The high cost of poor writing (and what you can do about it)

Posted by Sarah Mitchell on 7th January , 2020 in Copywriting, Editing & Proofreading
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Business writing requires investment – an investment of time, talent, and usually the help from one or more subject matter experts.

Before you’ve published a word, pushed the send button on your email, or received the Freddie “High Fives” message from Mailchimp, your little piece has already made a hit to your budget, quite possibly harder than you realised.

 

Doing the writing arithmetic

The average annual salary in Australia for adult, full-time employment is roughly $85,000. (According to the Average Weekly Earnings figures for the May 2019 from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.) That comes out to about $40 an hour.

Let’s look at very basic costs for writing, based on the average hourly rate:

  • $6.67 – If you bang out an email in 10 minutes
  • $40 – If you spend an hour writing a memo to your staff, or a status report to your manager
  • $160 – The average blog post takes close to four hours to write, according to 2019 blogging research from Orbit Media
  • Those big multi-person projects like answering bids, writing grants, or pulling together a proposal can easily cost your company hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

I know it’s a simplistic view; I haven’t taken into account the cost of employee benefits, office space, or equipment. I haven’t considered all the people involved in getting an email, memo or blog post ready to print. I haven’t added in the time required by subject matter experts. And I haven’t considered the time it takes for quality control.

And I bet you haven’t either, at least on the point about quality control. (I have evidence to back me up on this. More on that later.)

It’s hard to put a cost on reputation damage, on a tarnishing of your professional image or the erosion of trust experienced when your readers encounter errors in your writing. If you’re depending on yourself, or your writers, or an online tool to find errors for you, those costs might be accumulating more rapidly than you realise.

 

What kinds of errors are you missing in your writing?

I recently had a look at the guidelines Amazon provides to people who want to self-publish a book. They have detailed information about things like cover art, page formatting, fonts, page numbers and how to produce an index or table of contents.

What’s surprisingly hard to find is information about how to avoid or correct errors in the prose. We’re talking books, right? Aren’t the words the whole point?

It took some digging, but I did find advice on writing quality. Amazon identifies three different kinds of “issues” authors encounter. They’re no different than the kinds of problems I see every day in business writing.

  • Critical issues ­– Impact the reading experience to the point the writing is considered incomplete or unusable.
  • Destructive issues – Prevents the reader from understanding what the author intended you to know.
  • Distracting issues – Briefly break the reader’s concentration.

If a book has critical issues, Amazon won’t publish it until the author fixes those problems. We don’t often see critical issues in business writing because people end up losing their jobs when this happens, or when it happens with any regularity.

 

 

Amazon warns authors of too many distracting or destructive issues and says they remove a book from sale until corrections are made. A moderate number of issues can result in a quality warning displayed on the detail page about the book until corrections are made.

Would you buy a book with a quality warning sticker on it? I wouldn’t!

 

Destructive issues in business writing

A destructive issue is quite literally serious business.

Taking the Amazon definition, a destructive issue means your reader doesn’t understand what you’re trying to tell them. In which case, you’re likely doing more harm than good and your writing efforts could be completely wasted – simply as a result of a misplaced word or poorly worded phrase.

If you’re communicating a policy change, explaining the features of a product or service, or describing the latest pricing strategies, then casting confusion and doubt over your brand could cost you business.

If your writing is in the area of employee relations, being less than clear can go a long way to creating an unpleasant environment in your workplace. It might also put you in the path of legal action. You want your employees to know exactly where they stand – whether you intend to motivate them or chastise them, counsel them or reprimand them.

 

Distracting issues in business writing

We’re all battling an era of too much information, too much choice and content overload. It’s a punishing combination for business communicators and marketing people. If our readers are not immediately captivated, and if they don’t stay interested, they’re on to the next thing quicker than a teenager with a TikTok account.

Telling a good story is important, for sure, but getting your punctuation, grammar and spelling right is critical. With the first homophone error or poorly structured sentence, readers begin to understand you haven’t put a lot of effort into your copy. It’s not a big leap to assume the (lack of) care you put into the way you communicate with them is how you do business – good, bad or indifferent.

 

Quality control for writing

If you’ve read this far, it’s a good bet you take the quality of your writing seriously. You’re almost certainly using spellchecker or an online grammar tool. Our 2020 research into the state of writing proves that out. (Stay tuned; we release our report next month.)

