Bad Writing is Bad for Business


We’ve all seen it. The ad that’s marred by a spelling slip. The sales letter that’s twice as long as necessary. The website copy that that’s downright deplorable.

As a freelance business writer I’ve worked for businesses from engineering and law to technology and consumer products. In my experience, too many businesses neglect or overlook the importance of their writing and underestimate its effect on customers.

What and how you write reveals a lot about you and your business. Readers can discern the quality of a company by its writing. Businesses that make the effort to ensure that their writing is clean and correct will project a positive and professional image that can attract customers. Businesses that neglect their writing will lose would-be customers who equate bad writing with bad business. 

Whether in a magazine, in a proposal, or on a website, bad writing makes an impression. New York City–based writer and marketing consultant Lou Dubois cites “bad writing” as the number-one mistake businesses make. “Poor writing, if displayed in a public setting like a blog, looks even worse,” said Dubois in the April 2011 issue of Inc. “Whether grammatical, punctuation, usage or even spelling errors, there’s a good chance that if the blog isn’t written well, your customers won’t come back.” The same applies to other media.

As 37signals founder Jason Fried says in his book Rework, “Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.” An important but sloppily composed memo to employees, clients, or partners may indicate that you haven’t carefully thought about the issue. If that’s the case, they won’t either.

The bad ad

An especially noticeable case is advertising. An ad is a compact statement about your company, your service, or your product that gets judged by thousands or millions of people. If you manage a business or work in sales and marketing, you might invest heavily in your advertising. You meet with your team and discuss the strategy. You find just the right medium with the perfect audience. You hire a first-class graphic designer. You get stunning photos of your product. The ad looks great, so you send it off to the press. But you didn’t bother to proofread the two lines of text that appear on it, and an otherwise effective and attractive ad is ruined. It’s like having a large, elegant, hand-crafted picture frame to display a cheap poster. Ultimately, the whole show—frame and all—won’t garner much attention. The setup is stunning, but the message is missing.

Since an ad is often the first contact a company makes with potential customers, the text is crucial. Jason Fried pointed this out in his May 2010 Inc. article on business writing. “In nearly all cases, a company makes its first impression on would-be customers or partners with words—whether they’re on a website, in sales materials, or in e-mails or letters,” says Fried. “A snappy design might catch their attention, but it’s the words that make the real connection.” When your ad is the first contact with thousands of potential customers, don’t let it be the last.

Trim the talk

Another common mistake is to write too much. For some reason, we tend to think that length is what makes writing good. While that may be true for Bleak House or War and Peace, it doesn’t hold for business writing. Writing and reading long texts is time-consuming, and shorter documents are more effective for already time-starved readers.

One of my clients is a law firm that sends me press releases, letters, memos, and other correspondence for editing. The documents usually contain more writing than is actually relevant to the document’s purpose. Their client doesn’t want to read a four-page memo when two pages will suffice. It’s common for me reduce attorneys’ material by 50 percent, and they almost always accept it.

Consultant Peter Dawson, recently retired from Procter & Gamble, recommends a one-page limit for memos. “Nothing beyond that will get read,” he says. “We have a tendency to show the client how hard we’ve worked by writing a long memo that explains everything. But they don’t care about the time you spent. Just give the results. Can you imagine a doctor reading you a five-page report when you’re only interested in a Yes or No test result?”

In other cases, much of the length comes in the form of verbal baggage: the writing says what it needs to, just in too many words. If you closely examine your writing, you’ll see that you can say the same thing in fewer words. Rather than “exercises effective control over,” try “effectively controls.” Instead of “has the intention of expanding,” say “intends to expand.” What’s the key word here—has or intends? While naturally appropriate for speaking, this verbal ornamentation doesn’t belong in business writing. Such minor adjustments make your writing clearer and shorter, all without compromising meaning.

Reducing length forces the writer to determine what he or she really wants to say—and to consider what the readers want to read. I entered an essay contest a few years ago and attended a workshop held by one of the judges. It was an annual contest, and in past years the essay was limited to 1,000 words. The year before I entered, the word count was reduced to 750 in an effort to expedite the judging process. “We thought the quality might go down,” the judge confessed. “But the essays actually got better.”

My first draft was a sprawling 1,800 words. But encouraged by the judge’s remarks, I went home and began working. Just as an overgrown bush needs to be cut back to reveal its beauty, overgrown writing should be trimmed to be its best. Carefully considering what was most important and how I could express it with concision, I eventually purged and pruned my own essay down to 750 words. Some expulsions made me wince and howl, but the pure splendor of the writing, now freed from wiry offshoots and tangled limbs, began to show. I didn’t win the contest, but I still regard the essay as some of the best writing I ever produced, all because I was compelled to make it shorter.

Although you may not produce an award-winning creative essay, your company is in a different type of writing contest. You compete for attention, customers, growth, and success. Shorter, stronger pieces will help.

Writing well

Good writing is like clean glass: your message should come through it clearly, not make the reader squint and strain to see it, as through a dirty window. In a well-composed ad, readers see your message; in a poorly written ad, readers see your writing and often miss the message. They’re distracted by a dirty window. Notice that the best ads, articles, books, signs, and websites do not draw attention to their own writing. If it’s well written, no one should notice the writing.

In this article I can hardly begin to cover the subject of how to write well. It is an intricate craft that takes time and practice to develop. Even seasoned writers like William Zinsser find the process challenging. In my career, I have always found encouragement from a statement in his classic book, On Writing Well: “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

Your writing should be a conduit for communication, not a barrier to business. Make efforts now to improve writing skills for yourself and your staff. Review your materials. Hold workshops. Read. Hire employees who write well. Learn from each other. Make good writing a priority in your company. Every move you make toward better writing will be well worth the effort.

Good writing is good for business.