How to fix your organization’s poor writing culture

Photo: Jessica Weber of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

You know poor writing is slowing down your organization. But changing a culture — any culture — is wicked hard. Where should you start? And how can you maintain the change?

I suggest three steps: 1. Generate awareness. 2. Share knowledge. 3. Provide systems for help and support.

Here’s how to do these.

1. Generate awareness

Is poor writing actually that much of a problem?

Yes. I estimate that it’s costing America $396 billion in wasted wages every year. If you care about writing at your company, you know this. Your blood pressure goes up as you read poorly crafted, wasteful emails, impenetrable reports, marketing pages that make no sense, or bullshit press releases.

Now you have to find someone who cares.

Seek out the head of HR, the CMO, the head of a group that does a lot writing, or even, in smaller companies, the CEO. Share some stats, like the fact that 81% of the business professionals who write agree that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. Figure out why executives should care, and then make them care.

Senior managers won’t act unless you’ve demonstrated, not just the problem, but the solution. Give them a copy of my book, or Ann Handley’s. And tell them you’re willing to be part of the solution.

2. Share knowledge

How bad is the problem at your company? You don’t know, because you’re only one person, and can see only what gets in front of you. But if you seek out others who feel the same frustration, you’ll get visibility into the problem from a broader set of perspectives.

I recommend setting up an informal group. You can certainly meet in person or by phone, but it may be more effective to connect on Slack or whatever the equivalent is at your company — or just to start an email list. Share the problems that you see — and the potential fixes. Develop a plan together. And bring that to management, including both the cost of the fix and the costs of doing nothing. (How much time are people wasting, and how much money is that costing you?)

One key part of this step is to collaboratively develop a set of writing principles for your own organization. This is not a style guide, that says whether you approve of the Oxford comma. It should include things like “We believe in reducing jargon as much as possible, so our communications are readable for a broad audience” or “Whenever we include a statistic, we include a link to the source” or “We use bullets rather than paragraphs whenever possible.” You can even get more specific with principles that apply to your company, like “All reports must have an executive summary of less than one page” or “Get an editor’s review on any email going to more than 50 people.”

3. Provide help and support

You need systems to help people become aware of the change they must make, and then tools to help them make the change.

Public shaming is not one of those tools. In this blog, I point out both good and awful uses of public communication and shame the latter. I’m nasty. You shouldn’t be. Because shame within your organization doesn’t create learning, it creates resentment.

Instead, develop a model for helping people who want to become better, one writer at a time.

A great example of this is the work that Jessica L. Weber did at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Bank examiners’ communications to the banks they regulated were long and inconsistent. To improve the quality of their work, Weber set up a writing center. Here’s how it worked.

  • Participation was voluntary.
  • Writing center staff provided feedback on sample communications by phone or in person.
  • Feedback was outside of normal management channels; no one got dinged on their reviews for what they shared.
  • They measured results.

Comparing writing samples from people before they entered the program and afterwards, the bank found:

  • a 36% improvement in overall quality
  • a 56% improvement in organization
  • a 48% improvement in clarity
  • a 38% improvement in support and analysis.
  • a 20% improvement in grammar

This is editorial coaching at its most effective.

You can do this, too. You might start with a workshop to raise people’s knowledge of the problem. But follow up with a resources that provides editorial consultations so people can put their principles into action. Learning by doing, on the job, is more effective than just learning by listening or reading.

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