Professional Writing – How to Write for the Professional World

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. Learn about the style of writing that characterizes the texts of professional writers in workplace writing contexts. Master the discourse conventions of professional communities of practice.

What is Professional Writing?

Professional writing refers to writing that helps get work done in business, industry, government, non-profit, and civic settings.

Whether it’s a brief office memo or a complex technical report, professional writing is action-oriented and aims to solve problems within or between organizations and publics. While some professional writing is performed by writing professionals — e.g., people whose main job is to write, such as technical writers or social media managers — most professional writing is done by professionals who write.

Students often struggle with the transition from academic to professional writing due to the fundamental differences in the writing styles of these two discourse communities:

  1. Professional writing is transactional and action-oriented, typically used in work contexts to achieve practical outcomes. Professional writing demands clear, concise communication aimed at specific goals like informing, persuading, or instructing, often requiring a more direct and less theoretical approach than academic writing.
  2. Academic writing refers to the writing style that researchers, educators, and students use in scholarly publications and school assignments.

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Related Concepts

  1. Elements of Style
  2. Professionalism
  3. Style
  4. Structured Revision
  5. Styles of Writing
  6. Workplace Writing

FAQs

Why Does a Professional Writing Prose Style Matter?

Readers, especially critical readers who perceive documents from a particular interpretive framework, have particular expectations regarding

  1. how texts should be shaped, which genres, media, and channels of communication
  2. how knowledge claims should vetted to ensure they are authoritative.

Professionals in various fields adhere to established norms (aka discourse conventions) for generating knowledge that is considered to be authoritative. These norms and practices are deeply influenced by the historical research traditions and established discourse practices of their fields, as well as by the introduction of emerging technologies. These technologies offer new possibilities for exploring topics, thereby expanding the methods and approaches available to researchers.

Communication and learning are social processes.

Communications that fail to account for the reader’s expectations are unlikely to be read. They will be tossed aside, dumped into the recycle bin along with other writer-based prose.

What Are the Defining Characteristics of Professional Writing?

Source WritingCommonsOrg

Clarity

Clarity is job #1. It’s the first priority of any subject matter expert. If you are not clear — if you cannot express yourself with the level of detail your audience needs to understand your message — your readers may not understand your message, nor will they swayed by it.

Works that lack clarity are called “writer-based discourse” in writing studies, the academic field that studies writing, rhetoric, and composing.

Conciseness – Brevity

Professional communicators know less is more when it comes to facilitating clarity in communication. Knowing that every word can be misinterpreted, knowledge workers are careful to cut the vague words from their sentences.

In professional settings, where time equates to money, readers seek information efficiently, prioritizing speed and clarity over elaborate exposition. Consequently, professional writing emphasizes conciseness, employing active voice, a deductive organizational structure, and short paragraphs that focus on a singular main idea. This approach ensures that readers can quickly access and understand the necessary information without wading through unnecessary detail.

Ethical

Professional writers tend to navigate complex ethical landscapes. Professional writers adhere to ethical, policy, and legal standards. Professional writers in workplace settings have public and legal obligations in the form of liability, copyright, trademark, and liability laws.

Professional writers present information in a way that does not mislead or manipulate the audience.

Professional writers are careful to respect copyright and intellectual property conventions. They are careful to follow expected citation conventions when paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing the ideas of others..

Professional writers are careful to avoiding plagiarism and the misrepresentation of others.

Inclusive

Professional writers use language that is respectful and sensitive to ageism, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status of others.

Recommended Readings
  1. Ableist Language – Disability Metaphors – Disability Studies
  2. Critical Disability Studies
  3. Empathetic Information Literacy

Audience-Driven

This note left on a homeowners door in Mill Valley California jests at common reasons people may ring your home doorbell

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)

The audience for professional writing tends to be coworkers, clients, employers. Typically in workplace discourse the audience is less informed about the topic than the write. Professional writers write from the persona and rhetorical stance of expert. They use visual language to present information as simply as possible.

Texts deemed “professional” respond 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 it 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.
Recommended Readings
  1. Document Planner
  2. Rhetorical Analysis

Honest

Readers and users of technical documents need to be confident that they can rely on the information being provided. Your 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.

When revising, editing, or proofreading, 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.

Accurate

In the context of effective professional writing, accuracy refers to the precise and correct use of language, data, and information.

