Many of us still recall the five-paragraph format for writing papers that seemed to be a favorite of so many English teachers.
I’m not one of them, having preferred a more natural approach to writing where the argument fleshes itself out along the way. The freedom to play with the transition of ideas throughout the paper rather than how many paragraphs I could produce that–within them–followed yet another structure, the main idea of the paragraph followed by supporting statements. Blah. Yeah, I was docked a few times for format, but to me, it was the writing journey that mattered.
To help us structure our ideas and content, there’s a general rule in writing that goes something like
- tell them what you’re going to tell them (the Introduction)
- tell them (the Body)
- and tell them again (the Conclusion)
Enter the “real-world,” out of academia and into corporate America. The 5 paragraph prescription doesn’t always work, and folks just doesn’t have time for you to tell them three times unless you’re really creative about it.
Turns out the time spent studying composition theory and writing research papers really was a fertile training ground not only for producing marketing collateral such as white papers, but also in writing things like project plans, business cases, grant funding applications, and just about every other form of business communication that goes beyond the transactional.
Who knew that writing “Satan, Sex, & Scripture: The Phenomenology of Sin in Paradise Lost” as a pompous young grad student would have a direct tie to my career in the private sector? To me this answers the question so many students in freshman English ask themselves and each other in classroom or on the campus lawn – what does poetry have to do with my degree, or my future career? Why do I have to read Shakespeare? Or Chaucer? Why are there no pictures in these books?
It’s because of the limitless opportunities these works present for students to structure and present their arguments “off the fence,” as one of my professors used to say. To take a side and think critically in order to defend it.
One of my favorite duties at “work” is writing white papers. The most recent are available here and here. The writing process for me didn’t much differ from that of my research writing days. And yes, ever the English major, both those white papers have semi-colons in their titles.
Those that read white papers are looking to solve a business problem, so the content has to be both informative and prescriptive. (Sometimes, the writer must first make that reader aware that they indeed have a problem.) It’s the equivalent of reading up on other critics of a literary work before beginning the research paper, then writing in such a way that the reader is guided in how to read the given literary work based on the writer’s interpretation of it. Other similarities include
- facts and citations from credible sources,
- an engaging tone that’s not too dry,
- addressing potential objections early on,
- a summary of the paper and its argument in the introduction,
- and a conclusion that answers the question, “So what?” (Why should a literary work be read this way? Why will the ideas presented help me do business more efficiently or profitably?)
One thing you’ll notice on this blog is that I absolutely love language–the words and their rhythm, texture, room for interpretation. Because of that I’ll include from time to time excerpts of previous papers or short stories that I’ve written. And maybe the occasional piece of marketing fodder.
That said, below is the introductory paragraph from the paper mentioned earlier, “Satan, Sex, & Scripture: The Phenomenology of Sin in Paradise Lost.” It does three things that are also important for the intro to a business white paper:
1) Establishes the author’s position on what will be the central argument in the paper (Satan’s character represents the Jungian notion of the shadow),
2) Addresses the opposing viewpoint (readers who are drawn to the character show evidence of their own sin),
3) Provides evidence to support the argument being proposed (Satan’s fall and temptation of Eve).
The ancients teach us that true knowledge of the self comes only after an examination of the other side—the vengeful, deceitful, contemptuous recesses of the psyche—in order to discover moral absolutes. As a symbol of evil, the author of sin and death in Paradise Lost, Satan becomes the archetypal, primal human being, in consciousness though perhaps not in form, and embodies the weaknesses inherent in mankind. Milton’s Satan contains the other, darker, elements of the human psyche, the tendencies toward envy, wrath, lust, and pride that make us complete. Identification with Satan signifies not the reader’s sin, as some critics have argued, but an active, positive response to otherness, facilitating the incorporation of human darkness which manifests itself as evil when repressed in the psyche. Through his own fall and temptation of Eve, Satan offers the reader the means to recognize, confront, and consume her shadow, a Jungian signification for the dark or unacceptable emotions and behavior which reside in the unconscious mind.