But here’s the thing: no matter how careful you are, you won’t always see your own errors.

Trust me on this.

Online tools give you a false sense of security. They have come a long way, but they simply can’t replace the careful consideration a professionally trained proofreader provides.

An online tool can’t tell you when:

  • You’ve used the wrong name of a person, place or thing
  • You’ve been inconsistent in your style as it pertains to notations, hyphen use, punctuation and grammar
  • You have your facts wrong
  • Your hyperlinks don’t work
  • The flow of your writing is uneven
  • The logic of your piece is faulty, especially if you’re making an argument or debating a point
  • You’ve violated your style guide, especially if it’s one created specifically for your brand
  • You have the wrong dates, addresses, professional titles, or event names
  • You’ve used an incorrect version of homophones (e.g., discreet vs discrete)
  • You’ve used the wrong word altogether (e.g., concrete vs cement)
  • You’ve violated common – and not so common – rules of etiquette
  • You’ve included photos, images or illustrations protected by copyright that don’t belong to you
  • You mean one thing but have said another
  • Your prose is repetitive, dull or downright boring.

An online tool is a good first line of defense, but it won’t save you.

After years of working with a proofreader, I’ve come to understand it’s impossible to write something perfectly. I live in hope, for sure, but the other thing I’ve learned is the amount of time it takes to get close to perfection costs way more than sending it to someone who proofreads for a living.

In ten years of working with the same proofreader, I can’t think of a single time when my writing wasn’t improved because of that last little step to ensure quality. The benefits vastly outweigh the cost.

I’m not saying every single thing you write needs to be proofread. I would say, however, everything you write that’s going to be read by your customers or prospects should be proofread.

Anything that’s going to be a matter of public record definitely needs to be proofed before you publish. (And remember, the internet has a long, long memory. Even if you correct an error, it has a way of dishing up your rotten writing to remind you.)

Anything you write that has to do with generating more revenue for your company should be sent to a proofreader as a matter of good, quality business practice.

 

Writing lessons from the school of hard knocks

And here’s something else I know; we all have moments when we think what we’ve written is fine – and it’s not.

Dan and I are still wincing. At a Christmas voucher we sent to our customers last month. It was about three sentences long, we both worked on it, and I sent it out without sending it to my proofreader. You guessed it: it has a big fat error neither of us can unsee. The voucher was for an hour of professional proofreading, so it’s doubly embarrassing.

I have the benefit of distance and time zones, but I spent six hours anticipating what Dan’s face would look like when he found out. (See below.) After he’d reviewed it, he’d told me to send it for proofing and… I didn’t. That’s potentially a destructive issue for our customers — and for our working relationship!

 

 

Here’s my best advice about writing quality

Take it from me, a good proofreader is worth their weight in gold.

I mean a professional proofreader, someone with training and experience. Someone who knows how to find the destructive and distracting issues in your business writing and can save you from yourself.

If you have an important communication to your customers, branded content, a proposal or grant application, make sure to have a professional help you out. You’ll avoid embarrassment (and a well-deserved laser death stare from your business partner).

That way when Mailchimp Freddie offers a high five, you’ll be confident your entire mailing list is going to be impressed, and for the right reasons. And the writing investment you’ve already made in time and talent will be an asset to your business, not a disappointing expense.

Think of it this way, having your writing looked over by a proofreader is a kindness to your readers. It’s a professional courtesy, at the very least, to ensure they aren’t distracted by your writing errors.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s a pure luxury to know someone is safeguarding your professional reputation and dedicated to making your writing better – maybe better than you ever imagined.

 

If you would like to take advantage of my ace proofreader, contact Dan or me at Typeset.

 

We handle American, British and Australian English. The Typeset proofreader is a native English speaker and reads every single word of your document two times, if not three, to ensure it’s as perfect as possible. She’s particularly good at big projects and long documents like grants, tenders, manuscripts and thesis papers. And, she’s quick. For shorter pieces like blog posts, articles, newsletters and case studies, you can usually get it back within 24 hours.

 

If you want to brush up on your writing skills, you can also register your interest for our next writing masterclass.

 

How do you make sure your business writing is as close to perfect as humanly possible?

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