Writing Matters

Of course we’d say that. But hear us out. Writing matters. And it matters now more than it ever has in the history of humankind. That’s not conjecture or hyperbole. It’s the truth.

Of course we’d say that. But hear us out. Writing matters. And it matters now more than it ever has in the history of humankind. That’s not conjecture or hyperbole. It’s the truth.

Everyone is a writer

The fact of the matter is, whether lawyers, accountants, doctors, policy analysts or construction workers, everyone writes. They write reports to colleagues. They write memos to clients. They write texts and tweets and Facebook posts.

According to a 2017 study by Carleton University, the average person spends a third of his or her working day—nearly three hours!—reading and writing emails. The survey findings say nothing about the time spent drafting other communiqués to colleagues and clients.

Two things about this analysis jump out. The first is that, even given all that time spent practicing this craft, most office workers don’t consider themselves to be writers, and don’t put the time or energy into improving their proficiency. (Curiously, if you asked anyone who spent as much time each week playing guitar, they’d likely quite happily label themselves guitarists. Is writing that un-sexy?)

The second is that even with all this practice, most people write poorly. Typos abound. Direction is unclear. Salient points are obscured.

Bad writing is bad business

The fact of the matter is, bad writing is bad for business. A survey of nearly 550 business people published in the Harvard Business Review confirms that bad writing, whether in emails, reports or what have you, wastes a significant amount of time in their working days.

Just as significantly, bad writing obscures meaning. When writers fail to express themselves clearly, they do their readers a massive disservice. Directions are vague, scopes of work ill-defined, instructions missing or unclear. As a result, readers waste their time trying to understand instructions, or waiting for the writer to get to a point that may be missing from the copy entirely.

Non-writers will groan at this point. They’ll grumble that people expect too much from their writing. That the message they’re trying to convey is clear in their own minds. That they usually do a good enough job of getting their points across, and that if their readers don’t understand the messages they’re trying to get across, then they’re expecting entirely too much.

That attitude couldn’t be further from the truth. Think about writing this way. It’s a process whereby a writer downloads a very specific idea from his or her mind onto a piece of paper or, through a keyboard, onto a screen. That idea has shape, texture and activity. Dimensions, colour and movement. The writer’s job is to articulate those qualities perfectly onto the page so that the reader can swiftly upload that information and see, hear and feel exactly the same things the writer does.

Precision is paramount. Good enough is not.

Bad business writing’s final sin burns hotter than wasted time and frustrated colleagues. Such matters at least live within a company’s four walls. When bad writing creeps into public-facing materials, credibility suffers. A piece of writing that is imprecise and poorly constructed causes customers to wonder whether your team is actually worthy of their trust—and their dollars.

A clear path to clarity

Writing well isn’t hard. Good writing isn’t a gift bestowed on a select few by a higher power. It’s a craft like any other. It’s a skill developed through study and practice—and a desire to improve. So motivated, any writer can elevate the quality of his or her writing.

Here are our top-three tips for improvement.

Think first. Type later.

Fuzzy writing happens most often when a writer starts typing without a clear plan in mind. Ideas aren’t developed fully or sequenced properly. Information is shotgunned onto a page with the vague hope that a least one message will hit the target.

The most effective writers think about their work before they ever press a key. They ask questions like, “who am I speaking to?”, “what do they need to know?”, “how do I want them to think or act when they finish reading my piece?” And they plan and structure their messaging accordingly. The result is a clearly presented and logically sequenced email, report or tweet that gives the reader exactly what they need to know—no more, no less—and spurs them to action.

Apply the ROI filter.

Most bad writers (those who admit they’re bad writers, anyway) say they suffer from being verbose. They don’t know what to say, so they say everything. Nothing can be more frustrating for a reader. In today’s information-rich age, it’s safe to assume your reader has at least a passing understanding of a subject matter—and a baseline level of intelligence.

Do your reader a service by streamlining the information you present.

Pull out redundant information: facts and ideas that are repeated in your document (or someone else’s), and which are restated for emphasis.

Eliminate the obvious: ideas that are common knowledge, easily deduced or which go without saying.

Purge the immaterial: off-topic ideas, and nuances that add nothing but length.

Stripped of redundant, obvious and immaterial information, your writing will simply get to the point, and your readers will be much happier.

Work in teams.

Our best, and last, tactic for fixing bad writing is to work in teams. When writers admit that the ideas they create are for public consumption, and accept that others will have an opinion of their work, they free yourself from the notion that what they write is always perfect.

Work in teams to review and revise projects. We do. Every single piece of writing we create—this one included—is combed twice for errors and weaknesses before release. Our colleagues review each others’ work for as many as 40 variables that diminish impact: spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, weaknesses in logic and presentation. We flag them for each other, and we weed them out. The result: a promise to our clients that every piece of writing we release is at least 95 percent free of errors and exactly appropriate for medium, audience and occasion.

A rigorous and thorough peer-review system catches bad writing before it’s ever made public. It is perhaps the greatest and most effective technique a company can put in place to improve the quality of its writing, and the clarity of the messages it sends.