The benefits of clear and effective business writing A whitepaper examining the benefits of plain English, clarity, and accuracy in workplace writing. Prepared by Lee Murray Summer 2016
The benefits of clear and effective workplace writing
Executive Summary Clear and effective workplace writing should not be difficult. Plain English is easier for us to write and easier for us to understand. The academic fields of psycholinguistics and psychology tell us that unfamiliar words like “commence” and “incentivize” are much more difficult for our brains to process than their simpler equivalents “start” and “reward” (Bailey). Yet our letters, memos, and reports remain filled with strange word choices and overly complicated sentences despite the academic research—and common sense—that shows that simple is better. The research is in, and the consensus is this: when people write at work, they don’t do it very well… and it is costing companies billions. American businesses spend around $13 billion every year on training courses designed specifically to correct bad writing habits (7). Some of this expenditure goes towards developing in-house training programs to fix those habits, and some is spent on hiring outside help to deliver onsite training. Corporations recognize that there is something systemically wrong with the quality of their employees’ writing—and they are keen to fix it. This report examines how that might happen.
The Cost of Poor Workplace Writing The stakes are high. Ineffective writing causes myriad problems in terms of communication and morale, and may even affect a company’s bottom line if not addressed. It damages professional image, lowers customer retention, and weakens relationships with suppliers.
Unclear writing frustrates readers It is challenging to write clearly, but reading unclear writing is far harder. When we read quickly-written and unedited emails from coworkers, their message is often obscured. Spelling and grammar problems the first thing we see, but they are often just at the surface of a deeper issue that plagues workplace writing: A lack of claritry. Poorly structured sentences and paragraphs are difficult for us to decipher, hard for us to parse… and an absolute chore to read. Spelling and grammar issues are a symptom of the problem, not the root cause: Clarity is. Unclear writing makes readers quit reading When reading for pleasure, we are able to skip writing that makes us work too hard or labors the point. At work, however, we absolutely cannot afford that luxury. There are messages that we need to understand buried deep in those convoluted paragraphs and sentences. The stakes are high, and when it becomes the readers job— not the writer’s—to decode the communication to find the “important” parts of the message, something has to change.
Uncelar writing obscures the message If we are exhausted by struggling through a colleagues paragraph, how must our clients feel? At best, poor workplace writing is an annoyance. At worst, it damages client and coworker relationships. Because of these high stakes, it is tempting to respond to those emails with harsh corrections. Perhaps, you think to yourself, you could firmly ask the writer to please, please use the in-built spelling and grammar checking tools that are available on nearly every email application or word processor. We become frustrated and impatient with them because poor writing impedes our ability to understand what could potentially be a very important message. Unclear writing wastes time Every time a communication fails to convey the message and you need to reply or call to ask for clarification, it wastes time. When you need to ask for a third round of revisions on a report to address problems with the way it is written, it wastes time. If you need to speak with a client who is concerned because something they received was unclear, it wastes time. Most businesses and organizations base their productivity—and their bottom line—on efficiency. Unclear writing kills efficiency.
Unclear writing kills opportunity Your business may lose clients and your department may lose credibility, but for employees with writing deficiencies there are career-stunting implications: 86 percent of companies will not promote staff who cannot write clearly.
Why does poor workplace writing happen? Opinion is divided on why American businesses need to spend such large portions of their training budgets on remedial writing training. Some researchers say insufficient academic training is the underlying cause, while others blame poor time management. Respected case studies suggest that working environments that don’t prioritize editing and peer-to-peer collaboration misunderstand the issues and only exacerbate the problem.
The Benefits of Clear and Effective Workplace Writing EXTERNAL COMMUNICATION Clarity enhances client perception Clients are impressed by clear, direct communication. Writing that is consistently reader-centric in correspondence and promotional materials is the sign of a company that prides itself on the details. New business and existing clients alike are constantly forming opinions of the people they deal with. A company-wide adoption of clear language affects those opinions directly. Clarity drives mutual respect.
