Bad Writing – An Obstacle to Achieving Your Purpose

Some business owners don’t recognize – or care to acknowledge – how their employees’ writing influences the success of the business. One of my reasons for starting this blog was to open some eyes. So let’s look at the reasons why bad writing is such an obstacle to achieving business goals, and how I help to conquer it.

High standards of grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be expected in the workplace; but these mean nothing if the content itself doesn’t express the writer’s ideas accurately. Every piece of writing has a job to do. Whether the intention is to convince, argue, inform, or document, there’s a business purpose to be achieved.

I’ve had people say to me that perfection in writing is not important enough to spend time (and money) on. As long as the reader gets the drift, that’s good enough for them. That kind of thinking is dead wrong, and here’s why: errors in writing are not benign things that readers gloss over and ignore. Errors do damage!

Let’s separate the concept of “errors” into two parts:

  1. Grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes;
  2. Flawed or confusing expression.

Errors of the first kind will damage your company’s image and credibility. Errors of the second kind will result in failure to effectively convey thoughts or information, and worse, can create serious misunderstandings. Misunderstandings in business often lead to loss of sales, damaged relationships, and even lawsuits – all with the potential to waste time and money.

I always tell clients that even small mistakes draw the reader’s attention away from the subject matter and focus it on the errors themselves. Even if they are not severe enough to cause a misunderstanding about what is being said (and all too often, they are), errors still obscure the message and detract from the company’s image. This is especially unfortunate when a company is proclaiming the superior quality of its products and/or services. The incongruity is obvious.

Don’t presume that good writing is important only in formal letters and documents. E-mails deserve the same care. However, these are often written in shorthand, and are rarely edited before they go out. When employees have substandard writing skills, and if they believe that mistakes “don’t count” in e-mails, these communications can pose an internal (and possibly external) risk to the company if they are not checked first.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I am not a teacher. My purpose is not to turn people into good writers; my purpose is to make their writing good. Some people, no matter how intelligent they are, no matter how compelling or sophisticated their ideas may be, no matter how earnestly they believe in what they are saying, are simply not able to get all those qualities down on the page. Often they are using English as a second language, and are just not facile enough with phrasing and vocabulary to do their own ideas justice on paper.

Sometimes, for native English speakers, their early schooling didn’t demand adherence to high standards, and concentrated instead on ideals like “self expression” (without any regard to the content) or “self-esteem” (without any regard to achievement). I have my own issues with that kind of educational focus, which I believe leaves many bright students without the necessary tools and discipline, but that is a subject for another post (and probably not suitable for this blog).

Whatever the reasons, poor writing will hamper a business in achieving its goals. So it’s to the company’s advantage to help employees do a better job. Some try writing workshops, but I don’t think they make enough difference. Workshops can provide useful tips for improvement, and that is certainly good. But language habits are deeply ingrained, and a function of how we think. Past a certain point, for many people it’s probably too late.

So what to do about good workers who have much to offer a company, but just need some assistance with writing? My answer, and one function of my business is to provide them with a resource to: (1) check their drafts; (2) talk through their written expression of ideas to make sure the reader will really understand not only the basic intent, but also the fine points; and (3) catch their mistakes. This kind of support solves the problem right away. It lets employees get as much help as they need, and it protects the company from the kind of damage and waste that writing errors can cause.

The thing to remember is, bad writing leads to bad results. Good writing… I’ll be taking that up in my next post.


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  1. Great post Judy. Or, to put it another way: I couldn’t not disagree more! 😉

    It sounds like you offer a good service, but I wonder if most companies are willing to make that kind of investment for any but the higher-level employees (e.g. managers, directors). You definitely have an uphill battle on your hands.

    On the education front, I think most schools focus far too much on grammar rules, rather than teaching writing skills. In college I helped grade papers for the music appreciation teacher, and I can tell you first hand that many students get to college without the slightest idea how to write clearly (and they don’t seem to have learned those prescriptive grammar “rules” either).

  2. Tony, It’s not as expensive as you may think. If I’m working on a retainer basis, then management can select which employees and which pieces of writing need my services on a case by case basis. There’s lots of flexibility in the arrangement, and when well used, it can pay for itself (in time saved and trouble avoided). As I said at the beginning of the post, I want to open some eyes. I hope this blog will do that.

  3. […] is all I can offer right now. If you can’t even write better than this, don’t you think it’s time to change the way you compose your articles? And in case you can do better than this, good for you — but don’t forget that one can […]

  4. Your writing is a reflection not only of what you are doing that instant, but of your ability to think. I believe that we actually think in words. When I read scattered, cliche writing that doesn’t adhere to basic principles of writing well like honestly, spelling, and clarity, I get an indelible impression of this person’s reading habits, as well as writing habits.

    Jaques Derrida pointed out that words are not adequate to express our world. Even the best of us struggle. Ever take a golf lesson? 80% of the reason an amateur cannot learn a golf swing is that even with high tech video and sensor equipment we must still rely on words to express ourselves. Golf lessons are really lessons in how hard it is to use words to explain something.

    I must commend the author of this blog who has aptly summarized many of the issues in writing. One reason why grammar is so heavily focused on in high schools is because teachers cannot teach you what to do with your ideas, but only inform you of what not to do. Teaching and learning writing can be quite complex, especially for those who don’t read a lot. And unfortunately, many students aren’t really capable of taking criticism on their ideas, and many teachers aren’t good at giving criticism without being judgmental.

    There is a lot to this topic. But to those out there who say writing doesn’t matter, you are dead wrong. It makes an impression for you, a big one. Someone who can write well is an asset. A person who struggles can really be a liability. With the competition out there for jobs, people have to be weeded out and your writing is an easy, non face to face way to do it. You can kid yourself and say it doesn’t matter when your writing makes you sound like a middle schooler at your job, but you’re just dead wrong.

  5. Dear Anonymous Teacher,
    Thank you for your kind and insightful comments. I agree whole-heartedly with what you have said. There are far too many who believe that “it doesn’t matter” as long as people can understand what you’ve written. That idea is wrong on its face. Guessing and interpretation by readers is not the same as understanding. Sloppy writing shows many things, but at the very least, it shows that the writer doesn’t care about excellence. Who would want to advertise that?

  6. […] Bad Writing – An Obstacle to Achieving Your Purpose (The risks, damage, and price of bad writing) […]

  7. Excellent

  8. Things have gotten so bad that high school students can barely put together a cohesive paragraph. Forget bad writing, how bout barely able to write.

    As an educator and social worker who worked in NYC schools for 21 years, I think we’re going back to the middle ages when people paid other people to write letters and read them.

    Reading and writing are becoming lost skills. I have several pieces on my blog about the educational system.

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