Professional Writing

Purpose of Course  showclose

Professional Writing is designed to provide adult learners with the basic skills they need to write effective documents in the workplace.  In this course, you will learn how to analyze your audience so that you can write prose that is both clear and persuasive.  You will practice writing common business documents, such as emails, memos, proposals, and presentations.  You will also learn how to effectively edit these documents for maximum impact.

This course is part of the Professional Development Program (PRDV), which is designed especially for adult learners who are ready to gain and apply skills demanded by today’s employers.

Course Information  showclose

Welcome to PRDV002, Professional Writing.  General information about this course and its requirements can be found below.
Course Designer: Mary Morley Cohen, PhD
Primary Resources: This course is comprised of a variety of free, online resources.  The course makes primary use of the following materials:
Requirements for Completion: In order to complete this course, you must study the materials provided in each unit and complete the assigned tasks.  As you will see, the tasks are designed to allow you to develop and refine a piece of professional writing of your own choosing.  You will also need to complete the Final Exam.

Note that you will only receive an official grade on your Final Exam.  However, in order to adequately prepare for this exam, you will need to work through all resources and read through the information in each unit.

In order to “pass” this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the Final Exam.  Your score on the exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it.  If you do not pass the exam, you may take it again.

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of 3.5 hours to complete.  Each unit includes a “time advisory,” which estimates the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit.  Although the course is short, you may want to use these advisories to schedule time on your calendar to complete each unit.

Tips and Suggestions: In order to get the most benefit from this course, you should choose a writing project to develop as you work through the course material.  Ideally, this project should be something that you need to write anyway: a memo for work, an important email, or a cover letter for a job application.  This project will allow you to immediately apply and practice the concepts taught in this course.

A version of this course is also available in iTunes U.
Preview the course in your browser or view all our iTunes U courses.  

Learning Outcomes  showclose

Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  • Define professional writing, and identify the major genres of professional writing.
  • Conduct basic audience research to determine for whom he or she is writing and why.
  • Determine the main point of your document, and summarize your main point in one sentence.
  • Use concrete characters rather than abstract nouns.
  • Identify and explain how to avoid the most common ethical problems in professional writing.
  • Reinforce the main point in the most strategic locations throughout the document.
  • Adapt and revise messaging for different contexts and audiences.
  • Identify common problems that prevent writing from being easily understood by a variety of audiences.
  • Use multiple editorial strategies for revising and improving documents.

Course Requirements  showclose

In order to take this course, you must:

√    Have access to a computer.

√    Have continuous broadband internet access.

√    Have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g. Adobe Reader or Flash).

√    Have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer.

√    Have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.).

√    Have competency in the English language.

√    Have read the Saylor Student Handbook.

Preliminary Information

  • Business Communication for Success

    Link: Business Communication for Success (PDF)

    You will be prompted to read sections of this book throughout the course.  You may choose to download the text in full now and skip to the appropriate section as prompted by the instructions in the resource boxes below, or you can simply download the specific sections of the text assigned as you progress through each resource box.

    Terms of Use: The text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without attribution as requested by the work's original creator or licensee.  

Unit Outline show close

  • Unit 1: Know Your Audience and Purpose  

    When you are writing in a professional context, it is essential to cultivate an awareness and respect for your audience.  Before you begin writing, you must determine for whom you are writing and why.  Your goal should be to make your meaning as clear as possible, so your audience does not have to struggle to understand what you are saying.  In this unit, you will learn how to analyze your audience, to identify your purpose for writing, and to prepare an outline that will help you get your point across.

    Time Advisory   show close
    Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 1.1 What Is Professional Writing?  
  • 1.1.1 Definition of Professional Writing  
    • Reading: Writing Commons’ “Professional Writing”

      Link: Writing Commons’ “Professional Writing” (HTML and YouTube)

      Instructions: Please click on the link above, read the brief introduction to professional writing, and view the two short videos embedded on the page.  Please note that the resource provides an overview of two types of professional writing: business writing and technical writing.

