What frustrates business writers

business writers
Photo: Jonno Witts via Flickr

My recent survey of business writers has a text box where people can type anything they want about their writing experience. They’re pretty upset about all the bullshit they have to deal with.

Here’s a sample. Each comment includes the information I have about the role and industry of the person who wrote it. I’ve lightly edited the comments for space, clarity, and grammar.

Bullshit bedevils business writers

The idea of challenging your reader is incredibly frightening to many. I approve of writing “without bullshit” but it has infiltrated most corporate writing to the point that people don’t realize that they are in fact disseminating bullshit. (Consultant, advertising/marketing)

It’s frustrating the number of people who still think that writing is more about making them sound important than having the reader understand the messages we are trying to communicate. (Government, Australia)

Even though clear and concise communication might be a corporate mantra, very few people seem to know what that should look like, and if you show someone they get uncomfortable and want to put BS back (Sales, technology/telecom)

My organization (the Department of State) has multiple types of writing. Some statements are calculated to be obscure, others are deliberately ambiguous (Disraeli: Ambiguity is the grease on which the wheels of diplomacy turn).  (Government)

Our corporate marketing culture encourages the use of hyperbole. Removing the BS upsets my superiors.  (Marketing manager, manufacturing)

People write opaque junk because it helps them with plausible deniability later. (Manager, government)

Content marketing floods the Web

Most popular business books and blogs are so over-simplified that they appear like intelligent bar conversations. Content marketing makes it hard for good writing to stand out. There is so much garbage. (Marketing consultant, advertising/marketing)

Good writing requires good thinking. It is difficult but worth the effort. Content marketing, unfortunately, has produced a lot of terrible writing. (Public relations manager, manufacturing)

Jargon is a common bugaboo

People seem to like jargon; it appears to be a status marker. To reject its use is not acceptable. I guess [that is] because I am supposed to mimic the language that my boss uses, in order to communicate to the people she wishes to impress. Directness is not encouraged. (Product manager, education)

We spend a lot of time re-writing materials that other people have written. Physicians and nurses seem to be unable to write simply, clearly, and without unnecessary medical terminology. Unfortunately, that results in documents that are incomprehensible to most patients. (Manager, healthcare)

My focus in on employee communications, specially employee benefits. It’s very complex, technical, and full of jargon. Translating that into understandable language is the main focus of my job. My biggest obstacle is the clients and convincing them that a 28-page brochure in 9-point font isn’t going to be effective. (Consultant, advertising/marketing)

My biggest challenge is convincing stakeholders reviewing my work to not add in vague language or jargon for political reasons instead of focusing on real value for the reader. (Marketing writer, business services)

Poor collaboration processes make you crazy

I spend a lot of time making sure everyone is getting to make their imprint on the copy, but I feel it rarely helps make the pieces better. (Marketing manager, technology/telecom)

Final editorial decisions get made by the highest ranking employee, who is not always the best writer (the Executive Director doesn’t have to accept edits).  (Non-profit)

My chief complaint about writing for work is the way creativity and meaning are stifled by non-writer execs and overly anal lawyers. What starts as a clear-cut and maybe even *gasp* interesting piece ends up as mere navel-gazing, jargon, and generalities. (Marketing, technology/telecom)

The desire for management to include pet phrases or sayings gets in the way of clear communication. Further, when you have a management team that doesn’t read beyond the first thing they find objectionable, it REALLY lengthens the feedback and approval process. (Marketing manager, technology/telecom)

Too many people reviewing drafts make it hard to get it done and draw the revision process out unnecessarily long. Trying to make every player happy results in an end product often that is watered down and less effective. (Marketing supervisor, advertising/marketing)

College writing was poor preparation for business

After graduating college, I was surprised by how much time I spend reading and writing emails. I’m pretty verbose, which works well for writing assignments in college but not great in a world where brevity is essential. (Technology/telecom)

I work in an industry where clear, technical writing is extremely important. Having worked with others in my field (engineering), I have found that any formal training on technical (i.e. no bullshit) writing, even if it is a single course, is the exception, not the rule.  (Engineering, utilities)

But despite the problems, many writers were upbeat

I never start writing until I’ve let the project roll around in the back of my mind long enough for it to be organized. I always identify my audience clearly before I start and then focus on filling their needs. (Research/development, nonprofit)

I love pulling order out of chaos. (Marketing editor, healthcare)

I love to write and wish I got to do more of it. (Government)

I’m listening

I have this to say to you all: I hear you. I will address as many of these issues as I can in my book and blog posts. Thanks for complaining so articulately.

And yes, feel free to add your own complaints about your writing process in the comments section.

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  1. Marketing content often tries to pass itself off as real journalism and so-called thought leadership, but behind it is a sponsor which often reviews the content. Content marketing, sadly, is how a lot of heretofore great business writers make a living these days. I’ve done it, but am transitioning back into real journalism where I am beholden only to the audience and my editor. With continued therapy and support from my family, I should make it.

    And yes, many of the online marketing seminars, tools and gurus (mostly former Uber drivers) are complete bullshit. Worse are people who get swayed by them and lord their nouveau knowledge over you.

  2. I see it as the outcome of SEO (search engine optimization) where writers are encouraged to write as simply as possible and to use words that will match what their audience will enter into the search box.

  3. This is depressing yet not surprising. Of particular interest:

    People seem to like jargon; it appears to be a status marker. To reject its use is not acceptable. I guess [that is] because I am supposed to mimic the language that my boss uses, in order to communicate to the people she wishes to impress. Directness is not encouraged. (Product manager, education)

    In a word, yes. As I write in Message Not Received, we parrot the words of our bosses, even if we don’t understand them.

  4. I am a training consultant and have no problem with letting teams know when content is more marketing fluff than actual content. I’m happy to say that they usually either delete what I have pointed out, or modify it.

  5. Why are there topics in parenthesis at the end of each par? Makes the content look automated.

    It’s a fair point that the author makes but we also need to remember that the people providing the content have to a) get material approved, which often means compromise on the words, b) include some jargon for specialist subjects (and potential SEO).