You may think that because you’re in IT, your writing skills aren’t that important. As long as the code executes, who cares if there’s spelling or grammatical errors in the comments? But as it turns out, jobs of all kinds—including technical ones—are increasingly requiring writing skills, and companies are finding that poor writing is costing them money.
Care in business communication is a good proxy for care in other aspects of the business, writes Lindsey McCaffrey. “Let’s say I have a choice between Company A and Company B,” she writes. Both have equal offerings, prices and quality of customer service. B’s print materials are rife with spelling and grammatical errors. So are the emails I get from its sales force. Meanwhile, A’s communications are impeccable. If I have to choose, I’m giving my business to Company A. Why? A’s attention to the finer details says a lot about how it runs its business.”
Okay, that covers poor writing that’s customer-facing. But poor writing that’s internal to a company can cause problems as well. “Even something as apparently small as ambiguity in written instructions circulating within the department, or poor written communication with customers, can spiral out of control,” writes Mary Cullen of Instructional Solutions.
For example, poor writing can introduce delays in workflow, Cullen writes. “Unclear instructions cause confusion among employees and management, resulting in delays in business process,” she writes. “Whether it is a simple chat message, an email, a company-wide notice, or a report, it is important that the information delivered is precise, short, and to the point, leaving no room for assumptions among the management and staff.” Instructions that are unclear or ambiguous can also damage employee morale, she adds.
Smart companies are recognizing how important good writing skills are. One study, produced by CollegeBoard, found that businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training—annually. “Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires,” notes Kaleigh Moore in Inc.
This is true even of recent college graduates. One study, Are They Really Ready to Work?, found that 27.8 percent of employer respondents reported that new entrants with four-year college diplomas were “deficient” in writing in English. “For four-year college graduates, 93.1 percent say Written Communications is ‘very important,’” the study notes.
Poor writing doesn’t just hurt a company—it can hurt employees personally as well, when they’re looking for jobs. “CollegeBoard data showed that 50 percent of respondents take writing into consideration when hiring professional staff and 80 percent of corporations with employment growth potential assess writing during hiring,” Moore writes. For example, companies are looking at resumes and cover letters for indications of writing skills—or lack of them. Moreover, some applicants are even being asked to complete a writing exercise during the interview process to evaluate writing skills before an offer is made, she adds.
Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, an online repair community, gives a grammar test to everyone who applies for a job, including salespeople, operations staff, and programmers. “On the face of it, my zero-tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair,” he admits. “After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right? Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use ‘it’s,’ then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.”
Moreover, people who are good at writing and grammar tend to be good at other things as well, Wiens notes. “People who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts,” he writes. “Programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code.”
So how do you improve your writing, and that of the people on your team?
- Books and articles. There are tons of books and articles about how to be a better writer. Buy a couple of books for the staff room and circulate links to interesting articles about how to improve writing and detect poor writing.
- Training. While training can be expensive, it can be a lot more efficient to have an expert point out flaws and areas for improvement than to expect people to spot them on their own.
- Peer review. Nothing teaches you how to do something better than teaching someone else. So get in the habit of having coworkers edit each other’s work before publishing it. Everyone can always use a second pair of eyes. “If my marketer misses a typo while writing about a product, I want my packaging staff to catch it before the design gets sent to print,” writes Wiens in Harvard Business Review. “If my technicians don’t capitalize a tool’s name consistently, I’d hope my videographer notices the error when he glances at the report on their desks. When I’m writing an essay, I always ask my software engineers for constructive feedback.”
- Practice. Like almost anything else, writing gets better with practice. So look for opportunities to write more, and have your team write more. Do a piece for the company newsletter. Write something up for a journal or a blog sponsored by your industry organization. Start a departmental blog and have staff take turns contributing to it.
“In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have,” Wiens writes. “They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”
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