The high price of bad writing - Dooley Communications

I marvel at my bookkeeper. She was at her desk the other day swiftly and effortlessly moving through my receipts, dispatching them to their correct resting places. If it were me, I said, my back would be a giant knot of stress.

It’s not that bookkeeping is especially hard, but it’s hard for me. I’ve never studied it. I do it infrequently and reluctantly, and usually only after I’m finished an already hard day’s work. I recognized I needed a pro to do it right, so I hired her.

She looked up at me, smiled, and said it’s the same for her with writing.  She’s gone to school to be a bookkeeper; she’s done it professionally for years; and she likes the nature of the work. But when she’s called upon to write something, she freezes up and needs to struggle mightily to get her thoughts down.

I know very well how important good writing is and how hard it is to do. I learned the craft first as a journalist, working for a series of newspapers in Southwestern Ontario where I was called upon to write 20 to 30 stories per week. That boot camp taught me how to churn out lively, error-free (or very close) copy quickly. I learned how to write in a variety of styles. I mastered how to write leads and how to lay down words in a way that helped my readers get all the way to the end of the story.

Armed with those skills, I moved into the corporate world where I discovered how rare they were. Even as a junior in the communications department, I was commonly cleaning up the writing of senior executives and board members. They couldn’t get their tenses right to save their lives. They excelled in using the latest business buzz words (and thought themselves erudite for doing so). Spelling was bad. Styleguides were non-existent. And don’t get me started on the difference between passive and active voices. As skilled as some of them were in their own fields – law, accounting, sales, management – they were incompetent as writers.

One of my colleagues was notorious throughout our organization for his inability to conjugate even basic English verbs. His work was embarrassing, but he was a prolific senior executive. Barely literate letters went out under his pen to our suppliers and customers. A grade school student could have done better. The result was ongoing harm to our corporate reputation.

I recall the effect his letters would have on employees in particular. His memos were so garbled and full of inexactitudes and obfuscations that they regularly caused the rank and file to huddle together to decipher their true meanings. My department staffers would tiptoe into my office, close the door and ask for a translation. It was an ongoing distraction that needlessly hurt morale and productivity.

I’m a firm believer that the quality of a firm’s communications is a measure of its whole. If its marketing and public relations tools are bad, what are we to make of its accounting, its finance, its logistics, its governance, its human resources, etc.?

So the next time you’re putting together a communications piece for your organization and you’re cursing the stress it’s causing you, ask yourself if you’re a writer trying to be a bookkeeper. If the answer is yes, then pick up the phone and call a pro. Whether it’s a speech, an annual report, a blog or a newsletter, we’ll make sure your message is communicated effectively.

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