Monday 30 November 2015

Check it first

Have you ever had reason to regret committing a few words to print – whether an intra-office email, a snappy text sent too late to a client after a couple of swift ones, or a blog written in righteous anger?
The trouble is it is so easy to do; there are so many channels for half-baked words, pettish recriminations, even workaday emails that we fail to find time to edit. Like me, you might well have framed this kind of thought, “I truly wish I’d put in the word ‘not’ in that email to my best client: ‘Please be clear you do owe us for this extra work.’ ” Well, at the time, it was my best client.

Inevitably, I have to be extra vigilant. I am a professional business writer and I try hard to maintain extremely high standards; my job is not just to protect myself in this respect but to look after my clients. Even if the pressure of a deadline means I don’t have a chance to reread a piece in the cold light of the next morning, I most certainly build in time to do a measured edit. We have to check carefully and – without being anal or editing the baby down the plug hole – we should then check again.

This said, there are horses and there are courses. If I’m writing a matey note to a good friend I can afford to play a bit, muck around, drop my guard. Yet I still want the tone to be right and the message to be intelligible.

If, at the other end of the scale, I'm writing for clients who are trying to sell things or persuade important clients of their own to do things, my antenna must be carefully tuned and the various tools of my trade, intellectually and otherwise, must be sharp. I must be alert to my client’s agenda and voice; also to particulars such as house style, or the legal implications of certain statements. And, of course, however complex the story might be, and whoever the audience, I must be clear and engaging.

I should explain that a friend of mine waved this subject in my face the other day when she asked whether I thought standards of writing had improved or worsened with the advent of new technologies. She meant since emails and social media entered the fray. After a bit of a ponder I offered the opinion that standards might not actually have lowered, in terms of the nature of poor or ineffective writing – people were broadly making the same mistakes – but I’d definitely noted a hike in the quantity of poor writing.

It may be a cop out to say that because everybody is getting verbal dozens of times each day it is inevitable that there is more bad writing on view. But truly, I receive emails and texts, from friends and business colleagues alike, which take a few readings to be understood and where, in particular, it is difficult to gauge tone. Is he cross with me? Have I done something wrong? What meeting is he referring to?

A lot of this, sadly, is because people do not learn how to write effectively and seem to think it is unimportant to do so. A day’s good training could save years of pain.

My contention is that if you write more effectively you’ll think and act more effectively too: you’ll think more about what you have to say and you’ll act upon it. What’s more, you’ll develop the one thing that is so often missing in good and lasting business: trust. This is because you can be trusted to communicate information properly, and valued for the way you share it, research it and put it to work.

I have come to believe that the general muscle in business writing – reflecting business thinking – is considerably slacker than it ought to be. This might be the result of the great ease, the over-felicity, with which information is chucked about. Perhaps ideas and concepts that need a little firming up are passed around the place too soon or are too loosely wrapped to be useful. Perhaps our productivity is decimated by poor or unnecessary communication.

But here I’m wandering slightly towards another pitch.  My point is this: so much more could be done right now to improve the flow and effect of information if people checked what they have written before pressing the ‘go’ button. And, as part of checking, it would be useful if they tried to imagine how the reader is likely to receive it.