Editor’s note: Pam Hurley, PhD, is the president of Hurley TechComm, Inc., a company that specializes in writing training.Did you know that:

  • Sixty percent of all management problems result from faulty communication?

  • More than 60 percent of workplace writing is inefficient: unclear, misleading, irrelevant, deceptive, or otherwise wasteful of time and money?

  • The major complaint from the business world upon hiring science and engineering students is that they have deficient writing skills?
  • So what does this mean for you and your business? Ask yourself a few simple questions:

    Have you ever lost business because of a poorly written document?

    Have you ever had to clarify a document to a client or colleague that you thought was clear?

    Have clients ever complained that your documents lack clarity, cohesiveness, or readability? Does your business have internal communication problems?

    If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, your business is probably suffering from a lack of understanding about written communication and its purpose. Even if you answered “no,” poorly written documents still affect you and your business.

    From the national tragedy of the Challenger catastrophe (blamed by some experts on poorly written and unreadable memos written by the engineers) to the scandal at Cornell over erroneous emails sent to 1,700 students, to more localized examples of patients being unable to read and understand informational pamphlets or users being confused by computer documentation, the consequences of poorly conceived and written documents can devastate a business.

    The simple truth is that if your documents don’t provide what readers need and want in usable formats, you will lose business. Readers simply don’t have the time or patience to wade through unreadable and inaccessible information, and most will look to businesses that give them the required information in formats that allow them to take the necessary actions with the least amount of grief.

    It’s more than poor grammar

    What makes writing poor? Lots of folks believe it’s because grammar isn’t taught in schools anymore, but research shows that understanding grammar in and of itself is simply not a good foundation for understanding how to write. While the reasons that professionals don’t write well are varied, certainly one factor is simply a lack of understanding about what writing is supposed to do; that is, what both readers and writers hope to accomplish with the document. Too much professional writing is writer-centered rather than reader-centered.

    So what can you do about your and your business’ writing? While having a good grammar book is indispensable, other things that can help. Experts suggest doing lots of writing yourself, even if it’s not work-related. You can get a journal and write for 15 or 20 minutes every night before going to bed. Reading the journals and articles you have to for work is also important, but read other things as well: novels, magazines, and newspapers. Reading allows you to subconsciously understand how other authors use language, tone, and style…all important elements in learning to write effectively.

    Another often overlooked process is giving your brain a chance to work by overcoming procrastination. When you get that writing assignment, start it. Then, put it away. Starting the task early and then putting it away for as long as possible allows your brain to work on it even if you’re unaware that you are (writing experts refer to this as “incubation”). You can also use outlines (not necessarily the kind we hated doing in elementary school) that work as a flexible foundation for your writing. Starting writing tasks immediately and writing outlines can make the writing process easier and more enjoyable!

    Getting outside help?

    For your business, you may wish to hire a company to train your employees to write effectively. Such training should be from companies experienced in offering courses that focus not on grammar alone but on critical thinking. Ask if the classes:

  • Focus primarily on theory with practical application?

  • Use the documents written in your organization as a foundation?

  • Emphasize writing as understanding and making appropriate choices?
  • The most useful classes will avoid strict “dos and don’ts” and will discuss theory and practical application, critical thinking, language and function, and writing as problem-solving. If writing training isn’t feasible, you may wish to hire a company to analyze your company documents and to write a good, easy-to-follow style guide, which can be indispensable in heading off problems before they start and offering employees a solid foundation of where to get writing help.

    Effective writing can be taught and you and your firm can benefit from well-written documents that effectively convey your company’s intended message.

    Sources: Arenson, Karen W. “(Big) Red Faces at Cornell Over E-Mail Error.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 2003: B1; Jaffe, Sam. “No Pardon for Poor English in Science.” The Scientist. 17.5 (2003); Max, Robert. “Wording it Correctly.” Training and Development Journal; Manzo, Kathleen Kennedy. “NAEP Results Underscore Need to Up Writing Instruction.” Education Week. 22.43 (2003); Payne, Sheila. “Written Information Given to Patients and Families by Palliative Care Units: A National Survey.” Lancet 355.9217 (2000): 1792.

    Pam Hurley, PhD, is the president of Hurley TechComm, Inc., a company that specializes in writing training. Hurley TechComm, Inc., also offers writing and editing services. Contact us at pam@hurleytechcom.com or 919.749.4446 or 910.233.7670.