Accuracy improves client relationships and establishes trust The longest-standing client relationships are built on trust. Relationships built on trust are also the most rewarding. These long-term professional relationships are borne from shared knowledge and clear communication in the context of the appropriate level of formality. Perhaps your client prefers professional salutations and stilted sign-offs, or maybe you exchange brief, friendly emails with them, replete with emoji and personal familiarity. Regardless of the tone of your communication, the tenets of clarity and accuracy still stand. Accuracy establishes trust and creates lasting relationships.
INTERNAL COMMUNICATION Directness fosters direct and intelligent communication In professional writing, “simple and direct” is not synonymous with “simplified.” Often the most complex ideas benefit the most from clear and deliberately structured writing. Industry jargon and technical terms are vital aspects of a shared discourse community. By framing that language in a structured and direct way, clients will value your expertise more because they understand it on the first read. Directness highlights intelligent communication.
Can poor workplace writing be “fixed”? We need an active, pragmatic approach to improving workplace that effects change immediately. First, we must understand the benefits of good business writing and learn what employers want from their employees in terms of writing skills. Second, we must design training course that align these two principles and create short, digestible, effective courses that teach those specific skills efficiently.
Positive writing elevates culture and improves morale Professional communication is not a transfer of data. It’s a sharing of ideas, directions, concerns, and instructions. Emphasizing what is possible rather than what is not possible encourages colleagues, managers, and subordinates to speak more freely and more confidently while defining boundaries and maintaining a professional tone. This open dialogue allows for more successful morale initiatives to develop, eliminates anxieties and concerns, and removes limits on employees’ potential. Positive writing drives conversations forward instead of stopping them. Effective writing mitigates miscommunication A clear email does not need to be clarified. A well-written assignment does not invite constant back-and-forth to discuss intricacies. Precise writing reduces the potentially high financial costs of miscommunication and reduces downtime. It brings everyone involved together to focus on the task. Effective writing eliminates confusion.
What Employers Want
EMPLOYERS' VIEWS ABOUT IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS OF WRITTEN COMMUNICATION
PERCENTAGE OF EMPLOYERS SURVEYED THAT CONSIDER THE CHARACTERISTIC IMORTANT
When surveyed about what areas of their employees’ writing is the most important in terms of professionalism, managers agree almost unanimously that accuracy and clarity are the most important skills a writer should possess. The figure below shows how these two characteristics of workplace writing trump spelling, punctuation, and grammar; conciseness; and visual appeal.
SPELLING, PUNCTUATION, AND GRAMMAR
Can colleges prepare students for the demands of writing in the workplace? Even highly trained students fall short of employers’ expectations in terms of workplace writing ability. Despite consistent improvements in Professional Writing pedagogy at colleges across the nation, employers remain disappointed in the writing skills they see from graduates during the first year college-to-job transition. Employers viewed the last year’s graduates’ “written communications” as their least developed skill, meaning unsatisfactory writing remains a consistent concern for employers when compared against other transferrable skills, such as verbal communication, initiative, leadership, and teamwork.
Accuracy refers to the correct usage of words and phrases. Common usage errors are often related to issues of tone and a lack of audience awareness. To avoid issues of accuracy, extensive reflection and editing is required, and writers can benefit from the input of colleagues and peers. Clarity refers to uncluttered language that is easy to read and understand and gets right to the heart of the matter. If sentences and paragraphs are hard to follow then readers will happily skim them, or skip sections entirely. Unclear writing can cause problems when discussing important matters that require definitive instructions or answers. The use of writing tools such as active voice and parallel structure can help make writing more clear. Spelling, punctuation and grammar can be rectified with the sophisticated spell-checking and grammar-checking tools in most word processing and email applications. Writers can also confer with peers about specific grammar issues that these applications cannot manage accurately. Conciseness refers to a balance of completeness and brevity. Employers prefer writing that gets to the point quickly and doesn’t cloud the message with irrelevant details, repetition, or redundancies. Reflection and editing combined with techniques for editing sentences down for brevity can help here too. Research on sentence combining and pattern practice indicates that specific training exercises can significantly improve concision and develop the writer’s awareness of the problem. Visual appeal is considered the least important aspect of written communication, but it does still play an important role. By dividing chunks of text into paragraphs and summarizing those paragraphs with topic sentences the body of text produced is much more visually appealing.