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Thursday, December 05, 2013

How Students Can Write Better Assignments

I'm finishing up the semester, and am in the middle of grading about 20 write-ups that my students had to do for a case we covered in class.   The case involved a venture capitalist offering an entrepreneur funds for what the entrepreneur thought was far too large a stake in his firm.  The students had to write a consultant's report advising the entrepreneur what to do with the offer. 

Once again, my students demonstrated that many (not all, but many) really don't understand how to write well.  So, I thought I'd do a service for students out there who have to do written assignments  (and for the faculty who have to read them) and give a few guideline on how to write better.

  1. Know what the mission is before you start: Are you writing an advisory memo? Are you listing the issues involved in a valuation?  Are you giving a recommendation?   In other words, all good writing (just like a good presentation) has a goal in mind.   Don't start writing until you're sure what it is.
  2. Organize BEFORE you start writing:  Back in the dark ages before computers (and before the meteor hid that destroyed all in my village), changing your writing was extremely difficult once it was down on paper.  So, to avoid that, we had to get very organized before we wrote.   Dierdre McCloskey (who's done a lot of work on how to write more effectively in economics) said, "90% of empirical work is getting your data straight, and 90% of good writing is getting your thoughts straight".  So, your best friend is a VERY thorough outline.  Start with a simple "high level" outline and then flesh it out in increasingly finer points.  Then make it even more detailed.  This makes sure that your writing stays "on point".  If you have a detailed outline, the writing is easy - you're just executing the idea.   
  3. Don't use flowery language or big words trying to impress me: All through elementary and high school, teachers tell us that good writing means being more expressive and using more evocative words.   So, the message comes across that using bigger words means that your writing will be better received (you sound smarter, you're more impressive, women (or men) will fall at your feet and so on).  In general, this doesn't work with business writing.   Be simple, direct, and to the point.  Don't use a longer word where a shorter one will do.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases: Phrases like "the fact that..." and "basically" are the written equivalent of saying "ummmmm."  They add nothing and disrupt the flow.  A former teacher of mine once suggested I write a first draft and then eliminate at least one word from every sentence.  So try to write using the minimum number of words that will do the job. 
  5. Edit, Edit, Edit: I've only met one person in all my years who could consistently write a first draft that was perfect.  Most people (and I include myself in this group) only get it about half-right the first time around.   For me, it usually takes about 4 rewrites before I'm even minimally satisfied with my writing.
  6. Give your work to your harshest critic: We all have a tendency to think that what we write is all good.  But the test of good writing is how OTHER people take it.  So, aim to have at least one person critique your work before taking it public.  And when you choose people to read it, choose the toughest (and pickiest) critics you can find.  The person who says "everything looks great" is not the critic you want - you want the pickiest, nastiest critic you can get.
  7. Give yourself Time: All the above steps take time.  So if you have an assignment due on Friday the 13th, you should aim to have a first draft done at least a day or two before.  Good writing takes time, and usually involves multiple revisions.   So start early and give yourself time for revisions.
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