How your organization’s writing reveals its problems — and potential fixes

All organizations have challenges. What I’ve realized in the past two years is that you can spot those challenges just from reviewing what and how you write. Better writing can even help you fix some of those organizational problems.

I’ve given dozens of writing workshops to a variety of organizations: startups, law firms, entertainment companies, tech vendors, insurance companies, even medical services companies. I always create exercises from writing samples that the client provides, such as emails, research reports, strategy memos, and newsletters.

Rooting through all this material is like doing a biopsy on your company. If you think logically and are focused on facts, I can see it. If your people are covering their asses or wasting their time, I can see it. If you are tangled in jargon, unable to get to the point, or swept up in your own hype, it’s obvious from your writing.

So here’s a list of things I see going wrong in corporate writing, what causes them, and how to fix them — and fix your organization at the same time. I’ve also included a chart at the bottom.

Documents too long

Symptoms: Emails that are pages long, memos and reports that are boring and endless, Slack and intranet posts that go on and on.

Cause: Focus on producing and responding, rather than enabling action: “I’m just doing my job” rather than “I want to help you out.”

Cure: Suggest word and page limits, for example, no emails over 300 words, no documents over 7 pages, with additional details in an appendix. Encourage bullets and graphics in place of text. Use links to refer to other documents with supporting information. Assign editors to help writers see what they can cut.

How it helps: The Iron Imperative states “You must always treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.” By focusing on writing short and editing things down, each writer focuses on the needs of the readers, making the organization more efficient. They’ll also soon learn that shorter writing, while it takes more effort, often takes less time overall.

Content that rambles

Symptom: Emails and other documents that take too long to get to the point.

Cause: Publishing first drafts instead of self-editing. Lack of discipline in thinking before communicating.

Cure: Suggest that all writers, before sending or publishing, rethink the title or subject line and opening sentences of all communications. Include an executive summary of at most three paragraphs in all documents. Write a “TL;DR” summary of a sentence or two in emails and shorter documents.

How it helps: These easy fixes require minimal effort, but will make readers far more efficient — not least by helping them see which documents they can skip.

Excessive passive voice

Symptom: Passive voice pervades documents; it’s not clear who is supposed to do what.

Cause: There are two sometimes overlapping causes. (1) Fear. Writers are using passive voice to avoid assigning responsibility for tasks and problems. (2) Habit. Writers are copying academic or scientific writing styles in internal documents.

Cure: Use passive voice detection features in word processing tools. Deploy editors to help writers learn to spot and fix passive voice.

How it helps: Once writers replace passive voice with active voice, it will be clearer who is responsible for accomplishing tasks. This should speed up projects that were languishing because nobody knew who was responsible.

Excessive jargon

Symptom: Documents and other communications are heavily laden with acronyms and technical jargon, making them virtually impenetrable.

Cause: Writers are steeped in corporate terminology and attempting to be “buzzword compliant.” Often this starts at the top; if your boss writes this way, you probably think you should, too. Writers are trying to impress and fit in, rather than focusing on effective communication.

Cure: Print out documents and highlight technical terminology. Keep what is precise or appropriate for your industry; rewrite the rest in plain language.

How it helps: Identifying which jargon is essential will help unify and clarify your communication standards. Ditching the rest will create clearer communication and make the organization more efficient. Less jargon also makes it easier for new employees to understand and be productive more quickly.

Too much enthusiasm

Symptom: Lots of meaningless superlatives like “great,” “incredible,” and “amazing.” Repeated exclamation points.

Cause: Attempting to be upbeat and put a positive face on everything.

Cure: Limit exclamation points to one per document. Delete meaningless enthusiastic adjectives and adverbs; quantify accomplishments with numbers.

How it helps: While every organization wants to put a positive spin on things, limitless positivity ceases to be credible and reads as management bullshit. By focusing on quantities and facts, you teach the employees to celebrate actual accomplishment, not just “happy clappy” meaningless platitudes.

Everything is made of paragraphs

Symptom: All documents are a stack of paragraphs, which makes them hard to skim.

Cause: Lack of imagination in using formatting tools. Too many English majors.

Cure: All writing tools include formatting functions. Train employees to use them. They include headings, bullets, numbered lists, indented quoted material, graphics (even simple and crude ones), charts, tables, and links. These tools are even available in email. Highlight examples of effective communication using this variety of tools.

How it helps: Making documents easier to skim will improve efficiency and get people actually reading and acting on content. It may also help writers of high-value material to learn the rudiments of graphic design.

A final observation

Leaders and managers set the tone. People imitate what they see coming down from on high. If you write passively, use jargon, can’t get the point, or have lame subject lines, so will they. Leaders should learn to write better, get editorial help, or tap internal ghostwriters to improve the way they communicate, because the tone they set can change the level of responsibility, efficiency, and fact-based thinking for the whole organization.

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  1. Josh, I’ve been following you for a few months now. I enjoy how you break down and demystify writing and even bought the book! I am retired from small business and always enjoyed the written word, – business letters, etc. I’ve even dabbled with writing poetry. Your regular and insightful blog and ‘Writing Without Bullshit” is encouraging me to do more and better writing.. Even writing this note to you without bullshit is good practice!