I don’t need to keep telling you writing skills have spiraled downward in this country. You can see it all around you, even at the highest levels of government. And if you don’t see it all around you, follow me on LinkedIn where I post real-life mistakes. You’ll become a believer.
Nor do you need me to tell you that poor writing skills have a cost—although you probably don’t realize just how astronomically high that cost is. So I’ll share a few shocking numbers with you:
- Poor writing skills cost American companies almost $400 billion per year
- Businesses spend $2.9 billion per year on remedial writing training for current employees
- Over 26% of college students have deficient writing skills—which means they’ll only contribute to the costly problem once they’re in the workforce
I’m not being a doomsayer here. These dollars are real. And if we were talking about any other kind of a budget bleed, businesses would be quick to stop the flood of money out of their bank accounts. But sadly we seem to have accepted poor business writing skills as inevitable.
Well, they’re not. But they are explainable.
In part, our business writing skills suck because we don’t teach people how to write—not really. We sort of go through the motions, but that’s it. The writing skills we teach are more like handing someone a pot and a spoon and box of dried pasta and claiming we taught them to cook. (Yes, I’m still using the cooking analogy. Hey, it works.) No, we didn’t teach them how to cook. And we’re not teaching people how to write.
In my opinion, writing skills suck in part because we are failing to teach people these three critical effective writing skills:
- Writing for the audience
- The writing process
- The details
So now let’s set the record straight on these three skills…
One: Write for your audience
Writing to your audience means knowing your audience and what they do or don’t already know, plus what they need to know—meaning what they will learn from reading your email or document.
I call this being reader-centric, meaning writing for the reader and not for yourself.
You’ve been on the receiving end of writing that ignores the audience, I’m sure. Have you ever received an email from a boss or a coworker and thought “What am I supposed to do with this?” If so, that’s because the writer ignored the audience meaning you.
If they typed a bunch of words and then clicked Send, they assumed they were communicating because they wrote something, anything. But they were only checking a task off their to-do list. If the email did not clearly communicate to you why you got it and what you were supposed to do as a result of it, then the writer did not take the audience (you!) into account. The result? No communication.
Or maybe you’ve had to struggle through a long, wordy document full of corporate speak. Again, the writer ignored the audience. They didn’t try to communicate with you or to you. They simply put words in front of you. And that’s not effective writing.
Or, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, they might have the Curse of Knowledge, meaning they use a shorthand that comes along with their expertise—but that isn’t known by their audience.
If you’re writing something, whether a chat message or an email or a longer document—even a presentation—you have a goal. And that goal is to communicate. Ignoring your audience gets in the way of that goal. You have to write for your audience, not yourself, not your ego, not your busy day or your long task list. You have to write with the intention of communicating to your audience.
But I’m guessing no one ever explained the importance of that to you—until now.
Ignoring your audience gets in the way of communication.
Two: Writing is a process
You must also realize that writing is a process. Those of us who are older are more likely to have been taught this in school. We learned about first drafts and how to revise our writing to make it better. And we always wrote drafts.
These days students are graduating from college without this knowledge, unless they’ve earned a liberal arts degree. Graduates are entering the workforce with poor writing skills in part because they don’t understand that it is a process. They weren’t taught to write drafts.
For years I’ve said that good writing comes from good editing—even before I realized how sucky business writing had become. When I started to research the reasons why writing skills are so poor in today’s workforce, I learned the basics of editing and revising are rarely taught any more in college. And that’s what makes writing a process. It’s not a stream of consciousness activity during which we simply type what’s in our heads and call it done. Good writing requires going back and revising to improve the quality of the writing. It requires a draft.
Good writing requires going back and revising to improve the quality of the writing.
Ernest Hemingway is oft quoted as having said, “Write drunk; edit sober.” Although he probably didn’t say it, it’s a popular quote because of the importance of editing to effective writing. All good authors know editing is crucial. That’s why they have editors!
Obviously, we’re not writing novels and we’re not hiring editors. But my point is, good writers understand that writing is a process.
And we need to recognize that too.
Three: Details matter
Finally, if we don’t get the little pieces right, we won’t get the big pieces right. It’s like learning a foreign language: You start with little pieces like pronunciation and basic vocabulary and then build on that. It’s the same with writing. You have to master the building blocks of good writing starting with the basics like how to structure a sentence. Because if someone can’t properly structure a sentence, they will struggle to properly write a paragraph. If they can’t logically transition from one paragraph to another, they won’t be able to write a coherent document—and so on…
But if people aren’t taught the basics, they don’t know they’re doing it wrong! And if the details are wrong, the writing is poor and the communication is hindered.
So accept that the details do matter, and make sure you’ve mastered the basics.
I don’t know what it will take for American businesses to finally say “enough” to the high cost of bad writing. But I do know that we can choose to do better. We can choose not to be part of the problem. Instead, we can choose to take our audience into account, revise our writing to improve our communications, and make sure we’ve mastered the building blocks of basic business writing so we can build on those.