"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Encouraging Your Staff to Write Better

My company, Articulate, runs regular seminars in London aimed at getting companies (rather than individuals) to write better. Two questions always resonate: how to encourage staff to write better and how to give feedback. Get them right and you are on your way to being an articulate business.

Sort your briefs out
Writing clear briefs for writing project is the critical first step. This applies for copy produced internally just as much as for PR and marketing agencies. A brief needs to answer five basic questions:

  1. What is the objective?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. What are the parameters: deadline, word count, format etc.?
  4. What style guidelines apply?
  5. What is the approval process?

Of these five, the first is the most important. In my experience, when writing assignments go wrong it is usually because of conflicted or unclear objectives.

Avoid committee writing
The next step is to avoid groupthink and committee writing. Assess your own writing skills and those of your team and allocate tasks accordingly. Everyone can write but not everyone is a writer so separate the roles of editing, proofreading, subediting and writing.

I strongly advocate finding a proofreader. I find it hard to read my own work objectively -- it is too easy to get word blind. I use a professional proofreader for my commercial work but most companies have a detail-obsessed grammarian who would love the job. This is not about editing for style. It is about punctuation, grammar and spelling.

The role of editor is equally important. They are responsible for making sure the document delivers against its objectives and so they must own the brief and manage the relationship with the writer.

Committee editing is as unhealthy as committee writing. Sometimes you need to gather feedback from different people -- legal, product managers, technology experts etc. -- but only one person should filter, prioritise and give this feedback to the writer.

Give good feedback
The following comes from my experience as a professional writer working with large technology companies. Your mileage may differ.

Don't try to turn "My Fair Lady" back into "Pygmalion." A classic problem in technology companies is that product managers try to reinsert jargon, acronyms and buzzwords into text that is designed for a wide readership.

Give guidelines on the type of feedback you expect. Are you looking for factual errors or complete rewrites?

Avoid redlined documents. Redlined documents contain the "what" but not the "why" of changes. They are the instrument of groupthink. The best feedback I get is over the phone.

Be specific. I love clients who can tell me WHY a bit of text isn't working. Examples of good feedback: "it would be great to have an example here," "I didn't really follow the argument in this paragraph. Can you simplify it?"

See feedback as a long-term thing. It's about helping the writer improve this job and the next one and the one after that. Don't just change something, explain why you changed it.

Hire better writers
In the long term, you can raise your company's writing game by hiring better writers. When recruiting staff, make sure they can write. Give them some exercises to do during the interview process. It isn't enough to check if their CV is well written (although if they cannot get that right, don't hire them).

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 13th 2006, 10:04 AM
Comment by: J.B. S.
encouraging your staff to write better starts with a positive note and ends with a negative note. better has nothing to do with writing but writing has everything to do with better. it is in the better that people get lost. writing should be free of words like better so that the writing will be free to write.

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