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Email 101: Shouldn’t the generation raised on email know how to write one?

A quick look at the comments on any YouTube video or MySpace page reveals that many members of the generation raised with email employ an artfully abbreviated style. When “heh,” “ha,” “meh,” “eh,” “uh” and “LOL!!!dude!!!” pass for analysis and information exchange, it’s no wonder many Twin Cities employers are sending their junior staff back to school to learn how to communicate.

English and communications departments at area colleges and universities report that local companies are calling to request faculty visits to help employees improve business writing skills. Other employers offer communications training in-house, including General Mills, Target and Thomson-West Publishing. The problem, these employers say, is that a lot of business is being conducted via email, and many employees have no idea how to properly communicate using the written word.

“Writing has not been a priority in schools for a while, and that’s showing up in the workplace,” says Bill West, course coordinator for professional and technical communications at the University of Minnesota’s new Department of Writing Studies. “And now employers are seeing the effect of that and finding that it’s a problem.”

The Department of Writing Studies is doing its part to make sure the next generation of emailers can communicate with previous generations’ letter and memo writers, and everyone in-between. The department, which combines the former Department of Rhetoric with the General College Writing Program, opened this fall after the U phased out these supposedly outdated departments.

But the new, more focused department, which also oversees the University’s Center for Writing and that bane of the English department, freshman composition classes, immediately enjoyed an enrollment boom. With a focus on practical writing skills for the work world (as opposed to, say, creative writing or journalism classes, which promise little in the way of future employment), the department aspires to make students better writers, and thus better employees.

The memo is dead; long live the email
West and Maggie VanNorman, who teaches Technical and Professional Writing while finishing her graduate studies, say writing a basic email is a top skill for the workplace. “I tell them not to write too little — for instance, leaving off a subject line may land their email in the trash — but also not to write too much. Students are conditioned to pad their papers with excess material, and sometimes they think they need to do the same in a business email, because it’s a formal audience,” she says.

Striking the right balance between formal and casual is a mystery to some students — and some professionals. In her class, VanNorman uses the emails of Michael D. Browne as an example of what not to do. The former FEMA head, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, nattered on email [PDF] about pressing matters like dog sitters and clothing choices, proclaiming “ima fashion god” and begging, “can I quit now?”

Which brings us to grammar and punctuation. “People freak out about writing, because they worry about grammar rules. They think, ‘I must be dumb, because I can’t write in my own language,'” says West. “Professional and academic language is a dead language. I tell my students it’s a foreign language, and its rules aren’t the same as how we speak. Yet, if you make a mistake in the competitive world, no one’s going to correct it, because it is a competitive world, and if you look foolish, they look better.”

West says professional emails owe their basic format to traditional letter writing. “A number of people are having trouble with emails because they never grew up with letters — letter writing is all but dead. But the same form holds: Establish contact, define the occasion, state your purpose for writing and indicate what action you want them to do,” he says.

It’s as simple as that. And if it’s not simple, it’s never too late to go back to school.

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