Professional Writing – Guide to Style

Learn about the style of writing that characterizes the texts of professional writers. Master the stylistic conventions of professional communities of practice, such as the discourse conventions practiced by engineers, scientists, and scholars in the humanities.  [Note: See Professional Writing Course Schedule for a sample course in Workplace Writing.]      

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What is Professional Writing?

Professional Writing refers to

  1. the language, research, and reasoning practices of writers, speakers, and knowledge workers in workplace settings.
  2. a style of writing, reasoning, and speaking that reflects the professional standards, aims, and research practices of particular discourse communities/communities of practice.
    • For instance, communities of engineers, accountants, lawyers, scientists, and doctors have unique discourse practices based on the epistemologies, intellectual traditions, professional standards of conduct that inform work in their professions.
  3. the title of a commonly required undergraduate course in U.S. colleges and universities.
    1. Courses on Professional Writing may also be known as
      1. Business Writing
      2. Engineering Writing
      3. Technical Writing
      4. Workplace Writing
      5. Writing across the Curriculum
      6. Writing in the Health Sciences.

Synonyms

Professional Writing may also be known as Workplace Writing.

Related Concepts: Rhetorical Stance; Persona; Style; Styles of Writing; Tone; Voice; Workplace Writing Studies


Why Does a Professional Writing Prose Style Matter?

Readers, especially critical readers, have expectations regarding

  • how texts should be shaped
  • what texts should say.

Communication and learning are, after all, a social processes.

Communications that fail to account for the reader’s expectations are unlikely to be read. They will tossed aside, dumped into the recycle bin along with other writer-based prose. Your readers are unlikely to take your work seriously if your communications fail to account for what your readers know about topic–and how they feel about it. (See interpretation)

What is a Professional Writing Style?

The writing styles of professional writers tend to vary across communities of practice. For instance, the writing style of a lawyer is quite different from that of an accountant or a mathematician. However, across work contexts, there are a number of textual attributes and rhetorical constraints that tend to characterize the texts of professional writers, including

  1. Accessible – Universal Design
    Professional writers aspire to produce readable, legible, and understandable texts that are physically available to readers and users
  2. Audience Awareness
    Texts deemed professional are responsive to the needs and interests of their target audience (e.g., readers, listeners, or users). Professional Writers determine what they need to say and how they need to say by analyzing how familiar their audience(s) is with their topic, research methods, and current scholarly conversations on the topic.


    They engage in audience analysis to determine the genre and media that are most likely to met their target audience. They question
    • what their audience thinks about the topic
    • how their audience perceives or sees the topic
    • how their audience feels about the topic
    • what they want their audience to do.
  3. Brevity
    Professional communicators know less is more when it comes to facilitating clarity in communication. Knowing that every word can be misinterpreted, knowledge workes are careful to cut the vague words from their sentences.
  4. Citations
    Professionals are mindful of copyright. They are careful to attribute sources using the citation style expected by their audience. For instance, in the humanities, writers use the MLA Handbook, 9th Edition to format texts and attribute sources. In the social sciences, writers use the Publication Manual of the APA: 7th Edition
  5. Evidence Based, Well Developed, Substantive
    Readers of professional texts expect writers to support their claims with evidence. They distinguish fact from news and opinion. They expect more than anecdote and informal observation.

    When writers weave evidence into their texts — whether it’s a textual reference or an empirical observation — they understand all information isn’t created equal. Rather, they know their readers will question the currency, relevance, authority, and accuracy of their evidence. They know their readers will engage in rhetorical analysis (even if they do this tacitly): readers will question the writer’s purpose for saying what they’ve said–and question bias and efforts at sophistry.
  6. Flow & Scannability
    Professional writers tend to employ deductive order and deductive reasoning. In cover letters, abstracts, executive summaries and introductions, they tell the reader what the text is about, how it’s organized. They craft their texts to facilitate scanning.
  7. Inclusive
    Professional writers use language that is respectful and sensitive to ageism, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status of others.
  8. Truthful
    Readers and users of technical documents need to be confident that they can rely on the information being provided. Your own ethos and the ethos of your company is always on the line, and never more so than when you are producing documents for external audiences.

    Lying, misrepresenting the facts, or ignoring the counterarguments an audience holds dear seldom helps a company prosper. You need to check and double check your facts. Check all of the details for accuracy. Avoid lawsuits! Ensure you have included all of the information the audience needs
  9. Rhetorical Stance
    The audience for professional writing tends to be coworkers, clients, employers. Typically the audience is less informed about the topic than the writer in workplace discourse. Often knowledge workers are endeavoring to simplify complex information. They write from the persona of expert and use visual language to present information as simply as possible.
  10. Simplicity
    To promote clarity and readability, professional writers are as concise as possible. They endeavor to strip away any unnecessary information and provide the gist of things. Knowing the power of the image, they employ visual language.
  11. Topic
    Professional writing is fundamentally transactional: usually if you are writing it is because you are trying to solve some kind of a problem. Your audience — the people you are writing to — probably need to do something in response to your writing. They may not be expecting your writing. They probably don’t want to read your writing. Your writing is interrupting their day. So, if you’re gonna bother them you need to make it worth their time.

