Joe Bocchi, DA is the writing program director in the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College. He also leads the Writing Across the Curriculum strategic plan task force and has worked in higher education and industry for 30 years. Bocchi sat down with Excelsior Life to explain why business writing is so important to today’s careers.
Excelsior Life: Can you tell us a little about your background and where your passion for writing began?
Bocchi: Literature and writing have always been a part of my life. My parents were not high-school educated, and there were no books in our home, except for the Bible, a set of encyclopedias, and the occasional Dr. Seuss from the public library. But my teachers from kindergarten through 12 stressed that writing helps us explore others’ lives. Literature and writing in general were ways for me to experience a world other than my own sheltered existence.
So in the 1970s, after completing liberal arts degrees in literature, I became a daily newspaper reporter, but soon wanted to pursue a Master of Arts program at SUNY Albany to write fiction.
Language fascinated me as both beautiful and mysterious. I had some early success as a fiction writer, with an award-winning short story in a national contest. I quickly realized, though, that publishing fiction would be hit or miss, and that I would not, by any stretch of my imagination, be able to make a living from it. In fact, the contest award money I received barely covered the cost of fuel oil for a single month during winter that year!
Later, I returned to journalism, writing mostly feature stories and reviews of rock concerts. Then I left reporting again, this time for doctoral studies: Technical and business writing emerged as my real interest. That kind of writing certainly paid more, even with freelance work, and I became interested in the importance of corporate and government writing and its very complicated and vital role in how organizations ticked. I’ve worked in companies in marketing and human resource development, so I had the chance to see corporate writing up close and personal.
Excelsior Life: Can you provide some examples of the writing courses you have taught?
Bocchi: I have taught everything from graduate courses in corporate communication to undergraduate technical and business writing courses to composition. I’ve worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other organizations in Atlanta on a very broad range of genres. I also have trained hundreds of New York State employees on everything from reports, procedures, and policies to routine memos and letters. The focus of most of my courses and training sessions is to get writers to actually research writing done on the job – to analyze it, to study it carefully. Students and especially trainees apply instruction to documents in progress. That’s the stage – during drafting – and the place – in what some researchers call “contexts of consequences” – that students learn to analyze their audiences and contexts and adapt the content, structure, and style of their writing to specific goals and situations. We look at the negative consequences if writers don’t do that.
When a writer can apply his or her understanding of the business to persuade the company to “think” and act in a certain way, success happens.
Excelsior Life: What programs have the School of Liberal Arts implemented to help students with their writing skills?
Bocchi: We have recently launched a concentration in Professional and Technical Writing as part of our Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts. New courses have included scientific and technical writing, professional editing, and business writing. SLA is also working on an 8-week version of ENG 101 Advanced Composition, which will have an intensive focus on research and writing skills. The Writing Across the Curriculum groups begins development of writing-enriched upper-level courses in the schools starting in July. As part of the strategic plan, we have already sponsored a webinar and workshop on how to use the Written Communication VALUE Rubric to design writing assignments and syllabi. On May 8, we launched our Blackboard course on WAC, VALUE, and assignment design for access by all faculty, subject matter experts, and adjuncts. Our next target is constructing a non-credit, self-paced modular course that can be used as a writing refresher for students entering our capstones and our writing-enriched courses.
Excelsior Life: I understand you conducted research that appeared in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Journal of Education for Business, American Journal of Business Education, and the International Journal of Management in Education. Can you share some highlights or key findings?
Bocchi: The JBTC, IEEE and other applied writing publications focused on the role of writing in organizations and on how writers learn to write on the job. Writing is part of the enculturation process for employees. My research showed that writers become effective by interacting with other writers, their managers, their clients, etc., and by understanding the organizational culture and the “business of the business.” That is the process of enculturation, of joining what some call the “discourse community.” The writer’s discipline or field is one type of discourse community, but their day-to-day work environment is another. Writers who learn to balance the two and to analyze their writing contexts are the most persuasive in getting business done.
For 11 years, I was the executive director of an online MBA degree offered by six state universities in Georgia, and my colleagues and I were very interested in how best to market that business degree and to retain our students. We were very successful in using social media and other web marketing, especially through search engine optimization, to build a program that eventually would yield millions of dollars per year. How we recruited and retained students was a story that many business journals and associations wanted to hear, so business publications were the natural venue for our articles. The program continues to be successful, and I’m very fortunate to have been part of its development.
Excelsior Life: Why is business writing so important to today’s students?
Bocchi: No business exists without written communication. No marketing, no proposals, no procedures, no strategic plans. When a writer can apply his or her understanding of the business to persuade the company to “think” and act in a certain way, success happens. Students who don’t understand that will run the risk of lost promotions, poor performance reviews, low-level assignments, and general frustration with dead-end jobs. Their ideas and proposals get ignored. And so do they.
Excelsior Life: What are some of the key elements in business writing that potential employers look for?
Bocchi: Employers want people who are analytical and critical thinkers. They explore all the angles through their writing – particularly during the drafting stages. The lower-level skills of correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important for a writer’s credibility and for clarity. But the high-impact skills include the ability to analyze audiences, define appropriate goals, and create the right persona or image for specific situations. Good writers make strategic choices of content, structure, and style based on their careful analysis of the writing situation and their understanding of how to make a persuasive argument in their discourse communities.
All on-the-job writing is persuasive, even procedures and instructions. The writer wants the reader to act in a certain way. If the writer fails, the machine won’t operate properly, the policy won’t be followed, or the strategic plan won’t succeed. Ineffective writing costs companies money, time, and effort. Learning to write well is not that difficult and is certainly less expensive and lower risk with a college course than with an on-the-job training program. As educators, it is up to all of us to focus on the high-impact skills as well as the lower-level skills of mechanical correctness.