Features

It’s Time to Spell Out the Costs of Being Lazy and Careless

Bad Writing Inc.

By JOEL SAMBERG

Good writing in corporate America is dead.

Well, not really, at least not entirely. But with a considerable number of e-mails, press releases, newsletters, advertorials, and other forms of internal and external communications showing signs of carelessness, it’s not exactly the picture of health, either.

While there is plenty of accomplished writing coming out of Springfield-area businesses and organizations (some generated in-house and some provided by skilled marketing communications agencies), too often it is the sloppy, nominal work that stands out. Through indifference, good writing has been devaluated in corporate America. That needs to be reversed.

It’s bad enough when you receive a poorly written e-mail from the human resources department (after all, they’re the ones who should know all about the skill sets needed to grow business); it’s even worse when a white paper prepared by the corporate communications department has misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

The promotional merits of good, effective writing must never be underestimated. Too many executives and managers fail to recognize that whatever is written on behalf of their products, services, and projects — including hiring efforts and networking ventures — can end up as archival material that represents their companies for years to come, even if that’s not the intention.

This includes websites, brochures, e-newsletters, advertorials, company-wide e-blasts, and much more. In today’s cyber world, anything can show up anywhere and last forever. That’s just the way it is. Rambling, boring, ostentatious, cliché-ridden, or grammatically challenged writing can easily come back to haunt. Good writing from the start pays off.

Unfortunately, fewer people seem willing to take the time. Most employees claim they are overworked to begin with; who has time to reread something twice before sending it out?

E-mail is one of the biggest victims, from subject lines to body copy. How often have you received an e-mail that has absolutely nothing to do with what the subject line indicates? The subject line might say “Kittens & Puppies,” for example, and because of that you may decide to wait until the next afternoon to open it. But it could, in fact, be from your biggest client asking you to meet him early in the morning for an important discussion that concerns an income-earning opportunity.

Your client simply hit ‘respond’ on your last e-mail — the one in which you presented a promotional idea tying in to a local pet shelter — and wrote a new e-mail without bothering to change the subject line. That income-earning opportunity would have been missed simply because the subject line on an e-mail wasn’t changed.

I received a corporate e-mail the other day for which the subject line read “Re,” followed by body copy that said, “Tomorrow is fine my bad for not getting back to you sooner.” The fact is that e-mail is fast and easy — too fast and easy. It empowers us, making us feel as if we are dynamic skippers on the information superhighway with no need for self-evaluation, and certainly none for criticism or even assistance.

Many companies rely on their own employees to provide content for business communications, including websites. Often it’s a budgetary decision: why hire a communications firm or reputable freelancer when writing is a fundamental skill we have all learned in school? I believe that’s one of the reasons why professional writing is not always seen as a valuable corporate commodity.

But here’s the problem: yes, we can all write, but we can all add, subtract, multiply, and divide, too, yet would you want to use just any employee to run your accounting department? Good writing is actually a specialized skill. Fewer people are willing to acknowledge that fact.

Here’s an actual line from a website I recently reviewed: “The owners of the company have made a commitment to continue to provide the excellent service and expertise which has lead to the success of these firms through the years.”

The owners may have a commitment to service, but evidently not to syntax or spelling.

Thousands of press releases are generated every day. When deciding which ones to save and which to discard, editors won’t be charitable to the ones that are weak and unconvincing. Here’s an actual selection from a release issued by a nonprofit organization: “On March 4, three planes loaded with thousands of pounds of emergency resources and supplies delivered much-needed goods to the local orphanage. ‘When we approached the orphanage to see what we could do to help them, we were simply doing what all of us do every day,’ the organization’s president said.”

Does the president’s comment do anything to truly set him and his organization apart?

I took the liberty of pulling together a few simple suggestions to help put an emphasis back on good, effective writing, particularly for the in-house crowd for whom corporate communications may not be a primary job description.

• Reread everything several times before deeming it final — at least once for the sole purpose of eliminating as many words and phrases as possible;

• Avoid clichés like a pandemic;

• Simple words and phrases are always better than those that try to impress;

• Know your audience;

• Recognize that your audience is as stressed and as cautious as you are, and will find it easy to dismiss what they read if it doesn’t grab them right away; and

• Get a second pair of eyes to read all material — preferably someone who isn’t already familiar with the topic. Beg for their honest opinion. Listen to them.

Help might actually be just a water cooler away, because most companies have people on staff with a proven facility for writing and editing who can provide a little bit of editorial support. They may appreciate being asked to help because they, too, may very well wish to keep good writing alive.

So go ahead and send out an internal e-mail to find the right person to provide a fresh pair of eyes. But be careful: in the subject line, please do not write “Fresh Pair.” You’d probably get a nasty e-mail back from HR. You don’t want that — even if it’s well-written. n

Joel Samberg is a freelancer who offers time-efficient, cost-effective corporate writing and editing for businesses, organizations, and individuals. In addition to press releases and newsletters, he also helps out with white papers, advertorials, speeches, brochures, websites, presentations, slogans, special projects, and more; joelthewriter.com; [email protected]

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