What is the cost of bad writing?

Typos in news articles, unintelligible users manuals, and really long emails remind us that we’re surrounded by flawed content every minute of the day. Oftentimes we can work through the confusion and the content can be captivating and convincing. Other materials may be merely confusing.  This problem can be costly.

Costly? Yes, poor business writing is costly.  Think of it this way: In the simplest of situations, poor writing might be a typo in an email. Sure, it’s embarrassing, but it doesn’t really “cost” your organization… does it? Here are some examples to consider.


What is Poor Writing Costing Your Company?

Poor writing can be a liability to your business in a number of ways:

  • Productivity: Josh Bernoff reported that American businesses lose nearly $400B annually to lost time and productivity -- from staffers trying to make sense of everything from nonsensical emails to badly written reports.
  • Retraining: Forty percent of survey respondents said their firms offer some form of formalized training to improve employees’ business or technical writing skills, costing American firms an estimated $3.1B on an annual basis, with the majority of this, $2.9B spent on current employees.
  • Lost Revenue: Alitalia Airlines offered a business class flight from Toronto to Cyprus for $39 instead of $3900. When the airline tried to cancel the tickets, a public relations nightmare ensued. To avoid further public relations issues, the airline agreed to honor the original pricing. Total cost to the firm: $7.2 million.
  • Legal Issues: Remember that typo question a few minutes ago? A simple typo by a British government agency literally put a firm out of business. The agency reported that a firm, Taylor & Sons – rather than Taylor & Son - was liquidating its assets. The mistakenly identified firm, Taylor & Sons, a 124-year old Welsh engineering firm, lost its client base, its financing, and 3,000 supplier contracts, thus forcing the firm into bankruptcy in 60 days. The High Court found that the government’s typo was responsible for the business’ downturn and awarded $14M in damages.
  • Employee Misunderstandings.  An IDC study estimated that business in the US and UK lose $37B because of “actions or errors of omission by employees who have misunderstood or misinterpreted company policies, business processes, job functions or a combination of the three.”


A Simple Example: Email

Poor writing isn’t just the concern of major corporations.  Small businesses can also see the effects of poor writing in their bottom line. The consulting firm, PowerSuasion, calculated the cost of poor writing for a small business of 10 employees. Assuming each employee made $30,000 annually, and that each sent an average of 30 emails daily, the firm found that the small business would lose approximately $126,000 a year, or 21 weeks in lost productivity.


The Solution?

When I work with clients and teams, I review the examples of “poor writing” that management has asked me to help correct. I find the issues can usually be categorized in a few areas:

  • Lack of Focus: the writer is not presenting a clear focus – the point of their communication.
  • Lack of Organization: the writer has not organized their thoughts in a logical way.
  • Lack of Mechanics: the writer has not proofread their work.
  • Lack of Direction: the writer has not made a “call to action,” what the reader should do with the information they’re reading.

All of these issues are fixable: but only with an awareness of the problem, consistent effort, and some diligent coaching to teach the employees what should have been written.


My Advice

If you are noticing writing issues in your team or organization, here are six insights I offer my clients, based on years of working with some of the biggest companies in the country.

  • Identify the real issues. Are you annoyed by how your employee phrased something because it isn’t the way you would have said it? Or is it a substantive issue, such as choosing the wrong word for a given situation – like using it’s rather than its? Everyone has their own style – but proper grammar and punctuation are not negotiable.
  • Don’t ignore the problem. Bad writing isn’t going to go away. Employees usually aren’t even aware that their poor writing is causing problems.
  • Talk about it. Raise everyone’s awareness about the quality of writing you expect --  in comparison to what you’re seeing.  Even the best writers can become lazy at proofreading our own work, talk about why clear and correct writing is important to your organization.
  • Set standards. Let your team know if certain things are not acceptable to you or your organization. For example, for some businesses, emoticons used sparingly can be appropriate, particularly with people who know each other well… but may be frowned upon in other, far more conservative environments.  A style guide can help you communicate the best practices and expectations for internal and external communications.
  • Establish a review process. Recognizing that it’s difficult for writers to review their own writing, consider establishing a review process for high priority content, such as pricing documentation, website copy, customer proposals, etc. You may even want to consider editing a document or two with the writer so they can ask questions, learn from your experience and begin to see patterns in their own writing.
  • Know when to get outside help. There’s a reason why businesses are spending billions of dollars each year on writing training for their employees: It’s essential. Sometimes there’s just no other way to help a large number of employees improve their writing to acceptable levels, or to help other employees take that “next step” in terms of their writing development.

Whether it’s to improve your organization’s productivity, to improve readability, or to help avoid future problems, finding the right solution to help your team improve its written communications skills can be a great investment in your organization.  It’s not only an investment in your employees but also in your organization’s competitive edge.


Want to learn more about being a better writer or editor? Check out our books (Amazon) and courses.

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