Read an Excerpt
Efficiently run businesses cannot tolerate unclear memos, letters, and reports. Business stops, or is slowed, as a result of poor communication. Orders don't get delivered, or they don't get delivered on time; tasks don't get done, or they don't get done correctly. Productivity decreases, while labor and supervisory costs increase. The morale of employees suffers, as does the image of the firm.
William J. Gallagher, who was for many years Manager of Communication Services at Arthur D. Little, Inc., a major consulting company, has estimated that up to 30 percent of letters and memos in industry and government do nothing more than seek clarification of earlier correspondence or respond to that request for clarification. That estimate does not include the thousands of letters and memos that are not acted upon because they are unclear. Bad writing is bad for business.
Most people in business--employers and employees alike--agree that writing skills are weak. Some poor writing stems from a lack of instruction, or poor instruction, in our schools. But much poor writing comes about not because of a lack of schooling, but rather from attitudes held by the writers themselves or from limitations prevalent in the workplace.
One or more of the following causes may contribute to poor writing:
Ignoring the reader. Readers today want as much information as possible in as little time as possible. They want to know instantly what a piece of writing is about, and they want to understand it after one careful, but quick, reading. Writers who ignore their readers, sometimes quiteunconsciously, do so by giving too much, too little, or the wrong kinds of information. They use specialized vocabulary that is unfamiliar to their readers; they bury their message in a style that is dense or bureaucratic, or both. They write without considering their readers' needs, interests, or opinions.
A lack of professional pride. Some people who write on the job do not consider writing to be part of their professional duties; therefore, they are unwilling to give it the time and discipline it requires. They are bankers, chemists, accountants, or marketing managers--not writers. Writing is a nuisance to them.
A lack of confidence. Writers who lack confidence rely on the file cabinet or computer disk to do much of their writing. They recycle old letters by borrowing paragraphs, moving around sentences, and changing a few words. They put together a "new" letter, but one that is, nonetheless, ineffective.
Inexperience. Since much business is conducted over the phone, at meetings, and in casual conversations, some employees lack writing experience. Even though they have learned basic writing skills in school, they have not had sufficient exposure to, or practice in, writing for business. The style of academic writing is different from that of business writing.
Writing for the wrong reasons. Some writers write to impress others rather than to express themselves clearly. They fear that they will not appear educated or knowledgeable unless they dip every word in gold, unless they embroider every sentence. Some of these writers are simply insecure. They camouflage their ideas lest they be questioned or attacked. Others are unseasoned. They do not yet realize that top executives do not need to adopt airs.
Strict requirements. Some writers do not write well because their bosses set strict requirements. One boss may demand what he or she is used to: "That's the way we've done it for years." Another may set limits: "I won't read anything over a page long." Yet another may impose his or her style on the writer: "'Commence' is a better word than 'begin.'"
Identifying the causes of poor writing is the first step toward eliminating it. Several practical solutions can help overcome the causes mentioned above:
- Considering one's reader.
- Accepting writing as part of one's professional responsibility.
- Obtaining instruction and gaining practice in writing.
- Adopting a simple, straightforward approach.
- Questioning unreasonable corporate norms.
These pragmatic solutions may be obvious, but what is not so obvious is the importance of corporate and individual commitment.
Corporate commitment. Companies that value good writing should communicate that value to their employees. Some companies do this by praising good writing and by circulating good examples within the company. Some companies review employees' writing as part of performance reviews, and some supervisors review correspondence before it is sent. They also encourage peer review and peer editing. Many companies offer writing courses within the firm or reimburse tuition for courses taken outside the company. If managers endorse good writing--and serve as good role models--most employees will make an effort to improve their own writing.
Individual commitment. People starting out in business are quick to identify the skills that will help them get ahead. In most sectors, the job market is highly competitive. Even veteran employees try to improve their skills and add new skills to their repertoire. They sign up for computer courses and they attend seminars on technical subjects. Many, too, see the value in improving their writing ability. Unless an individual makes this commitment, there is little hope of true improvement.
With so many new skills to learn, is it really so important to master such a basic skill as writing? Yes, it is. The ability to write well is--and will continue to be--an essential business skill, especially in this "age of information."
In 1994, the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, in conjunction with the Bureau of the Census, conducted various surveys among U.S. employers. In one survey, 3,000 employers were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest) the factors they considered important when hiring non-supervisory or production workers. Of 11 factors, "communication skills" was rated second highest, with a 4.2 rating; "attitude" was rated highest at 4.6. Communication skills are important at every job level. In most organizations, their importance mounts as job responsibilities mount. At the managerial level, they become the paramount skill.
Writing is an important skill on the job and in life. As William Zinsser, writer, editor, and teacher, points out in his book Writing to Learn, "Far too many Americans are prevented from doing useful work because they have never learned to express themselves. Contrary to general belief, writing is not something only 'writers' do; writing is a basic skill for getting through life."
The workplace is very much a part of life, and writing is very much a part of the workplace. The ability to write well--clearly and concisely--is not an ancillary skill; it is an essential skill.
Good writing is good for business.
When a writing deadline approaches, or when a client or superior says, "Get that letter to me by tomorrow," you simply must get started. First you have to gain control of yourself. Then you have to gain control of your topic.
Gaining control of yourself requires that you put your mind and energy to the task. You may have to subdue the panic that the time pressure and the difficulty of the task impose, or you may have to circumvent your own clever procrastination rituals.
Getting started might mean that you need to think more, or it might mean that you need only close the door, have your calls answered, and begin writing. Whatever it takes to discipline yourself, do it.
You'll also have to gain control of your ego. You may come to a subject with knowledge and opinions that differ from those of your reader, yet egocentrism may keep you from seriously considering the other person's point of view. Being aware of your reader's perspective will help you avoid false starts.
Gaining control of your topic means nothing more than defining the task. Until you know what you have to do, you cannot begin doing it. The following methodical approach might help you overcome inertia and focus on the task. Ask yourself these questions:
Purpose:Am I writing to inquire, inform, persuade, motivate, or do I have more than one purpose?
Besides writing to convey my thoughts, do I have some personal or political agenda? To go on record? To protect myself? To gain visibility?
Scope:Given my needs and my readers' needs, how much information should I include?
Contents:What kinds of information will help me achieve my purpose?
Do I have all the information I need?
How, or where, can I get additional information?
Constraints:What can work against me, or make my task more difficult? Time or cost constraints? My reader's attitudes? My own lack of credibility?