If you’re wanting to improve your business writing skills, you should know that three levels of learning are required to be most effective. Learning that is focused on just one of the three levels will be helpful, of course, but a comprehensive learning plan will be most effective. Think of it in terms of improving your game of golf. Studying the rules of the game will certainly help, but that alone won’t do anything for your long drives. (See this link for a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a recent conference about the ideas I presented in this blog.)
Learning Level 1—Rules
The first level focuses on the rules of writing, including basic sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, grammar rules, and so forth. While writing rules may shift slowly over time and vary slightly from situation to situation, rules are generally quite “black and white,” where something is either right or wrong (e.g., the correct spelling is “receive,” not “recieve”). If you want a good review of sentence basics, visit https://goo.gl/34xyTn. There, in Appendix A, you’ll find many of most frequently used and abused rules of business writing. For example, do you know when to use a semicolon? Many people don’t know; however, you can learn a few basic rules to confidently use semicolons in your writing.
Learning Level 2—Principles, Patterns, and Procedures
At the second level, learn important principles, patterns, and procedures pertaining to writing. Unlike level-1 rules that tell whether something is right or wrong, level-2 principles are more like guidelines. For example, the principle of conciseness pertains to word economy—messages should be conveyed without an excess of words. There’s obviously no right and wrong here, because a message may be mostly concise, but not as concise as it could be. Several patterns and procedures are explained in some of our other blogs. We’ve given some of them names to help you remember, such as CLOUD for writing effective paragraphs, OABC for document organization, HATS for document design, and DOCS for document revision. Learning and applying these patterns and principles can greatly strengthen your ability to write well.
Learning Level 3—Application and Adaptation
The highest level of learning comes at the application level. At first you might think that learning stops when application starts. Not true. You also need to learn how to apply everything you learned in levels 1 and 2. Level 3 is where creativity, judgment, and wisdom are learned. Obviously, application and adaptation skills are difficult to learn in a classroom setting, which is one reason why teachers often use case studies, client projects, and service learning to supplement classroom instruction. In fact, level-3 learning continues well into our careers and usually involves years of trial and error. It draws on everything we learned about rules, principles, procedures, and patterns, but it also requires that we learn how to analyze the unique characteristics of each situation and then design a creative solution to fit each situation.
If you’re feeling so confident in your writing that you think you don’t need a refresher, think again! Despite our years of professional experience, we can all improve at all three levels. Even Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, went back to the fundamentals with his experienced football players on the first day of practice. “Gentlemen,” he would say, “this is a football.” He wanted to make sure his players were prepared at all three levels, from the fundamentals to the intricacies of complicated plays. Likewise, by knowing all three levels of business writing, you can be prepared for all kinds of situations on the field of your professional work.
 David Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 274.
We're Bill, Matt, and Vince, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider teaching from our business and professional communication textbook.