Writing is a funny thing. We all have to do it quite a bit in school. We learn the basics of grammar and spelling, how to write a five-paragraph essay, how to research a paper and get the citations right, etc. And so, most people who graduate high school (or college) believe they know how to write.
And yet, somehow we all encounter truly horrible writing all the time. This writing has usually been created by highly educated and highly intelligent people. However, these people have not been trained to create clear, engaging and user-friendly content. And that’s OK. After all, most writers couldn’t manage a complex merger or create a new word processing program. The difference is that nobody would ask them to.
So here are three people you should not let write your communications, even though they may think they write just fine. They are important subject matter experts who may create the first draft of content and provide input along the way. But they need writers to make sure that content is put into a form that will enhance your brand. (Disclaimer: in each of these groups, there are some who are awesome writers, but these folks are rare, and an outsider’s perspective is always valuable).
Legal writing is famously bad, encrusted with archaic formalisms, redundant phrases and tortured syntax. Here’s one example I recently came across:
Any person who knowingly and with intent to defraud any insurance company or other person files an application for commercial insurance or a statement of claim for any commercial or personal insurance benefits containing any materially false information, or conceals for the purpose of misleading, information concerning any fact material thereto, and any person who, in connection with such application or claim, knowingly makes or knowingly assists, abets, solicits or conspires with another to make a false report of the theft, destruction, damage or conversion of any motor vehicle to a law enforcement agency, the department of motor vehicles or an insurance company, commits a fraudulent insurance act, which is a crime, and shall also be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed five thousand dollars and the value of the subject motor vehicle or stated claim for each violation.
Allowing this kind of writing out into the wild untouched can seriously damage your brand. Let the lawyer write your disclaimers and contracts, let him review everything to make sure it doesn’t expose your company to risk, but for God’s sake, don’t let him make the ultimate decision on matters of language and style.
Software or otherwise, the engineer is likely to be more of an expert in building products than explaining to others how they work or how to use them. This comes out in user guides or product descriptions that assume a high level of familiarity with the product and don’t give enough attention to the basics or use words that everyone understands. Here’s a good example from the Microsoft website:
PowerPivot gives users the power to create compelling self-service BI solutions, facilitates sharing and collaboration on user-generated BI solutions in a Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 environment, and enables IT organizations to increase operational efficiencies through Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2-based management tools.
When users encounter material written like this, they may tune out and decide not to use the product, or, in the case of a user guide, use it incorrectly.
An interesting point about the example above is that it comes from a very nicely designed and navigable microsite. So apparently Microsoft didn’t let its engineers do its designing, just its writing.
Business culture is rife with jargon and buzzwords that may help someone get the corner office, but won’t help him or her actually communicate with others. Used internally, this language may act as useful shorthand, but when used with customers, it just obscures what you’re trying to say. Here’s an example Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams received from one of his readers:
This change will allow us to better leverage our talent base in an area where developmental roles are under way and strategically focuses us toward the upcoming Business System transition where Systems literacy and accuracy will be essential to maintain and to further improve service levels to our customer base going forward.
What all of these groups have in common is that they tend to write for other people in their in-group instead of the general public. They also are generally not trained in principles of information design and plain language. Pairing your subject-matter experts with a writer who possesses these skills will yield communications that actually help customers and show that you care about their business.