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Quality of Writing in UK Businesses – Writers

November 12, 2010


Most of the people in the types of organisations we deal with are professional writers.  They do not describe themselves as such, but their work requires them to represent their organisation through the written word in emails, proposals, reports and so on.  There are writers at every level of the organisation, but for the purposes of this report, by ‘writers’ we mean people fairly far down the pecking order whose writing is checked by others senior to them, or peers, and who often follow templates they did not initiate.  They sometimes contribute to documents rather than write them from scratch.

What they say

When delegates discuss their experience of the internal writing process during a training course, they give a number of reasons for finding the process difficult.

  • There is a shortage of clear guidance on required style and structure – how ‘our organisation’ wants us to write.  If there are templates and style guides, we rarely receive guidance about how to use them.
  • We get mixed messages from line managers.  One person says we are too brief, another that we give too much detail; some managers change words and phrases ‘for the sake of it’ while others accept our own style.  There is often a chain of several reviewers for a single document – we cannot please them all.
  • Whatever we write, it will be changed.  We rarely see the finished article or understand why the changes were made.  This makes us feel that there is no point in spending time trying to get it right.
  • Managers (or partners, or CEOs) are inaccessible; they do not want to discuss work in progress.

What this shows us

These comments suggest that good practices such as these may not be taking place.

  • A detailed briefing session when a document is started, including information about what the readers are looking for, whether a detailed document or a brief overview is required, how it should be structured, and what writing style should be used.
  • Open discussions during the writing process which save time, improve morale and result in a better document.
  • A ‘feedback loop’ where line managers explain changes, even after the document has been delivered to the customer, so that the writer can learn what is required and get it ‘right’ next time.
  • Clear house-style guidelines which provide an objective measure of what is ‘right’.  These build confidence, save time and lead to consistency which is part of a professional image.

We see evidence that the writers who feel positive about the writing process are those who are able to discuss their work with their manager, get useful feedback and adjust as they go along.  They respond well to the idea of defining the aim of their writing and developing a plan for discussion in the form of a mind-map, a diagram or a set of bullet points.  If they are not already in the habit of doing this, they see that it is useful to agree the content and structure of the document before concentrating on sentences and punctuation. This is part of a plan-write-revise writing cycle which has suffered near total elimination as a result of time pressure and the ‘I can always change it’ mentality introduced by word processors.

Top Recommendation

In our experience, access to a line manager who gives valuable guidance emerges as the single greatest factor in motivating the writer.  When time is at a premium, managers should give priority to assessing work in progress and providing positive feedback.  Which of these would be more valuable to your organisation? A half-day workshop for managers on how to motivate writers and effectively review their writing with positive feedback, or a full-day report writing course for those further down the organisation.

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