Business Writing 101

Barbara's Pictures 005by Barbara von Diether, MEd, EdD

The Problem

Enlightened organizations throughout the world are embracing the concept of total quality management (TQM), but at a time when many organizations ask their employees to “do it right the first time to improve productivity” the application of TQM to writing is overlooked. In fact, memos, letters, reports, instructions, proposals, and the many other forms of writing tasks in organizations are not done right the first time. Often, the third or fourth revision is still not “right.”

The average professional employee (those with a college degree) spends 10 to 12 hours a week writing documents beyond the time spent on email. According to a survey by Boeing Aircraft, two-thirds of all memos and letters produced by employees and used by managers to make decisions required revision because the original was not clear. Most managers list good writing ability among the top three traits most desired in an employee without realizing that bad writing is a management problem, not an employee problem.

If, as managers believe, an employee who cannot write is a problem, then a good writing training program, of which there are many available to corporations, should fix that problem. It does not. Millions of dollars are spent by organizations on training programs thought to help their college-graduate employees write better. It doesn’t work because training employees to write without also training their managers is wasted money.

“Well, I don’t agree with that,” managers sometimes snap at me when I am hired to consult with them to solve problems they are having with bad writing among their subordinates. They continue, “People with college degrees should be able to write excellently. But I have to rewrite all their stuff because they can’t do it right the first time.” When a writing project doesn’t turn out right the first time blame is focused on the writer, and so begins a series of revision back-and-fourths that cost valuable professional time, and a great deal of money. And irritate managers.

Myths about Writing

There is a mythology in organizations about writing. Here are a few of the more prominent ones:

Managers have no responsibility for what is being written between the time they delegate the task and the time they see the result.

Part of a manager’s role is to edit everything written by subordinates.

Everyone should write on a computer.

The English rules never change.

Engineers can’t write.

None of the above myths have any foundation in fact. As for number 5, I hear the same thing said of computer programmers, geologists, physicists – almost any professional! Nonsense!

Observations about Writing in Organizations

Following are a few observations about the causes of writing failure in organizations gained from 12 years as a writing consultant to a Fortune 500 clientele.

Employee writing cannot be improved without changing the culture of the organization first. The “culture” of an organization is the sum of all socially transmitted beliefs, myths, and all other products of human work and thought. Culture is passed down from one generation of employees to the next, including the mismanagement of the writing process.

An example of this was the corporation that hired me to improve their proposal writing efforts. Many organizations depend on competitive proposals – bids – to keep their business going. There are both commercial proposals, and proposals for the defense industry. I worked almost exclusively for defense contractors. One Fortune 500 client I worked with had lost 32 bids in a row. Employee strength dropped from 2,000 to 400. I was hired to teach people how to write winning proposals. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s proposal writing remained about the same, but in the 1980’s the style of proposals changed, and the organization wished to change to the new style. They spent thousands of dollars on training. It didn’t work because of a guardian of corporate culture, a senior manager, took it upon himself to rewrite every “new” proposal back to the style of the 1960’s. The last time I checked, they were still losing.

Another example of the importance of organizational culture was the Space Station proposal to NASA by McDonnell Douglas. A colleague and I were hired for two weeks to train 176 engineers and others how to write well so a nine-volume proposal would sound and look alike throughout. It was apparent within the first hour that the company had no coherent process for managing the writing of the many departments involved. Worse, the strategy for winning the bid that had to be integrated into every section was going to be lost after Volume One because there was no knowledge of what it was below the management level.

On our recommendation, McDonnell Douglas made a courageous decision to change the corporate culture about the way writing was managed, and we spent the next two weeks training 176 people to manage the process. This was 2 years before NASA issued the Request for Proposal (RFP). A year later I was asked to return and to oversee a “trial run.” The company took all 176 people off their jobs for two weeks to actually write a mock-up proposal. From that experience, every department and every writer had an opportunity to make the process work.  McDonnell Douglas won the bid for $9 billion.

Managers do not manage the “process” of writing because they think of writing as an “it.” We hear managers say, “I needed it yesterday.” or “I need it as soon as possible.” They perceive writing as an object. 

Problems that arise from the it orientation include 1) shallow insight, 2)
compromised thinking and reasoning, 3) lack of logical connections between ideas, 4) abortive or omitted collaboration with others, and 5) time-consuming rewriting and editing by managers to correct the shortcomings that arise from these weaknesses. Writing is a process, and processes need to be managed!

