While “legalese” may be the punchline for jokes about bad writing, the problem isn’t confined to the legal profession. Bad business writing is widespread and costs American companies almost $400 billion per year. Let’s look at how unsatisfactory writing has affected businesses and why we should improve our writing skills.
Bad Writing By the Numbers
In 2016, business communications expert Josh Bernoff surveyed 547 businesspeople, including writers, editors, managers, directors, supervisors, executives, analysts, and consultants. He found that, on average, businesspeople spent 20.4 hours per week writing and 25.5 hours per week reading. These businesspeople were not pleased with what they read: 81% felt that poorly written material wasted their time. That wasted time amounts to six percent of American workforce wages.
If that survey isn’t enough to jolt you into action, consider a survey by The Economist that found that poor communication led to missed deadlines and lost sales valued at nearly $1 million. Additional reports show that poor communication costs large companies $62.4 million per year. Smaller companies feel the cost, too. Companies with fewer than 100 employees lose over $530,000 per year because of communication issues.
It’s time to address business’s communication problem. But how? Rigorous editing.
Unedited and Ineffective Writing
In Bernoff’s survey, businesspeople complained that what they read was ineffective because it was too long, poorly organized, unclear, jargon filled, and imprecise. Most of those deficiencies can be improved through editing, yet, writers report spending only spent 19% of their time revising their work. With that meager investment in revision, it’s no surprise the final product was ineffective.
The problem is that writers are dashing off half-thoughts and first drafts without regard for the reader. One communications study found that, in a business deal, sloppy, bad writing accounts for 40% of the transactional cost. By treating business writing as a task to be completed, rather than a message to be communicated, we invite confusion and increase costs.
Case Study: Improving Bank Examiner Reports
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Bernoff presents a case study of a group of examiners at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia who needed to improve the clarity and impact of their written reports. About 250 people in the group contributed to detailed reports that sometimes ran as long as 40 pages. With all those contributors and the sole focus on data, the reports were poorly written. The points became muddled, and decision makers couldn’t understand what problems they needed to fix.
The bank then set up a writing center and employed a writing coach to provide consistent, clear feedback. The writing coach respected the bank examiners’ subject matter expertise and focused on improving the clarity, brevity, and effectiveness of the bank documents. This encouraged the examiners to participate regularly and repeatedly. It ultimately led to a 36% improvement in overall report quality. The biggest gains were in organization and clarity. The smallest gain was in grammar.
Why Should You Improve Your Business Writing Skills?
The research and statistics we’ve shared show that poor communication is bad for businesses. Did you know that weak writing could also hinder your professional success? People with strong business communication skills get further as employees or freelancers because employers need strong communicators at work and self-employed people must communicate well to bring in business.
People with great communication skills are an asset. When you improve your business writing, you’ll express your ideas more effectively and boost productivity. Here’s why better business writing is essential for you and your business or firm:
1. Deliver Your Intended Message
Vague, meandering, and long-winded writing increases the chances that your readers will misinterpret what you’ve said—or not read it at all! When reading feels like a struggle, readers give up. They stop trying to find meaning in what you’ve written. If clients or colleagues need that information and can’t get it from any other source, consequences can be expensive. When writing, think about what your reader needs to know and make it easy for them to get what they need. Your readers will appreciate it and reward you with trust and respect.
2. Demonstrate Professionalism
Busy professionals want to feel like the writer respects their time and intelligence. Acknowledging each other as valuable parts of the business world is a key part of business etiquette. While most people will remember to use proper etiquette in person, it’s often forgotten in the rush of writing. Sloppy errors waste readers’ time, and poor word choices can insult professionals. Meanwhile, an overly casual tone can be disrespectful. You can show professionalism in your writing using the right style, tone, accuracy, and organization.
3. Be More Productive
Writers and readers both lose productivity when the writer’s skills are weak. Untrained and unaided writers take longer to produce a well-crafted clear business document, which means less time will be available for other tasks. Readers need more time and effort to understand poorly written documents. Readers may need to ask for clarification or re-do certain tasks due to misunderstandings. When these issues are put together, companies lose many productive hours.
4. Show Leadership Skills
Clear and convincing writing is one of the best ways to show value and initiative at work. It will help you pitch a clever new idea, gather support for new project, or explain data and processes to colleagues. These are great opportunities to grow—but poor writing can turn opportunities into obstacles. A long, confusing proposal or a disjointed and protracted explanation can suggest to colleagues that you’re not knowledgeable or ready for leadership.
5. Future-Proof Your Skillset
With the pandemic, we’ve changed where, how, and when we work. The good news, however, is that strong business writing skills never go out of style or lose importance. A writer who crafts a compelling story or helps readers understand complex information will be helped by technology, but never replaced. Though 26% of workers expect technology to eliminate their jobs in the next 20 years, we think human understanding combined with technology-enhanced skills is unbeatable. The more you can use technology to show off your indispensable business communication, the more future-proof your career will be.
Sophisticated Writers Need Sophisticated Editors
If grammar plays such a small role in improving overall effectiveness, business writers should shift their editing focus to clarity and brevity. The high-level executives who complained of wasted time were bogged down by long, unclear, jargon-filled, disorganized writing—not noun-verb disagreement.
Sophisticated writers need feedback that will make the greatest impact. In Bernoff’s survey, fewer than half the writers who sought feedback received any they found useful. That’s because editorial feedback is often conflicting and aimed at low-level grammar rules and myths rather than high-level organization. The editors rarely asked questions to encourage clearer thinking. To make improvements where it matters most, consult a writing coach and try software designed for sophisticated business writers.
Remedial Training Isn’t the Answer
If you’re looking to learn business writing or improve your skills, you’ll find plenty of great courses online and offline. These courses can cost from $50 to more than $600; however, merely learning how to compose a grammatically correct sentence won’t be enough to address more consequential writing problems. Plus, Microsoft Word’s built-in spelling and grammar checking tools can make most remedial improvements.
Undeveloped and unclear ideas will be improved only through multiple rounds of revisions. Getting it right takes feedback and coaching from writing experts, but it also requires balancing clarity and complexity. Software like WordRake will help any writer reconsider jargon and wordiness. It gives writers ways to achieve clarity without. Simply seeing each suggested edit on your screen will raise questions and promote deeper thinking.
Improving All Business Communication
Editorial feedback and a commitment to clarity shouldn’t be reserved for major projects and long documents. In his book on the plain language, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, professor Joseph Kimble presents 25 case studies of organizations that saved time and money by rewriting business documents ranging from short forms and one-page letters to manuals and regulations. The results were outstanding:
- Communication improved
- Error rates dropped
- Customer service calls plummeted
The organizations’ savings ranged from $40,000 to $350 million. All business communication can be improved—no matter how short or routine.
Bringing the Benefits to Your Company
Launching a writing center, conducting readability studies, or hiring a language expert may be beyond what your company can afford, but you can still improve business communication. Try WordRake for better writing in Microsoft Word and Outlook.
We’ve distilled the lessons that writing expert and New York Times bestselling author Gary Kinder has taught in over 1,000 writing programs into a powerful software program. WordRake uses complex, patented algorithms rid your writing of business jargon, needless words, weak lead-ins, clichés, dull phrases, redundancies, unnecessary modifiers, and more.
Now, every writer in your organization can benefit from a sophisticated editor with deep knowledge. With WordRake, editing advice is always available at the push of a button. Try WordRake today.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2018, Ivy was recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.