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Writing Quality Poor in a Third of Businesses

November 2, 2010

According to our survey ‘Quality of Writing in UK Businesses’, one in three respondents from large (over 50 employees) businesses think the writing in their own business fails to come up to an acceptable standard.

The sumary of our findings is here, and we will follow it up shortly with some practical suggestions for action towards improvement. They will range from the easy to follow to the complex so we hope there will be something you can use. We love helping people to do this – so please talk to us about making it work for you.

For some time we have suspected that all is not well in the world of ‘writing at work’. Having delivered any number of business writing courses over the last decade it is clear to us that much of what we are doing is ‘remedial’ work. That is, the system is not producing staff who write well enough to avoid letting down the companies they work for. The result is frustrated employers, and individuals who feel undervalued, over managed and increasingly exposed in this basic skill. We decided to verify our suspicions, and carried out a survey over the summer of 2010, which we called Quality of Writing in UK Businesses. Over 100 business leaders responded to the survey, of whom 28% represent businesses with 50 or more employees.
This document contains the headline news. You will find here an overview of the respondents’ comments and some of the implications that we take from them. A fuller report (Quality of Writing in UK Businesses – What Can We Do?) will be available shortly in which we share practical ideas about making a difference. We hope you find both useful and relevant.

Opinion of Writing Standards

* The writing of staff in one third of large companies falls below an ‘acceptable’ level.
* Almost all respondents believe poor writing poses serious risks to their reputation, and affects financial and legal risk.
* Where quality controls are in use [2], they are broadly considered to be effective with the exception of peer reviewing. However, many respondents comment that use of such controls is restricted to particularly important documents.

Evidence of poor writing standards
What do our respondents see that they find unacceptable? There was a wide range of views, but the three listed below were shared by respondents from almost all the larger companies.
* Senior people have to correct language use when they should be concentrating on content.
* Respondents regularly see writing that they are personally not happy with.
* Documents take too long to read or understand.

Why is this the case? An organisation expects its staff to produce professional work, and that quality checks should ensure anything below standard is rectified. Larger companies pointed to two reasons for poor writing: writers not taking responsibility for their output and managers not giving effective feedback about writing style.

Over half of all the respondents, regardless of company size, pointed to other factors: writers not properly taught at school; there is not enough time to check properly; writers should plan their time better. These comments broaden the discussion to include factors that either predate work experience, or result from pressures at work.

Methods of Improvement
A majority of the respondents (including all of those from large companies) had tried some methods of improving writing skills, usually elearning or face-to-face training. Relatively few people reported having tried benchmarking or diagnostic exercises to assess training needs, and a high proportion found these to be interesting ideas.

These conclusions reflect all three elements that make up the writing system: the organisation and its needs and standards; managers and their requirements and resources; and individuals and their skills and time.
* There is a systemic problem for many organisations across all sectors that centres on an inability of staff to reach acceptable standards. The current methods for dealing with this issue are not the whole answer; it is time consuming and expensive to bring documents up to an acceptable standard.
* Because managers do not give effective feedback, the same errors are repeated rather than writers learning from mistakes. This can lead to writers becoming disillusioned and abdicating responsibility for their output.
* Systematic ways of dealing with the problem using measurable standards and quality control methods are underexplored.
* Poor quality in business writing can become something of a vicious circle. Time is being badly spent with repetitive correction of errors at too high a level in the organisation. The underlying problem is poorly understood which leads to investment in training being wasted.
* A significant proportion of respondents are looking for other ways to address these problems.

Our full report outlines suggestions from Freshword for making these issues more manageable. Analysis leads us to believe writing at work is a ‘quality’ issue, and should be treated as such. Standards are important for measuring quality and our understanding of what this means is explored more fully in the final report.


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