True delegation of accountability and ownership rarely occurs. When a manager delegates a writing task with the intention of editing it after it comes back, responsibility and ownership of the work stays with the manager. Many managers believe part of their job is to act as editor-in-chief, and they squander huge amounts of their expensive company time doing the job of secretaries or company editors. 

Managers who edit have the illusion that they are doing important and useful work. But their problem is not bad writing from subordinates. It is bad delegation.
When I ask writers in the ranks how writing assignments are delegated to them, this is what I hear:

My manager, on her way out the door, throws stuff on my desk and says, “Take care of this.”

My manager believes in progressive revelation. Every time I give him a revision, he reveals more information about the project that I should have had in the first place.

My manager communicates writing assignments on post-it notes.

With managers like these, employees adopt a foxhole mentality.  They say to me, “I just throw some words together and send it in. Why bother making it good. It’s just going to be changed anyway.” So much for ownership.

1. Managers do not think to negotiate the time it takes to write a document when they delegate the task. A computer programmer asked me how to write faster. “My manager wants me to completely rewrite these 50 pages by Friday. Meantime, I’m supposed to get all my regular work done on time. I’ll be working overtime with no pay to get it all done.” 

When a manager does not consider the amount of time it takes for writing to get done, writing becomes an unplanned activity sandwiched between ongoing daily duties, meetings, phone calls, email, and a variety of other interruptions. And unplanned activities lower productivity and profitability.

2. Managers are insensitive to the need of writers have for uninterrupted time. Writing is difficult intellectual work. It requires concentration. But interruptions in many organizations are epidemic. They are frequent, uncontrolled, and tolerated. 

Overcoming inertia to start writing is hard. Interruptions cause the writer to stop, and afterward, the writer must collect their thoughts, reread what they just wrote, and overcome inertia again. Interruptions can change a 15-minute writing job to a 2-hour marathon of stop-and-start effort.

I was recently working with six managers as they wrote a proposal that was critical to the company’s survival. The room was quiet as they were working on how to word their win strategy. A secretary entered the room and interrupted one of the managers with a question about scheduling a not very important meeting. Everyone in the room stopped writing to listen. When the secretary left, the group turned back to their writing. Some began rereading what they had just written. Some stared off into space. Two tinkered with paper clips. Haltingly, they resumed writing. Twenty-five minutes were wasted.

Think of the ramifications for people who work in cubicles!

The Solution

Writing has both an internal and an external manifestation. The
internal manifestation is the complex, problem-solving, reiterative process of the writer. The external manifestation is what the manager sees happening. Good managers put steps in place to improve both the internal and external process of writing.

Package the Assignment

Enlightened managers prepare a writing assignment before they delegate. They 1) establish the standards that will be used to review the completed document, and 2) provide the needed tools.

Writers can not read minds. If standards are only in the mind of the manager, the first draft will be changed as the manager applies those standards. Standards are style guides, such as APA or Chicago. English is changing faster now than at any time since the 17th Century, and the “rules,” or standards that were taught in the classroom 20 years ago may not apply today.  Managers provide writers with tools such as recent-edition dictionaries because meaning, spelling, and technical use of many words is changing. For example, nouns and adjectives are being changed into verbs. A perfect example from an Environmental Impact Statement, “We will tier to the Forest Plan,” or “Got milk?”

Some people write better in longhand. Some like laptops, and some like the PC. If a writer does best in longhand, the manager should provide the writer with the ability to translate the longhand to the computer, such as a secretary, or copytalk.com. Secretaries are few and far between in modern organizations as managers increasingly expect their employees to do their own secretarial work. But is there anything more pathetic than watching a professional type on a $10 thousand computer with two fingers? A simple keyboarding course would solve the problem.

A quiet place to work is a tool. One strategy is to set aside “quiet time” one morning or afternoon each week during which noise and interruptions are discouraged. Traffic in hallways and between cubicles is curtailed, phone calls are rerouted to message centers, and visitors are asked to wait or come back later.

Finally, the manager creates an assignment sheet that contains specific directions and standards for the task such as 1) purpose of the assignment, 2) audience, 3) scope, 4) format, and 5) deadline. “I needed it yesterday,” and “I need it as soon as possible” are not deadlines. Such evasive directions signal a lack of planning, lack of respect, and lack of knowledge about the writing process. A deadline is a day and a time, “I need it by 8 a.m. Tuesday”. A reason helps, “I have a 10 a.m. meeting and I need to look it over before I go.”

