Posted March 5, 2019
Bad writing is costly. It consumes time (because bad writing takes longer to read and parse), it erodes productivity (because poor writing fosters confusion and uncertainty), and it can damage the business (because bad writing undermines your reputation and can lead to lost business).
And what many businesses don't realize is that bad writing can be perfectly readable and sensible and still be bad. It’s only good if it is effective.
In other words, if the documents your team produces don't create meaningful results, you might as well have just handed out blank pages. But because their writing seems okay on the surface, too few writers ever take the time to assess whether their writing is actually working (that is, achieving the intended goal).
You should! But how to get started?
Start with feedback. We’ve found that most professionals we work with deal with feedback reflexively rather than thoughtfully. They ignore it, reject it, or accept it without ever analyzing it to see if it makes sense, is on-point, or is totally useless. As we’ve discussed in other blogs and white papers, critical thinking is a vital skill for successful writers, and it applies here. Writers should use it to analyze that feedback.
Start by questioning the intent. Feedback should always be about making the writing more effective, but feedback is often as ineffective as the writing itself. If feedback is to be truly useful, it must be good and relevant. For example, sometimes feedback is a power play, where reviewers just feel the need to leave their mark on the writing, regardless of whether their changes are helpful.
Instead, favor feedback that genuinely helps the writing. This kind of feedback is often thoughtful and reasoned; it is always considerate of the writing’s primary purpose. Every comment should be interrogated in this way: "If I make this change, will it make the piece stronger, more impactful, and more likely to achieve its purpose?"
And the same is true of reviewers: they should ask “If I suggest this change, will it make the piece stronger, more impactful, and more likely to achieve its purpose?” If the answer is no, the reviewer should rethink the feedback. We taught a workshop for reviewers recently, and one of the participants said this: “If I can’t explain why I’m suggesting a change, I don’t suggest it. I’ve found that by doing this, I avoid making suggestions that won’t result in substantive changes.” Good point!
Most important, consider if the feedback applies not just to the one document but to the writing universally. Does it give the writer an opportunity to improve every future document? Such feedback, even if it's painful to hear, is invaluable.
Feedback is not the only resource that should be used to judge the effectiveness of the writing. Writers should look at results and outcomes as well. Most documents have a goal – for instance, this proposal should result in new business, that report should result in a policy change, and so on – and always evaluate if the documents produced the intended outcome. If not, why not? What could be improved next time? If the document achieved its intended goal, what worked?
Assessment is well worth the time: having your team critically assess their writing on an ongoing basis yields continuous improvement and makes every future document more likely to succeed.
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 30 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.