Bad business writing costs American businesses nearly $400 billion every year. Yup, $400 billion—with a “B.”
That’s according to Josh Bernoff, who conducted a survey about businesspeople who write at work. He says American workers spend 22% of their time at work reading, and also believes that more than a quarter of that time—6%—is wasted due to poor writing. And so therefore, 6% of the time we spend at work—and the money spent on those unproductive wage hours—is wasted, simply because we have to slog through murky words.
What’s 6% of your company’s spending on wages? At my company, it’s a sizable sum. Cash flow may only be a problem for 34% of small businesses, but who wants to waste anything?
So surely we need to change this. If we could just get rid of bad business writing, it’d be a 6% increase in productivity, right? Well, one blog post is a little brief for fixing this epidemic. But it’s long enough to give you the CliffsNotes version. And let’s face it… part of the reason I’m writing this—and you’re reading it—is because we all need to be briefer.
1. Understand that people would prefer to not read
Let’s start with mindset first, and leave the grammar ‘til later.
It may be a harsh truth, but all good advertising writers know it: People don’t really like to read. Most of them won’t tell you that, of course. But people’s reptilian brains will avoid reading if they can—especially work documents.
Don’t believe me? Consider this: Infographics are shared and liked three times more often than blog posts. Really grasping this resistance to reading will do more to clarify and condense your writing than anything else. Once you understand how busy and distracted your readers are, you’ll know why convoluted sentences and windy paragraphs are death.
So be kind. Keep it brief. Keep it clear.
2. Make your writing scannable
Here’s a corollary to the first point: Almost no one reads online—they scan. This can actually be a good thing. If you can write for scanners, you might just get your message across. Here’s how to make your writing scannable:
- Add subheads
- Use bullet points wherever possible
- Keep paragraphs to no more than five lines, maximum
- Keep sentences relatively short—no more than three full lines
- Bold key words when they first appear
Understanding this scanning habit can be particularly helpful with emails, which make up the bulk of business writing. Most of your emails will be too short for subheads, but there’s one simple formatting tool that can double the readability of your emails: It’s the return key. Yep, just adding a few more returns to your emails can make them far easier to read. So let those sentences breathe.
RELATED: Is Bad Writing Costing Your Company Valuable Time and Money?
3. Think before you write
Clear writing requires clear thinking. And while writing can—and does—support and enhance thinking, it’s often best to do your thinking before you sit down to write. In other words, know what you want to say before you sit down to write.