Textual Practices Common to Both Professional & Academic Prose Writing Styles

A professional writing style shares many characteristics with an academic writing prose style:knowledge workers . . . in both discourse communities aspire for brevity, flow, simplicity, unity and clarity in communications.

Academic and professional writers also share information literacy perspectives: they value openness and strategic searching. They know when they need information, where to get information, how to assess information, and how weave the work of other researchers into the fabric of their arguments. They value critical literacy practices: They are conversant with the research methods, the knowledge-making practices, that their audiences expect them use in order to propose or test a knowledge claim.

And, in most academic and workplace contexts, knowledge workers are expected to conform to discourse conventions of Standard Written English and Standard Spoken English, including

Not surprisingly, style is a concern for readers across discourse communities: knowledge workers from both academic and professional writing camps abhor vagueness, unsupported claims, and a lack of organization. No one likes a sentence that goes on and on in multiple directions. People don’t want to be bored or confused.

What is the Difference between Academic and Professional Writing?

While professional writers share some values and practices with academic writers, they ultimately approach discourse situations in unique ways.

Below are 9 distinctions between an academic and professional prose style

  1. Relationship to Audience
  2. Relationship to Topic
  3. Formatting & Use of Visual Language
  4. Sentence Structure & Sentence Patterns
  5. Media
  6. Point of View
  7. Organization
  8. Brevity

1. Relationship to Audience

The audience for a lot of academic writing assigned in high school and college settings assumes the teacher as examiner role. When teachers serve in the role of examiner, they are checking to see whether you can demonstrate what you know or have learned.

Outside of schoolwork, the audience for academic writing tends to be subject matter experts. In the peer-reviewed research, investigators and theorists write to other experts—often using jargon, discipline-specific research methods, and agreed-upon styles, such as MLA or APA.

The audience for professional writing tends to be coworkers, clients, employers. Typically the audience is less informed about the topic than the writer in workplace discourse. Often knowledge workers are endeavoring to simplify complex information. They write from the persona of expert and use visual language as well to help inform and persuade readers.

Academic WritersProfessional Writers – Writers in the Workplace
AudienceFor students, academic audiences are typically the teacher as examiner

For investigators seeking to publish in academic journals, the audiences are fellow experts and investigators
For knowledge workers in workplace writing contexts, audiences tend to be specific people (e.g., clients, colleagues, subject matter experts)

knowledge workers may write copy for websites, advertisements, brochures, infographics

Unlike the teacher-as-examiner audience of school-based texts, workplace audiences typically know less than the writer. They aren’t looking to see whether the writer understood the lecture or text. Instead, they are trying to understand a topic or process.
Purpose:explore and transmit knowledgeaddress business transactions: sell, buy, explain

create new products, applications, services

2. Relationship to Topic

Academic writing is largely about problematizing and exploring ideas.

Professional writing is fundamentally transactional: usually if you are writing it is because you are trying to solve some kind of a problem. Your audience — the people you are writing to — probably need to do something in response to your writing. They may not be expecting your writing. They probably don’t want to read your writing. Your writing is interrupting their day. So, if you’re gonna bother them you need to make it worth their time: your work must be clear, substantive, properly attributed, and evidence based.

3. Formatting & Use of Visual Language

Academic writing tends to focus on traditional alphabetical language; professional writing, in contrast, tends to rely on formatting to facilitate scanning and visual language wherever possible.

Note use of space, font size, color to chunk information in this street sign @ Sparkman Wharf in Tampa, FL.

4. Sentence Structure & Sentence Patterns

Academic writers may communicate in long, complicated sentences and long paragraphs. It’s not unusual in professional-peer review journals, to see paragraphs that are 300 to 500+ words long.

In contrast, professional and technical writing embraces simplicity, negative space, visual language, and simple sentence patterns.

Related Resources: Sentences | Sentence Types

5. Media

In terms of channel and media, professional and technical writers are more flexible, less convention-bound than academic writing. In other words, they are likely to be willing to move beyond traditional genres and alphabetical text to embrace the possibility of new media.

7. Point of View

Because professional and technical writers presume their audience — which they tend to call users rather than readers — are reading the text to understand how to do something or how something works, they generally keep the spotlight on the topic rather than the writer’s thoughts or feelings about the topic.

Related Resources: | Perspective | Thesis

Organization – A Direct Approach

Professional Writing is nearly always employs a direct approach when it comes to organization: professional writers clarify their purpose for writing upfront–sometimes in the first sentence or paragraph.

In contrast, an indirect approach to organization leads with relevant, attention-getting details that do not directly state the purpose of the document. Most often, in business and technical communication, indirect organization is employed when the writer is delivering bad news or anticipates an audience that is resistant to the main message and may require some persuasion.

Professional writers use cover letters, abstracts, executive summaries, and introductions to emphasize key points, arguments, methods, findings, interpretations and conclusions. They don’t hold off on the best arguments till last or keep the reader guessing about why they are being given information.

Related Resources

9. Brevity

Because of the transactional nature of professional and technical communication, it favors conciseness. Time is money. Readers aren’t reading for pleasure. All they want is to get the information they came for as quickly as possible.

Professional writing is all about conciseness, active voice, direct writing, and short paragraphs with a clear, and single main idea.

Related Resources: Sentence Schemas |