Business Schools

MBA Writing Tips


At some business schools, good writing is on the curriculum

MBAs may be good at analyzing spreadsheets and reading financial statements, but many cringe when faced with a lengthy academic writing assignment. The task can be especially difficult for students who have been in the work force for four or five years and haven't written a serious academic paper or report since college.

Writing classes typically aren't on most business schools' list of core required courses, but business schools are starting to recognize that MBAs' rusty composition skills could benefit from a brush-up. In Minneapolis, the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business requires that all students take a writing and spoken communication course during their first year. The school's writing communication lab professors helps students improve their writing skills, coaching them on everything from how to write a case study analysis to lengthy academic papers.

Rosanne Bane, an Opus faculty member, has taught the school's Business Writing Communication Lab for the school's full-time MBA program for the past four years and currently teaches and coaches the school's Executive MBA students. She will be offering a workshop on business writing this month called "The Write Stuff: Writing for MBA Courses" at Opus. Bane agreed to share some tips on how MBA students can make their writing sharper and more effective:

DON'T BE LONG-WINDED

One of the things most valued in business writing is the ability to get to the point—quickly. "In business writing, conciseness is a prime virtue," Bane says. Students often lose sight of this in business school, and will sometimes "just add fluff" for the sake of getting to a required page count for a paper. Bane counsels students to look over their papers closely after they've written the first draft, taking out unnecessary words or flowery phrases. While some extra words and elaboration may be permissible on an academic paper, students need to show restraint when they are writing documents for business clients. For example, second-year students at Opus typically prepare a market research report for business clients and often feel the need to try to fit every data point into the paper. "It's going to be a long report anyway, so don't make it any longer by throwing in words or phrases you don't need," Bane says.

KNOW YOUR MEDIUM

Students often come into B-school tending to rely too muchon e-mail, a habit many developed at their former workplaces. This can be a mistake, especially if you are trying to communicate an important or sensitive message. E-mail communication is "context poor" and doesn't always express the senders' intended intonation or emotional state, Bane says. Business school, with its emphasis on teamwork and community, is an ideal place for students to experiment with other forms of communication. Making a phone call, writing something in a letter or memo format or talking to someone in person can often be a lot more effective.

UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE

Before starting an assignment, students should step back and think about who will be reading their essay or report. Things to consider: What does your audience already know? What will the people need to know? What is the significance of the information you are trying to communicate? Students should also keep in mind the demographic they are writing for and the education level of their audience. This will make it easier to develop an outline and game plan for their writing assignment. "Identify the purpose of your communication, consider the context of the situation, and then select the message accordingly," Bane says.

SCHOOL AND BUSINESS ARE DIFFERENT

B-school students have to become comfortable doing a blend of academic writing and more practical business writing during their years in business school. It's helpful to have an understanding of the key differences between the two, Bane says. Academic writing tends to have a much more complex sentence structure with a "more elevated, polysyllabic vocabulary",; while business writing tends to have a brisker tone. "It should be faster and easier to read so people can absorb the information quickly," she notes.

PRACTICE WRITING OFTEN

Leaving an assignment to the last minute can be tempting, especially if you are juggling four or five projects for different classes. Fight this urge if possible, Bane says. Students should set aside time to write drafts, edit, and be thoughtful about their work. One easy way to do this is to set aside 5 or 10 minutes for "free writing" time a day, a practice of just writing without any defined purpose. That allows students to get over any inertia or writer's block. "I encourage them to do this so that they are able to practice and develop their skills," she says. "It lets you know where you need to focus your attention."

Damast is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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