Professional writers maintain their integrity in professional contexts by ensuring that all facts, figures, and details are verified and true, and that language is used appropriately to convey messages without ambiguity or error.

Accuracy is crucial in professional writing as it builds credibility and authority with the audience, whether it’s for academic, technical, business, or any other formal communication.

Writers achieve accuracy by thoroughly researching their topics, cross-checking facts, using reliable sources, and reviewing their work for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Accuracy in professional writing demonstrates a commitment to truthfulness and reliability, making it a fundamental attribute for writers aiming to communicate effectively and maintain their integrity in professional contexts.

Comprehensive

Professional writers achieve comprehensiveness by weaving their analysis into the broader “conversation of humankind,” demonstrating an awareness of the historiography of their topic. This attribute means they not only present a thorough exploration of the subject, incorporating all relevant dimensions and perspective, but also position their insights within the context of existing scholarship.

By tracing the evolution of ideas and acknowledging the contributions of previous scholars, professional writing showcases a depth of engagement with the topic that goes beyond surface-level analysis. This approach ensures that the text is not just informative but also deeply connected to the continuum of intellectual inquiry, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the subject’s history, its key contributors, and the methodologies that have shaped its development.

Comprehensiveness, therefore, is not just about the breadth of coverage but about situating one’s work within a larger scholarly dialogue, enriching the text with layers of context and meaning.

Research-Based, Substantive

Professional writers engage in strategic searching to investigate a topic. They are intellectually open. They consider counterarguments. They may employ textual research methods and engage in argument and persuasion.

When professional writers engage in research, they question the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy of information. They engage in rhetorical analysis and textual analysis to question the purpose of the research, from the investigator’s perspective.

Professional writers often engage in a variety of research methods, including Empirical Research Methods, Informal Research Methods, Mixed Research Methods, Qualitative Research Methods, or Quantitative Research Methods.

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.

Accessible

Accessibility involves presenting information in a manner that is easily digestible, using language that is straightforward and avoiding unnecessary jargon or technical terms that could alienate readers unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Accessibility entails structuring content logically, with clear headings, concise sentences, and a coherent flow of ideas, making it easier for readers to follow the argument or narrative.

Writers achieve accessibility by considering the background knowledge and interests of their intended audience. They tailor their approach – such as appeals to ethos, pathos, or logos — to be audience sensitive. They work to make their messages reader-based as opposed to writer-based.

When writers and speakers ensure their communications are accessible, they are able to reach a broader audience. By prioritizing accessibility, professional writers bridge the gap between expert knowledge and public understanding, contributing to a more informed and engaged community.

Collaborative (formally or informally)

In professional contexts, projects often require the collective expertise of multiple stakeholders, including writers, subject matter experts, designers, software developers, and clients, to create documents that meet specific business objectives. This collaborative approach ensures that the final product is comprehensive, accurate, and tailored to the needs of its intended audience, reflecting the diverse perspectives and skills of its contributors.

In contrast, academic writing tends to be more solitary. Individual authors or small research teams may toil away on a manuscript for years before sharing it with others and having it published.

Visually Appealing

The texts of subject matter experts in professional writing tend to be highly visual. Wherever possible, professional writers leverage the power of visual language to engage the interests and passions of the audience.

Recommended Readings
  1. Data Visualization – Information Visualization – The Art of Visualizing Meaning For Better Decision-Making
  2. Design Principles – The Big Design Principles You Need to Know to Create Compelling Messages
  3. Elements of Art – How to Leverage the Power of Art to Make Visually Compelling Documents
  4. Elements of Design – Master the Fundamentals of Visual Composition
  5. Page Design – How to Design Messages for Maximum Impact
  6. Universal Design Principles – How to Design for Everyone
  7. Usability – How to Research & Improve Usability
  8. Visualization – Visual Representation

Multimodal

Professional writers employ multiple media. They may embed videos and illustrations in their texts. Their texts may be primarily visual, such as data visualizations and infographics.

Problem-Oriented

Professional writers tends to be problem-oriented. Professional writers helps organizations and readers solve problems.

Scannable

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 and how it’s organized. They craft their texts to facilitate scanning.

Recommended Readings
  1. Page Design – How to Design Messages for Maximum Impact
  2. Design Principles – The Big Design Principles You Need to Know to Create Compelling Messages

What Textual Practices Are Common to Both Professional & Academic Prose Writing?

