Experts in the dismal science of economics can argue about the timing, but the rest of us know one thing: This economy is on the mend. Still, I’m not sure that companies are falling all over themselves to hire at a rate that will get us back to pre-Great Recession levels. It seems that what I said in this blog more than four years ago still holds true: Many businesses emerging from the severe downturn have gotten leaner in order to survive.
How can they make that happen? There are, of course, economies in shop floor scheduling, parts ordering, distribution, and all the other factors that go into being competitive. But for my part, as a communications trainer, there’s another way to view productivity, particularly in white-collar office work. It’s about writing so efficiently that — internal or external — it goes out with a minimum of fuss (editing). Here are three crucial writing guidelines:
• Know — and write for — your audience.
• View writing as a chance to expand and deepen your thinking.
• Edit and revise yourself rigorously because a lackadaisical or rushed attitude toward self-review before you put a stamp on it or hit the “send” button can leave a harmful impression of you and your firm or agency.
Fine, you might say, but what’s that got to do with productivity? A lot, if you view that triad as a unified whole aimed at clear and concise business communications. If you don’t take the time to know your readers, you risk at least irritating them and, at worst, confusing them. When I run business writing seminars for federal employees, the more candid among them admit that when they communicate with the public, they’re motivated largely by the need to cover their own behinds.
That is, they’re thinking first about their bosses, who in turn have their own superiors — not to mention agency lawyers who want everyone to write defensively. Somewhere in that mix, the citizen readers’ needs are often lost. And when the message isn’t clear, the citizen — a small business trying to live within confusing regs, perhaps — time fritters away. The business owner, faced with time-sensitive marketplace pressures, takes action based on misreading the directive and then has to devote staff time and money — eroding productivity — to getting things right when the government finally says what it actually means.
That feeds right into the “writing is thinking” mandate that, if taken seriously at the early stages of the writing process, can vitalize business communications in a productive and competitive company. The process takes writers through four overlapping stages — exploratory, drafts, edit/revise, and final publication. The first stage is one that many skip because writing intimidates us and we want to get started, fill the legal pad or computer screen, and put it behind us.
By far the better course is to jot down everything that occurs to you on the subject in a sort of interior dialogue, then cross out what you don’t need as you narrow things down to a manageable topic with subtopics that support the main point. What do you want the reader or readers to think, say, or do? From there, the writing organizes itself because you’ve done a thorough job of thinking beforehand.
When it works — and it will — readers come away from the experience informed, persuaded, queried, or simply entertained in something very close to the way you intended. Good business writing doesn’t stand up and call attention to itself with big words and long sentences; it does seek clarity and understanding for the busy reader. Finally — there’s editing and revising. As Ernest Hemingway, one of the great prose stylists of the last century, said, “Everyone needs an editor.” Whenever possible, find someone else to look it over, but ultimately, read it yourself with a critical eye for spelling, grammar, length, and internal consistencies.