      Reading and viewing the videos should take approximately 5 minutes to complete.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

  • 1.1.2 Common Genres  
  • Business Letters and Memos  
  • Electronic Communication  
  • Proposals  
  • Presentations  
  • Informational Presentations  
  • Persuasive Presentations  
  • 1.1.3 Professional Writing Tone  
  • 1.2 Know Your Audience  
  • 1.2.1 Characteristics of Your Audience  

    In most professional settings, your reader will have limited time, and he will scan the title and the first sentence or two at most to determine if the message is worth reading.  If he does not find a compelling reason to continue reading, he will stop before finishing the document and either set it aside or throw it away.
    The best way to avoid this fate is to convince your reader that your message will give him information that is relevant to him and then to convey this information as clearly and succinctly as possible.

  • 1.2.2 Research Your Specific Audience  

    Before you begin writing, pause to reflect on the person or people to whom you are writing.  Do they know you or someone you know?  Are they expecting to hear from you?

  • 1.2.3 What Is the Point?  
  • Motivate  

    Most professional documents are written to motivate action.  You write a resume and cover letter so that someone will hire you.  You write a memo so that your colleagues can do something differently.  You write a webpage so that your customers can find the information they need.  Before you begin writing, consider what you want your reader to do after reading your document.

    • Reading: Writing Commons’ “Rhetorical Appeals” (HTML)

      Link: Writing Commons’ “Rhetorical Appeals” (HTML)

      Instructions: This webpage provides an overview of four classical strategies for persuading your audience.  Please click on the link above and read this webpage, including the examples at the bottom of the page.  Then choose the strategy that will be most effective for your audience.

      Reading this page and reflecting on the most effective motivational strategy for your audience should take approximately 5 minutes.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

  • Organize Your Message around One Main Objective  

    When developing your document, consider the following question: what is the most important point you want your reader to get out of your correspondence with them?  Write your main point on a blank page.  Then, add any sub-points that support your main objective.

  • 1.3 Troubleshooting  
  • 1.3.1 Brainstorm  

    If you are having difficulty coming up with ideas about what to write, here are some suggested approaches that might be helpful.

  • 1.3.2 Consider Objections  

    When developing your document and analyzing your audience, consider whether your reader will object to anything in your document.  If so, you will need to add sections to respond to these objections.  There are several ways that you can do this: 1) provide counter evidence and/or 2) provide examples of other organizations that have successfully implemented similar proposals.

    Take ten minutes to think about any objections your audience may have to your message.  Write down some ways you might address these objections.

  • Unit 1 Assessment  
    • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation's “Unit 1 Assessment”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation's “Unit 1 Assessment” (HTML)
      Instructions: You must be logged into your Saylor Foundation School account in order to access this assessment.  If you do not yet have an account, you will be able to create one, free of charge, after clicking the link. Complete this assessment to gauge your understanding of the topics covered in this unit. The correct answers will be displayed when you click “Submit.”

  • Unit 2: The Art of Persuasion  

    Now that you have determined your audience, crafted your main point, and created an outline, it is time to draft your document.  In this unit, you will learn how to craft a memo or email message that will reinforce your main point and persuade your audience.  You will also learn how to eliminate common problems that may distract your reader from your main point.

    Time Advisory   show close
    Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 2.1 Review Your Outline  

    Take 5 minutes to review your outline and your notes about your audience.  Throughout the drafting process, keep your notes in front of you, so you keep your audience and your purpose in mind throughout the process.

  • 2.2 Craft Your Message  

    Carefully read through the sub-subunits below subunit 2.2.  At the end of this section, you will be asked to write a rough draft of your document.  It should take approximately 10 to 15 minutes to read through this information.

  • 2.2.1 Make a Connection  

    As you begin your draft, try to make a connection with your reader.

