Teaching Workplace Writing

Much of our discussions of writing instruction revolves around academic writing and preparing students for their future studies, from high school to university to graduate school. But few of our students plan to become professors, so it’s important for writing teachers to understand the types of writing that students may need to do in careers outside of academia. In this post, I provide an overview of the writing done in nonacademic professions and discuss how to help students learn those forms of writing.

Here, I focus on the forms of writing done by professionals in what are sometimes called “white collar” or “desk” jobs, not those entailing more manual labor. These positions usually require some level of higher education (ranging from an associates degree to a doctorate). Some such workers are employees of large corporations, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies, while others are self-employed. The writing they do for their work differs from academic writing in that it “has a pragmatic or instrumental focus…it is primarily concerned with getting things done” (Bremner, 2018, p. 1).

Bremner (2018) stresses the importance of context in workplace writing; each individual text is connected in multiple ways to its function within a workplace. This is related to the intertextual nature of most professional writing: no email stands alone. Rather, emails, reports, spreadsheets, and slide decks are connected to each other, often conveying related information from the same project to different audiences for different purposes.

Compared with a few decades ago, 21st-century workplaces put a greater emphasis on technology, service, flexibility, teamwork, and multitasking (Newtown & Kusmierczyk, 2011). “These changes in turn produce new forms of workplace communication as people are required to adopt new ways of writing, speaking, and making meaning through multimedia and through an ever diversifying range of electronic communication tools” (Newtown & Kusmierczyk, 2011, p. 75). In an ethnographic study of a nonprofit organization, for example, Beaufort (2000) identified numerous roles played in workplace writing, with the employees collaborating and supporting each other to create a wide range of texts for many different audiences and purposes. Taken together, these scholars highlight the importance of knowing not only what our students will write in the future, but also how they will create those texts.

What Do Professionals Write?

I conducted an informal survey of my friends on Facebook, asking them what types of writing they do in their jobs. Here are some of the highlights from this investigation:

  • Several responses came from people working in nonprofit organizations. They noted that they write for many different purposes, including grant proposals, marketing plans, reports on in-progress and completed projects, blog posts, LinkedIn articles, biographical sketches, executive summaries, and training documents.
  • Friends working in the video game design industry do job-specific writing: technical or design documentation of the games they are creating. One video game designer also writes scripts for characters’ lines, some of which are presented in text format and others of which are read aloud by actors in voice-overs.
  • The textbook publishing and assessment industry requires bids and proposals for new projects, as well as reports on ongoing and completed projects.
  • Clinical psychologists write case studies and session notes, assessment reports, and protocols to deliver information to patients. In addition, psychologists conduct research and write journal articles and conference papers.
  • An occupational therapist who has worked with both adults and children reports writing “lots of dry boring documentation justifying what I do with my clients. Assessment reports include lots of test results and current functioning and goals with specific time lines. Progress reports include progress toward goals, and daily notes include what I do and the client does during our session.”
  • A bakery owner shares many of the same writing tasks as others who run small businesses: marketing messages, signs, contracts, and communication with customers and vendors.
  • Classroom teachers and specialists in elementary and high schools also write a lot for their jobs, including progress reports; curriculum and materials; lesson plans; study guides; and communication with parents, colleagues, and administrators. They must also set up learning management systems, an especially important aspect of teaching online.
  • Working in state or federal government agencies also requires much writing. Friends in such positions said they write many types of reports, including legal decisions, statements conveying findings from technical committees to decision-making bodies, explanations of statistical analyses, and technical briefs. They also may write memos, develop test items, do their own research, and write performance evaluations of people they supervise.

Besides these more profession-specific types of writing, there are a few types of text that span many jobs:

  • Email: Number one, listed by almost everyone, and reviled by many, is email. Professional work in the 21st century requires frequent communication with colleagues, supervisors, clients, patients, vendors, and parents of students, among others. One friend pointed out, however, that Slack messaging has taken over some intra-office communication that until recently was done over email.
  • Social Media: Many different jobs also involve forms of social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are no longer just for personal uses. Professionals post on behalf of their businesses, announcing new products, providing updates on campaigns, and summarizing important reports their organizations have released.
  • Spreadsheets: These are also used widely. Some jobs require analyzing data presented in spreadsheets and reporting the results to stakeholders, while others require entering information into spreadsheets.
  • Presentations in Slide Decks: Presentation slides are yet another common form of workplace writing. These presentations may be addressed to widely varying audiences—colleagues, customers, or legislators, for example—yet all require the creator to think carefully about what the audience already knows, what they need to know, and how best to convey that information in this format. Another challenge for creators of presentation slides is that the author may not be the person giving the presentation, so they must also consider how clearly the information is laid out and how much context the creator and presenter share.

Teaching Workplace Writing

So what does this mean for writing teachers? The central message is that workplace professional writing is diverse, which means we can’t teach students how to write all these different types of text in one course. Instead, we need to focus on teaching students how to analyze the situation and figure out what they need to write based on

  • who they are writing for (the audience),
  • what the purpose of their writing is, and
  • how that purpose has been fulfilled within their workplace previously.

A genre approach (see my June blog post for more about genre) offers a framework for guiding students through such an analysis process within the classroom; once they move on to their workplaces, they can use the same process to figure out how to write the types of texts required there. In many situations, they can study models of reports, memos, and presentations that others have written in their jobs. Though my friends did not mention it, Bremner (2018) adds that much workplace writing is collaborative, which means that novice writers can learn from their colleagues as they work together to construct texts.

In what ways have you taught students to write for specific professions? Share your ideas in the comments, below.


Beaufort, A. (2000). Learning the trade: A social apprenticeship model for gaining writing expertise. Written Communication, 17(2), 185–223. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088300017002002

Bremner, S. (2018). Workplace writing. In J. I. Liontas (Ed.), The TESOL encyclopedia of English language teaching (pp. 1–6). Wiley Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0519

Newton, J., & Kusmierczyk, E. (2011). Teaching second languages for the workplace. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 74–92. https://doi.org/doi:10.1017/S0267190511000080

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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