Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Are You Among the Hopeless 20% of Business Executives Who Can’t Write A Decent Sentence?

Today I got an ad for a book called “Business Writing: 83 Tips to Keep You from Looking Dumb.” Maybe this is a good book. I don’t know. I do know it’s 20 pages long and costs $99, so there must be a market for executives who need to write stuff, have $100, and think it’s easy to buy a little book and get by.

If that describes you, good luck. Executives who are among "The Hopeless 20%" should definitely hire a professional. It's worth the cost to turn out cogent, convincing content that makes your organization look good. Otherwise, you are leaving a far worse impression than you imagine.

How do you know if you're hopeless? Even if you think you’re a good writer -- because some of the worst offenders sincerely believe they’re good (I know, because they tell me) -- you owe it to yourself and your organization to -- at least once -- ask an impartial professional for an honest evaluation of your writing. If, using the grading scale below, your writing earns a “C” or worse, hire a professional to write or, at least edit, your articles. Never mind protecting your own sorry reputation, this will absolutely, positively make a difference in how your business is perceived in the marketplace.

And now for the grades ... Over the years, I've been the editor of several monthly B2B publications, the content of which often is contributed by executives. I've seen lots of writing from non-writer folks in professional positions: department managers, PR people, even top executives. Here are the Business Writing 101 grades I’d give those executives.
  • About 15 percent of the writing is excellent: concise, enticing, useful, clear. Grade A.
  • About 20 percent needs a little work, but the thought-processes are solid and the writing is clear. A good editor can fix this up. Grade B
  • Another 45 percent is mediocre and needs considerable editing for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This groups also suffers from the most common flaw of inexperienced writers: flubbed structure. The reader leaves with no clear takeaway and a bad impression. Grade C
  • The last 20 percent is God awful. Grade F. I read this failing 20 percent and shake my head. Maybe someplace in the article I can find a point, but when I do, the essential thought is so simple and obvious that two sentences would have been enough to say it. This writer has not only lost the audience, they’ve bored, perplexed, and irritated almost every reader. So what went wrong?
  1. The writer doesn’t have a point to make! No time has been spent thinking. They just know they need to write 500 words to get into print and they don't care how they get there. Advice: If this is how you feel, get someone else to write the article.
  2. The writer has no idea where to start, so he/she jumps into the topic and starts flailing in every direction at once. The result is an incoherent mess that no one wants to read. (Note: This sort of mess becomes brutally apparent by the third paragraph). Advice: Outline, outline, outline. The headline for a business article is the theme. The subheads are the points that support the theme. Arrange these in a logical sequence that carries the reader along and your writing will improve dramatically.
  3. The writer has zero concept of punctuation. Increasingly, people use dashes and ellipses in place of periods, semi-colons, and commas. Why? Because they don’t know how to punctuate and figure little bits of squiggly will cover up the inadequacy. Advice: Writers who find themselves doing this should spy a huge Editorial Red Alert: Danger, Poor Writing Ahead.
  4. The writer hates and fears writing. Marketing Brillo feels the same way about public speaking, so she can relate. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t avoid our worst phobia. Advice: To make writing easier, always start with step two above. Then -- above all else -- keep it simple. No highfalutin words like “enterprise” where words like “company” will do. No jargon, few acronyms, zero adjectives (for example, delete all phrases like very useful, exceptionally good, really terrific, etc.) Kiss, Kiss, Kiss.
I realize these don't add up to 83 tips, but most stubborn business writers who refuse to hire professionals should be able to improve with these four bits of advice. Except for the hopeless 20 percent. You folks must hire a professional.

-- scrubbed by Marketing Brillo

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