  • Salutations  

    One of the best ways to connect to your reader is to say his or her name.  When writing letters or emails, avoid generic salutations, such as “Hey Guys.”  It is much better to let your reader know the message is really intended for him or her by using a personalized salutation, such as Dear Mr. Smith, Dear Mary, etc.  If you address a group of people too large to list individually, try to capture their identity as best as you can: Dear Sales Team, Financial Advisors, etc.

  • Introductions  

    If your readers do not know you, consider introducing yourself.  This does not mean providing your resume, rather you may tell your readers why they might want to continue reading even though they do not know you (e.g. “So and so referred me to you,” “I am working on a high-priority project in the marketing department,” etc.).

  • 2.2.2 State Your Point  

    Once you have made a brief connection with your reader, you should get right to the point.  Your point should be addressed in the first paragraph.

  • 2.2.3 Reinforce Your Point  

    Now, you will draft the rest of your message to support your main point.  There are several parts of your message that you will want to pay special attention to.

  • Document Titles and Subject Lines  

    If you are writing a document or memo, make sure that your document title and file names are as descriptive as possible.  Ideally, use terms or phrases from your main point, which will help alert your reader to your main idea.  If you are writing an email message, make sure your subject line captures your main point.  This will make it more likely that your reader will open your email.  It also makes that specific e-mail easier to find later.

  • Headers  

    If your document has multiple sections, consider using section headers that summarize your sub-point and reinforce your main point.

  • Topic Sentences  

    If your document has multiple paragraphs, start each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes your sub-point and reinforces your main point; this is known as a topic sentence.  Ideally, your reader should be able to glean your complete argument by reading only your opening paragraph and the first sentence of each subsequent paragraph.  In fact, many readers in business settings do just this in order to save time.

  • Key Words  

    Not only can key words help reinforce your point, they can also make documents easier to locate later, using search tools in email systems and on computers.  Also, employers use keywords to recruit and screen potential candidates.

  • 2.2.4 Create a Clear Story  

    Do not alienate your reader with unfamiliar jargon.  Rather than making you sound smart, you may confuse your reader.  However, this does not mean that you have to dumb down your point.  In fact, the most complex ideas are best expressed with language that your reader can understand.  Then, your reader will focus on your argument rather than stopping to wonder what you are talking about.

  • 2.2.5 Define Terms, Manage the Flow of Information  

    When you introduce a complex term for the first time in your document, make sure you define it first, so readers will not be confused.  Then, make sure that your flow of information is built in a logical fashion.

    • Web Media: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center’s “Flow”

      Link: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center’s “Flow” (Flash)

      Instructions: Please click on the link above and watch the video in its entirety.  Then reflect on the flow of information in your outline.

      Watching this video and considering the flow of information in your outline should take less than 5 minutes.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

  • 2.2.6 Be Ethical  

    Although professional writing is intended to be persuasive, do not use unethical methods to persuade.

  • 2.3 Draft Your Message  

    After reading through subunit 2.2, take approximately 30 minutes to write a rough draft of your document based on your outline.

  • Unit 2 Assessment  
    • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation's “Unit 2 Assessment”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation's “Unit 2 Assessment” (HTML)
      Instructions: You must be logged into your Saylor Foundation School account in order to access this assessment.  If you do not yet have an account, you will be able to create one, free of charge, after clicking the link. Complete this assessment to gauge your understanding of the topics covered in this unit. The correct answers will be displayed when you click “Submit.”

  • Unit 3: Polishing Your Writing  

    In this age of instant communication, we have become accustomed to writing rapidly and reading documents filled with typographical errors, slang or abbreviations, and other common errors.  While this may be the standard practice when text-messaging, it is not standard practice in the business world.  Every piece of writing, no matter how brief, must be edited.  In this unit, you will learn how to revise your writing so that it commands respect and attention.

    Time Advisory   show close
    Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 3.1 Editing  

    Carefully read through the information in subunit 3.1 and sub-subunits 3.1.1 through 3.1.7.  Reading through these sections should take approximately 5-10 minutes to complete.

