Creating and nurturing a clear writing culture

These days everyone works as a writer. No matter their background or whether they work as a tinker, a tailor, a soldier or spy. Everyone writes as part of their job—be it emails, reports, business cases, decision briefs or proposals for one thing or another.

Some are naturally good at it. They—these gifted few—have an easy command of words and ideas, and it causes the rest of us to grind our teeth, weep a little and bemoan the fact that words and paper were ever invented.

Once our sobbing stops, some of us are packed off to writing courses, designed to turn us into writing machines—experts who produce crisp, clear prose.

The reasons why organisations want to develop the writing skills of staff are obvious enough. The task of writing consumes individuals and managers. If writing is generally not of a high standard and if writing staff are not managed carefully, the sheer volume of paper will slowly grind an organisation to a halt.

However, sending a few staff on a writing course will not change a culture that generates mountains of excessive and ineffectual paper; nor will it produce better documents, decisions or programs. If training is to increase skills and improve the quality of documents, then managers and supervisors, at all levels, have to endorse a better way of doing things.

The workplace has to become a place where good practice and clear documents flourish.

The road to clear documents has three steps. The first is to define who does what.

Each individual in a hierarchy of managers, supervisors and writers has to understand their unique role—what they do—their responsibility—and how they perform in their role.

As a document moves up through this writing chain, the comments should become increasingly fine. Managers are supervisors, not editors or proofreaders. Their role is to define tasks, expectations and standards, and provide the detail, nuance and the strategic context that make a document perfect. This job is mainly completed before the task of writing starts.

Certainly, they should not be writing and correcting and rewriting again. If managers are regularly rewriting documents then the system is failing and it needs to be fixed.

The second step is to define consistent and high standards. Universal standards of formatting, grammar and word use create clarity. By making these standards explicit, managers, supervisors and writers are freed to focus on important content. The corollary is that personal whim must not define a professional standard: just because I prefer things to be said in a particular way does not mean that something should be said in this way.

Documents must be clear and follow defined and high standards. This rule trumps any individual’s quirky preference.

The third step is to implement a writing reign of terror. Managers and individual writers alike must contain themselves to their defined roles. Responsibilities must be fully discharged, which means standards must, without exception, be met. All staff must meet these high standards. No excuses.

Good writing is an investment in clearer documents and better policy. It’s an investment in efficiency and productivity and it’s an investment in doing important work better.

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