Bad writing costs the U.S. as much as $396 billion annually, in part because “America is spending 6% of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material,” writes Josh Bernoff for The Harvard Business Review.
At the top of the list of time-wasters are overly long content that takes too much time to read and even longer to understand. Yet, “overwriting” is one of the most common problems in any writing project. Here are three reasons why the dangers of overwriting continues to plague organizations, as well as ways to turn your long documents into concise writing.
1: You’re using inappropriate templates for writing projects
Good writing is hard work, especially when working from a blank page, and using a template can be a great strategy for kickstarting difficult writing projects. However, too many writers pick templates based on the type of writing rather than the goal of the writing.
For example, one of our clients hired us to host a writing workshop because their team was struggling with ineffective business letters. Their letters ranged up to five pages and contained too much information, much of which was unnecessary to the reader. Upon investigation, we discovered they were using past letters as models without considering whether the past letter was a good “fit” for what they wanted to accomplish with the current piece. If you use a template, make sure it aligns with your purpose.
2: You’re basing your professional writing on your academic experience
Our educational system is not always effective at preparing students for professional writing, including (perhaps especially) scientific, technical, and engineering writing. Educator David Silverman gets to the heart of the matter in The Harvard Business Review: “I blame this on an educational system that rewards length over clarity. When you get tick marks for bulls’ eyes — and no demerits for the number of darts used — the student learns to overwrite in hopes that at least some of their sentences hit the mark.”
This continues into our working lives, where we write everything in the hopes that something will stick and consequently sacrifice brevity for the sake of comprehensiveness.
3: Your writing is just a “brain dump”
In fact, in the effort to be comprehensive, our writing might simply turn into what The Huffington Post calls a “brain dump.” This can be fine when prewriting, where we want to capture all our thoughts, ideas, and points. But once we commit the words to the page, we’re sometimes reluctant to cut them or are too quick to call the piece done. Good writing requires us to separate the essential from the ornamental and to ruthlessly excise anything that is unnecessary. Revisions and editing are where the real writing happens.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.