Touch Base as Writing Progresses

Some writers gather the wrong information because they misunderstand the assignment. Some gather too much, some too little. Some discover information that changes the nature of the assignment, as well as the deadline.

The time to adjust the assignment is before it deviates into unacceptable territory.
A simple phone call, a quick meeting, or a short email can inform the manager of any potential problems; in fact, a verbal exchange of ideas helps both the manager and the employee clarify content, as does a review of brainstorming notes, sketches, or new information.

Teach a Time-Efficient Writing Technique

Writers everywhere say to me, “I have to make the first sentence perfect before I write the second sentence, and the first paragraph perfect before I can write the next one.” Ouch! Micro editing as the mind is trying to put thoughts together is a vice. It comes from the micro editing that goes on in school when students try to shorten the time required to write a paper by both writing and editing at the same time. In fact, they are two different tasks. Micro editing appears first in English classes where writing habits are formed, and appears next in department where the manager waits for it to appear and then tears it apart.

Sad to say, but many English teachers, and many managers and employees are stuck in the past. When English teachers give students a writing project, they never teach their students how to get ideas out of their heads and down on paper in an efficient manner. In the 1980’s the firm I worked for was the first consultant organization in the United States to teach a rapid writing technique to employees in business, industry, and government organizations. I was one of four consultants traveling 48 weeks a year all over the United States and to some foreign countries to teach people how to write quickly and effectively. When I left, the organization had 60 consultants doing the same thing, which is an indication of the recognized need for more efficient writing in organizations everywhere.

“What makes you think you know anything about how I can write better,” is a challenge I heard frequently as I challenged the habits and behaviors of employees and their managers. “I’ve been writing the same way since seventh grade and it’s working just fine.” Okay, but during WWII the US Army hired the finest English teachers they could find to come up with a technique they could teach recruits in 6 weeks of basic training that would result in fast, efficient writing. Armies run on writing, and personnel were taking hours to turn out documents that should have taken minutes. The result was a technique for rapid writing and editing that was ignored outside the military until the company I worked for adopted it for organizations in general.

I once taught 2,000 engineers at Northup Aviation a 2-day rapid writing course. It took me one year. Most of them were very receptive, but I heard from class after class the same complaint, “This is all very interesting, but you need to be training my managers because they make me do things their way, not the right way.” Corporate culture invalidated the training program because managers thought their employees needed the training, not themselves.

Managers need to recognize that writing problems begin with them, and although they teach their staff members rapid writing and editing techniques, they are part of the problem and need to be part of the solution.

Manage Time-Efficient Editing

English teachers and other engaged in teaching writing fail to teach people a strategy of attack for editing documents. Most people adopt some kind of a strategy, such as the micro editing writer mentioned above. Others concentrate on punctuation, spelling, and grammar because experience has taught them that those things will determine acceptance or failure of their document. They leave everything else virtually untouched.

What is universally forgotten is that reading is a visual process, and that people read a page from left to right and from top to bottom.  They start reading at the first sentence of the first paragraph. If they do not find information that is important to them by the second sentence, most of them skip to the first sentence of the second paragraph. If they again cannot find a key idea immediately, most skip to the bottom of the page, or turn the page and try again. I am not talking about fiction writing. I am talking about technical writing.

“Wait a minute,” people will say. “I have to put down all the facts before I get to the conclusion. And paragraphs have no less than five sentences.” Oh my. There go those pesky seventh-grade teachers again.

With the way people really read a document in mind, it is clear that the most important ideas need to be up and left on the page, at the top of the page, at the beginning of paragraphs, and in headings and other devices that make the key ideas stand out. The body of the text may be technically perfect, but if the main ideas are buried, the writing will fail to communicate with the hurried reader, and people in organizations do not have time on their hands and are not reading for pleasure!

Finally, peer review, if introduced well and managed well, can save a manager time, but the ground rules must be clearly set to protect writers from overzealous critique and irrelevant micro editing. Lastly, managers frequently do not think to provide positive rewards for good writing. Such rewards are energizing, motivating, and encourage writers to continuously improve. A simple “Good job!” can go a very long way to improve morale and productivity.

Summary

When managers pre-package the assignment, delegate carefully, teach their employees how to write and edit quickly and effectively, they have little to do when the documents reach them except sign and send. Writers have ownership and accountability. They take pride in their work.

Writing should be recognized as a process, and managers should be as interested in managing the writing tasks of their employees as they are managing the annual budget. Ineffective writing among employees has to be cured from the top down, not from the bottom up. Bad writing is a management problem, and only management can affect a permanent, workable solution.

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