How to start solving our $396 billion bad writing problem

by | Jan 17, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

What will it take for business to adopt plain language, easy-to-read documents, and lean communications®?

They address a business problem right in front of our faces. Even though this problem hurts our performance by sucking our time, draining our energy, and making us cranky, we tend to discount its impact.

Yet the problem of bad writing costs businesses billions of dollars—almost $400 billion.  

Technology analyst and professional writer Josh Bernoff estimated in The Daily Beast article that we workers – and leaders — are wasting 6 percent of total U.S. wages on bad writing.

That’s the value of the time we spend during our work day slogging through confusing and convoluted business documents trying to decode their meaning and figure out what actions we need to take.

By Bernoff’s calculation, this adds up to $396 billion of our national income. He considers it a tax that we all pay. By comparison, Bernoff says this amount is more than half of what we spend on Medicare.

The difference though is that seniors receive health care for our Medicare dollars. The inefficiencies related to bad writing is total waste.

Besides costing us time and money, the inefficiency of bad writing can be a health hazard too, especially with the proliferation of mobile devices. Many of us now read a majority of our emails on our smart phones as well as reports and other documents.

Even though the devices are convenient and the non-business content can be especially engrossing, reading on a mobile device is more physically and mentally challenging than reading a computer screen or paper.

Reading on a mobile device requires greater concentration and discipline to avoid distractions.

Plus, when we’re looking at a small screen, we’re often squinting and hunched over. Our eyes tire quickly, and our neck and back muscles can ache.  

If you write for others – even if it’s just a few email messages — try to reduce their pain. These three actions can help:

1.Put yourself in your readers’ shoes before you start writing and figure out:

  • What? (What’s the point?)
  • So what? (Why should they care?)
  • Now what? (What do you want them to do?)

This 3-question lean communications® tool will help you be as concise as possible, which is critical for comprehension on mobile devices.

2. Check and double-check dates and times to make sure they’re accurate. Are you really asking someone to participate in a 5 am call, or is it 5 pm? And is it obvious which time zone you’re using?

3. Watch out for “wordos,” the correct spelling of a real word that’s used incorrectly in the context. You can inadvertently baffle people when you refer to a “toll” instead of a “tool.”

The bad writing problem has been infiltrating business for a number of years, even before President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 for government.

While government writing has improved since then, it’s going to take a lot of work to reduce the degree of inefficiencies in business. (In Bernoff’s survey of business people who write at work, 81% agreed with the statement: “Poorly written material wastes a lot of my time.”)

Others, including Harvard Professor and Author Steven Pinker, also have spoken out as well as written about how bad writing is a drain on the economy. (See my blog post Help the economy; improve your communications!)

Here’s hoping that Bernoff’s stab at quantifying the problem along with his latest book, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, will prompt some of us to reduce the waste and pain we’re causing others.

Are you ready to help decrease the inefficiencies of bad writing?


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