A professional writing style shares many characteristics with an academic writing prose style: both of these styles of writing aspire for brevity, flow, simplicity, unity and clarity in communications.

Academic and professional writers share many 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 Are 8 Major Differences Between Academic and Professional Writing?

While professional writers share some values and practices with academic writers, they ultimately approach discourse situations in 8 unique ways.

Source WritingCommonsOrg

Relationship to Audience

Much of the 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, however, the audience for academic writing tends to be subject matter experts and others interested in basic research on a topic. Members of different academic communities — such as the arts, engineering, or medical communities — engage in strategic searching in order to review peer reviewed research on topics of interest. Because they study different topics in different situations, discourse communities develop their own unique jargon, discourse conventions, and research methods.

Academic Writers
Knowledge Workers in academe or others interested in basic research on a topic
Professional Writers
Knowledge workers in the workplace collaborate to solve problems and create new products, services, texts.
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).

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

Relationship to Topic

Academic writing is largely about problematizing and exploring ideas.

Professional writing is fundamentally transactional: usually if you are writing you are doing so because you are trying to solve some kind of 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.

Formatting & Use of Visual Language

Academic writing tends to focus on traditional alphabetical language. Academic texts often have longish sentences and paragraphs. They are written from the assumption that the reader has an interest in their topic.

Professional writing, in contrast, assumes readers are not reading for pleasure. They assume technical readers are reading to understand something or to get something done. Thus, professional writing emphasizes visual elements more than academic writing.

To engage the curiosity and interest of their audience, professional writers

  1. Consider the Audience’s Needs
    Professional writers visual design should cater to the audience’s preferences and needs, making information not only accessible but also appealing to them.
  2. Use Visual Language to Communicate
    Professional writers incorporate visuals into their their texts, such as charts, graphs, and infographics. This makes complex information more accessible and easier to understand at a glance.
  3. Incorporate Images and Videos
    Professional writers use visual language to communicate, such as photographs, flowcharts, or infographics.
  4. Employ Typography Strategically
    Professional writers break longer paragraphs down into parts. They use headings, subheadings, bullet points, and varied font styles and sizes to organize content, draw attention to key points, and improve readability.
  5. Adopt Layouts That Enhance Readability
    Professional writers use space effectively to avoid clutter, allowing the reader’s eye to rest and making the document easier to navigate.
  6. Design for Accessibility
    Professional writers are careful to ensure that visual elements are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. This includes using alt text for images and ensuring that color contrasts are sufficient for readability.

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 writing embraces simplicity, space, visual language, and simple sentence patterns.

Related Resources: Sentences | Sentence Types

Media

In terms of channel or media, professional writers exhibit greater flexibility and are less tied to traditional discourse conventions than their academic counterparts.

Professional writers often adapt a single message for dissemination across various media, tailoring the content to suit the specific affordances and limitations of each platform. This adaptability allows them to effectively reach and engage their target audiences through the most appropriate channels, whether it be social media, blogs, reports, or presentations.

Conversely, academic writers primarily operate within established scholarly formats such as academic essays, research articles, and book reviews.

Point of View + Perspective

Academic writers may write from the first person to share their experiences and thoughts. In turn, when writing memos in workplace situations, professional writers may also use the first person. Thus, point of view, by itself, is not a measure of academic v. professional writing.

However, in general, primarily due to the distinct purposes and audiences their writing serves, academic and professional writers do adopt different rhetorical stances:

  1. Academic Writing is primarily oriented towards contributing to scholarly discourse — what is often called “the conversation of humankind.”  Academic writing is characterized by rigorous analysis, citation of peer-reviewed sources, and a focus on contributing new knowledge within a discipline. It often adheres to specific formatting and stylistic conventions (e.g., APA, MLA) and values objectivity, precision, and complexity, emphasizing argumentation supported by evidence.
  2. Professional Writing, while also valuing objectivity and evidence-based argumentation in many contexts (such as technical, legal, and scientific communications), is generally more diverse in its aims and formats. It seeks to achieve specific, practical outcomes, such as persuading customers, instructing users, or facilitating business operations. Professional writers adapt their rhetorical stance — their tone, style, and structure — to fit the immediate needs of their audience.
Related Resources

Point of View | Perspective | Rhetorical Stance

Organization

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

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