    The goal of the editorial process is to eliminate any distractions and red flags.  Proofreading will help make you look as careful and professional as possible.  No matter how convincing your point is, your reader will not take you seriously if you have glaring errors in your document.  Although grammar and spell checking programs are useful, they can sometimes create additional errors or overlook existing mistakes.  Therefore, it is important to manually edit all important business documents before you send them to your intended audience.

  • 3.1.1 Share with a Friend  

    It is virtually impossible to edit one’s own writing.  Why?  Because we think we know what we wrote, and we tend to see and hear what we think we wrote rather than the words on the page.  Therefore, it is very important to edit your work with fresh eyes.
    Ask a friend to make a note of any times when he or she got confused or lost the flow of your argument.  If your friend finds a lot of typos, do not be embarrassed; it is better that a trusted friend or colleague sees these errors rather than your boss or potential boss.

  • 3.1.2 Self-Editing  

    If you do not have someone readily available, then there are several tricks for looking at your own writing with fresh eyes.  Set your writing aside for a few hours, or if the document is extremely important, such as a cover letter for your dream job, then set it aside for a day or two.  When you read it again, you will likely notice errors or areas for improvement that you did not see before.  Read your writing out loud.  Grammatical errors or awkward phrasing should sound wrong to your ear.  Print out your document and edit with a pen; sometimes a different medium will reveal mistakes you did not see on the screen.

  • 3.1.3 Inconsistent Formatting: Common Problems, Especially in Resumes  

    When you proofread a resume, pay close attention to your formatting.  Make sure that your job titles, descriptions, and dates all use the same formatting and punctuation.

  • 3.1.4 Extraneous Information and Words  

    Make sure that your sentences are not unnecessarily complicated or confusing; instead, try to write succinctly and clearly.  As much as possible, keep your subjects and verbs close together and near the beginning of your sentences.

  • 3.1.5 Information Intended for a Different Audience  

    If you are conducting a job search, it is extremely important to customize everything (e.g. your cover letter and resume) for each job.  Make sure to use the words that the employer uses in the job description.  Also, make sure you do not leave in the name of another company.  Even if you have the most amazing resume in the world, if you say “I am interested in the position of project manager” when you are applying for a position called a “project coordinator,” chances are good that you will not be called for an interview.

  • 3.1.6 Incorrect Electronic File Names  

    Very frequently, employers receive a resume for a job that has a file name of some other company or university.  Hiring managers know you are applying for many jobs; however, you must make them think you want their job and no others.

  • 3.1.7 Maintain Professionalism  

    Remember that maintaining professionalism can impact employment decisions.  Potential employers may easily find information about you on Facebook and LinkedIn, so make sure you educate yourself about your privacy settings and your public profiles.  Even if you are confident that your messages are private, be wary of posting anything that could compromise your future employment prospects.  Also, make sure that your posts are clearly written and error-free.  Although Facebook and other social media sites tend to encourage a more informal writing style, do not allow spelling and grammatical errors to raise red flags for your current and future employers and colleagues.

  • 3.2 Final Review  

    Now, we will review what we have learned in the Professional Writing course.

    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “Editorial Checklist”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Editorial Checklist” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please download and print the linked document.  Read through the Editorial Checklist as you edit your document.  Ideally, you will read through your document looking for just one or two items on the checklist at a time.  This means you will read through your document several times.  Keep this document as a resource as you edit professional documents in the future.

      Reviewing and editing your document thoroughly should take approximately 15 minutes.

  • Unit 3 Assessment  
    • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation's “Unit 3 Assessment”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation's “Unit 3 Assessment” (HTML)
      Instructions: You must be logged into your Saylor Foundation School account in order to access this assessment.  If you do not yet have an account, you will be able to create one, free of charge, after clicking the link. Complete this assessment to gauge your understanding of the topics covered in this unit. The correct answers will be displayed when you click “Submit.”

  • Final Exam