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Quality of Writing in UK Businesses – The Organisation

November 12, 2010

The organisation

This category includes the culture of the organisation, its ‘brand’ in the marketplace, and the way things are done.  We also mean the senior people who can influence the way the organisation works.

What they say

Our survey shows us that senior people (partners, CEOs and directors) have some serious concerns about the standards of writing in their organisations.

  • They personally see writing they are not happy with.
  • Documents take too long to read and understand.
  • They spend too long correcting language use rather than content.

In their opinion, the causes are found in all three of our categories.

  • Writers are not properly taught at school and do not take responsibility for their output.
  • Managers do not give feedback on writing style.
  • Organisations do not allow time in the process to check work properly.

And why is this important to senior managers? We judge any organisation through what we read about it, and its products and its activities. After all, ‘Good writing is good business’.  An important consequence of poor writing is the risk it poses to the organisation because it directly affects the way others see it. Risk also comes from interpretation of what is said. At every level of the organisation, a failure to communicate well jeopardises reputation or business opportunity.

What this shows us

These responses suggest a possible answer to the question ‘Why do writers not take responsibility for their output?’

The organisation controls a number of essential features: time, voice and process. All these contribute to the problem. Could it be that writers do not ‘feel’ ownership because managers do not give feedback on their writing style, so they lose heart and give up trying?  And do the managers neglect this duty because of a shortage of time or because they do not know how to give constructive, motivational feedback?  Why is there never enough time to check documents properly?  Is this also a process problem?

Issues like this can often be traced back to a long or slow sign-off process, or poor communication about the purpose of each stage of the process.  The lack of a sign-off process can cause problems too, because a writer loses confidence very quickly if something they have written causes a rift with a customer. And there is the question of ‘voice’.

The writer’s unique voice is often in conflict with the tone or voice of the organisation as expressed through templates and guidelines. The reader reacts better to a personal voice but an official voice conveys important legal information and ensures consistency. This tension between the organisational voice and personal voice can be dispiriting for the writer.

Where would senior people start if they were looking to make improvements in this area?  An open-minded CEO or partner would start by questioning the priorities communicated down the management chain.  Is learning to do it better next time high on the agenda in the document production cycle?  Or is the only imperative to get it out to the customer and start on the next one?

Top Recommendation

Business leaders need to recognise that giving priority, in the form of time, to the quality of writing will bring results.  Time is often short, and must be allocated meticulously.  Time is most often denied at the following three stages: the briefing and planning stage, the checking stage and the feedback stage.  Too much time is often spent re-writing without a clear purpose ‘because it sounds better’ whereas systematic checking split into discrete tasks (such as reviewing and proofreading) is an excellent use of time and improves quality.

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