As I found when I surveyed 547 people who write as part of their job, there is a central problem here: We all think that problems of writing quality are somebody else’s fault.
I conducted my survey in the first three months of 2016. To qualify, respondents had to write, primarily in English, at least two hours per week in addition to the time they spent writing email. My survey reached not just writers and editors but also managers, directors, supervisors, executives, analysts, and consultants. They write website copy, memos, reports, blogs, marketing materials, and social media posts.
One simple question revealed our self-delusion. I asked: “On average, rated from 1–1o, how effective is the material that you read?” My respondents rated the average effectiveness of what they read at a pathetic 5.4. By comparison, they rated the effectiveness of what they write at 6.9.
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Like the children in Garrison Keillor’s fictional community of Lake Wobegon, my respondents are apparently all above average.
When I asked them about the problems with the effectiveness of what they read or write, the same pattern emerged.
While 65% of those surveyed agreed that what they read is poorly organized, only 16% admitted to writing poorly organized material themselves. And while 61% said that what they read is unclear, only 19% said that what they write is unclear. For every writing problem they cited — material that is too long, filled with jargon, or imprecise — they said that the problems are common in what they read but not in what they write.
Then who, pray tell, is writing this dreadful stuff?
We are. We just don’t realize how our ineffective writing frustrates those around us.
There are four steps you can take to fix your writing.
- Challenge yourself to be more concise. Whether you’re writing an email or a report, ask yourself if you’ve made it too long, failing to get to the point quickly enough. If you chopped out a sentence or two — or eight — would the reader notice it was missing?
- Identify your bad habits. Learn to recognize jargon, passive constructions (“something must be done!”), and imprecise language as bad habits that make it harder for others to get the meaning of what you’re saying.
- Pair up with another writer. People tend to have complementary problems: Maybe you write too long, while your colleague has problems organizing ideas. The job of an editor or a peer reviewer is to show you what you cannot see. That’s why two flawed writers can make each other better.
- Build disciplined feedback into writing processes. When good writers are whipsawed by contradictory reviews, it leads to bad results. With sufficient notice and carefully organized review cycles, you can fix problems and keep your writing coherent.
We read and write all day long now. Reading on a computer or phone makes concentration far more difficult. Let’s admit that we have a writing problem. That’s the only way things are going to get any better.