Why This Business Writing Mistake Costs More Than Money

Humans get nervous about writing. It's natural, no doubt — writing is one of the more permanent and distribution-friendly forms of communication, and most of us probably only have to look back a matter of weeks to recall something we communicated in the heat of the moment that we'd rather not have typed.

So it's certainly natural that one of the most-asked questions that I get from people who are curious about writing as a profession is, "What's the biggest mistake that you see non-writers make?" (Emphasis mine.)

I think the asker usually expects a grammatical or structural (or perhaps fact-based) response, so he or she is usually surprised by the answer: "Not writing."

Language and meaning

Ponder for a moment the purpose of business writing: To communicate an abstract idea clearly, in a way that most people familiar with the language can understand.

No, this isn't a philosophical exercise — well, perhaps in a sense, but if you want to understand what not writing costs, then it's helpful to consider what writing can do.

There's a wonderful book that I recommend everyone (even you!) read called Language In Thought And Action that digs into the purpose of language.

One great benefit to human language is the ability to refer to ideas in the abstract. This means that when I am sitting on the pit sectional with my husband in Bailey, Colorado, and I turn to him and say, "Remember the Brazilian restaurant in New York?" he will understand in my seven words what might have taken me minutes' worth of gestures and reference points to express — to different parts of the world, to an establishment where food is sold and to the fact that I hope he will recall a specific experience that we had together with me.

Digest how magical that is with me for a moment before we shatter the illusion.

Although language does have the ability to unite us as a species in a unique way (as far as we know, anyway; I have no idea what whales are singing to each other and won't swear they don't have abstract language down, too), it also divides us in unique ways.

My life experience hasn't been lived out by anybody else — so when I say "Brazilian restaurant," because I spent seven years of my childhood in Brazil, there are dozens of restaurants that I remember and that have coalesced into an ideal version of "Brazilian restaurant" inside my head.

The husband in question has a similar ideal version, as he is not unlearned, but my understanding of soul food and barbeque is to his understanding of Brazilian food. His scope of experience where Brazilian food is concerned simply isn't as wide as mine, and I frankly don't know in which ways his vision of an ideal Brazilian restaurant matches mine, where it falls short and where it surpasses.

There are hundreds of examples like this in our language. A person born and raised in the city will have a much clearer understanding of "subway" and "crowded," while a person born and raised in the country will have a much better understanding of "forest" and "isolated."

What's that have to do with business writing?

Back to the purpose of business writing: To communicate an abstract idea clearly, in a way that most people familiar with the language can understand. Again: This is a magical concept.

When people define themselves or others as "not writers," they are therefore potentially (and effectively) cutting themselves off from an effective method of communication.

"Can't never could," or something of that nature, is an adage for a reason — and if it's not an adage, it should be.

Some might say you need to be invited onto a stage to string some words together in order to call yourself a "speaker," but what are the qualifications for being a "talker"? Or a "word-spewer"? Do we need the descriptors to be a little less threatening in order for more people to feel comfortable using them? Scribblers? (Typers?!)

In my humble opinion, the biggest mistake that "non-writers" make is refusing to consider themselves writers.

There have to be more mistakes that you see that you can share!

Well, fine. I might expand on these in a later effort.

  • Know your audience. Writing an all-staff email will be different than a department meeting memo will be different than a request to meet with your supervisor to share some news.
  • Stick to one idea per sentence.
  • Don't repeat your ideas. Assume the reader is smart enough to get it the first time you share the idea and move on. (See what I did there?)
  • When in doubt, go short. Brevity is almost always appreciated.
  • If you find yourself paragraphs deep in a piece of business writing and are explaining processes or policies — and you're not writing the employee handbook — stop. Schedule a meeting or training session with the recipient. If others might need that information, consider writing out the steps and processes once and making that document available to all who require it.

But first: Start. You're depriving yourself of the opportunity to communicate more effectively and fluently via the written word if you don't write — and that's a priceless skill to hone. You might not always have someone available to do it for you (especially if you're particular about the quality of their writing work), and there's no time like the present to start developing your own voice, taking control of your writing and gaining confidence in how you wield your language.