Why does so much business writing suck?

TypewriterWe’ve all heard umpteen times that communication – external or internal – is the lifeblood of any business. Yada yada. But if that’s really true, how come so many people in business, from top to bottom, are so bad at written communication?

In almost 20 years as a corporate writer and editor, I’ve met countless execs who are very impressive face to face; they get their message across with finesse. Yet ask them to put their ideas on paper, or on the web, and it’s a different story – even for those with an interest in marcomms.

Maybe it’s because, since leaving education, no-one has ever given them any pointers on their writing. Besides, what we learned to do at school, as we inched painstakingly towards an essay word count or tried to show examiners how terribly clever we were, is just plain counterproductive in the real world.

Here are five common mistakes I see in the writing I come across:

  1. Blethering on: Forget what you were taught about essay writing; you know, give a lengthy introduction to the topic that includes the background information and build gradually towards a conclusion. Instead, get right to the point. Grab your readers’ attention in your headline/title and tell them the story in brief in the very first paragraph. If they want to know more, and have the time, they can read on. If not, at least you’ve done your job. This is even more important on the web where users are scan-reading and their mouse is never far from the ‘back’ button. Don’t save your best stuff for last.
  2. Writing about what’s important to you: The history of how the product or company was developed might be of real interest to you. But do your readers care? Instead, they want to know what’s in it for them. Constantly ask yourself: How can I appeal to readers’ interests – especially their self-interest?
  3. Using long words and sentences: Be brief. Please! Long sentences – whether flowery or just plain clumsy – often make your writing less clear. And unnecessarily long words rarely impress. Aim for an average sentence length of 14-16 words (although with some variation). And always cut any first draft by at least ten per cent – it never fails to make your communication more effective.
  4. Using the passive: All too often, people writing in a corporate setting end up using the passive. They seem to get caught up in using a deadening bureaucratic voice they’ve heard all their lives. Far better to use the active – it makes the communication more direct and personal. It usually makes the sentence shorter, too. A simple example: Would you rather be told “You will be notified in writing” or “We’ll write to you”? Read more about passive/active
  5. Refusing free help: Too few people use Word’s built-in readability index. It’s a handy little tool that I use every day. Aim for a Flesch Reading Ease score of at least 40. (This blog post scores 68, incidentally). Anything under 20 is screaming: Rewrite!

Of course, it’s no bad thing for me that a lot of people in business feel they don’t have the ability or time to write well – after all, that’s the gap in the market that I fill.  But there’s no reason everyone can’t make some simple but effective improvements to how they write. I’m sure there will still be plenty of demand for professionally written web content, speeches, brochures – and even blog posts.


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