writing environment. Essentially, to teach students how to write in a specific nonacademic setting, the teacher is to expose them to a specifically academic setting—one far removed from the business world.

Perhaps it is fitting that a paradoxical problem has a paradoxical solution. Perhaps it is simply an oddity of teaching that what we say in theory is rarely what we do in practice. But, perhaps, the system only seems paradoxical because business writing teachers have spent much time treating the business writing classroom as a business world when it is, in fact, a learning environment, and treating students as business writers when they are, in fact, inexperienced beginners.


1. Broadhead and Freed define the company which the two proposal writers work for as “the Firm.” See p. 45.

2. Parenthetical citation is the authors.


A Student’s Entry in a Dialectical Notebook. [NOT AVAILABLE ONLINE]


Works Consulted

Anderson, Paul V. “What Survey Research Tells Us about Writing at Work.” Odell and Goswami, Writing in Nonacademic Settings. 3-83.

Berthoff, Ann E. “Recognition, Representation and Revision.” Graves, Rhetoric and Composition. 27-37.

Broadhead, Glenn J. and Richard C. Freed.The Variables of Composition: Process and Product in a Business Setting. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, for CCCC, 1986.

Ceccio, Joseph F. “Checkmark Grading and the Quarter System.” Douglas, Teaching of Business Communication. 187-192.

Covington, David H. “The ‘Business’ of Communication Courses: A Simulation Approach.” Technical and Business Communication in Two-Year Programs. Eds. W. Keats Sparrow and Nell Ann Pickett. Urbana: NCTE, 1983. 91-95.

Douglas, George H., Ed. Teaching of Business Communication. Champaign: American Business Communication Association, 1978.

Faigley, Lester. “Nonacademic Writing: The Social Perspective.” Odell and Goswami, Writing in Nonacademic Settings. 231-48.

Freeman, Caryl P. and Richard A. Hatch. “A Behavioral Grading System that Works.” Douglas, Teaching of Business Communication. 170-179.

Graves, Richard L. Rhetoric and Composition: A Sourcebook for Teachers and Writers. Upper Montclair: Boynton/Cook, 1984.

Gage, N. L. and David C. Berliner. Educational Psychology. 2nd Ed. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1979.

Griffin, C. W. Writing: A Guide for Business Professionals. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Knoblauch, C. H. “Intentionality in the Writing Process: A Case Study.” Graves, Rhetoric and Composition. 212-18.

Odell, Lee. “Beyond the Text: Relations between Writing and Social Context.” Odell and Goswami, Writing in Nonacademic Settings. 249-80.

Odell, Lee and Dixie Goswami, Eds. Writing in Nonacademic Settings. NY: Guilford, 1985.

Paradis, James, David Dobrin, and Richard Miller. “Writing at Exxon ITD: Notes on the Writing Environment of an R&D Organization.” Odell and Goswami, Writing in Nonacademic Settings. 281-307.

Throop, David P. and Daphne A. Jameson. “Behavioral Grading: An Approach Worth Trying.” Douglas, Teaching of Business Communication. 180-86.