Imagine a world without text.
We would be left with images, still and moving. And the siren’s call of the spoken word, sang, whispered or yelled.
We would become like the ancient Greeks. We would follow a modern-day Homer who would use TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram to recite epics from memory. As an adoring crowd, we would chat back emojis and love hearts. Or we would vent our hates.
No matter our response, a world without text would be different and it would be worse. We would lose out because we rely on text when we want in good faith to examine complex ideas, make coherent arguments and express the best that lies within us. Text is used by demagogues for their own malign purpose, certainly, but it is not trusted by them. Text is transparent; it’s hard to deny; it leaves behind a record. Text creates a light in the gloom and the dark.
As a professional, the work of writing accurately, succinctly and clearly is difficult.
Consider the writing of the company report or departmental brief that you’re most proud of. In this work, you were constrained by legislation or company policies or codes of conduct: you wrote within defined boundaries. Then, as a writer, analyst and communicator, your job was to examine and solve a complex problem by convincing the reader of the quality of your analysis. To do this, you brought your own analytical tools and professional training to bear. You did not work alone, but had to consider and incorporate the ideas of other people, some of whom contributed important insights. You understood that not all readers are subject-matter experts and so you catered to the needs of diverse audiences. Finally, you had no time: all documents were due yesterday.
To do this work well is the mark of a professional who is on top of their game. And if you do it well then you distinguish yourself as a champion. Two other benefits also follow. First, your work creates value for the nation, for organisations, for citizens, for clients. Secondly, you make your organisation more efficient.
Of the benefits that come from clear writing, the most important is value.
It is a given that it is a good thing for organisations to communicate the information that the nation, citizens and clients require if they are to organise and orchestrate their own affairs. To create value, organisations must communicate effectively. When discussing the public service, a previous Commonwealth Ombudsman suggested that the culture and practice must change. Rather than seeing communication as a side issue to the services they provide, agencies must recognise ‘that good communication is integral to good service delivery.’
Now, not all Australians like to read and not all Australians are capable readers. In 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development investigated the literacy of adults in Australia. Around 44 per cent of adult Australians read at or below the level of a year 10 student.
This doesn’t mean that this group isn’t smart, competent or decent, but it does mean that we have a problem. Low levels of literacy comprise the ability of citizens and non-citizens alike to access government services and understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and consumers.
And it’s why clear English and clear documents are important.
All of us have received letters, documents or forms from large organisations that have made us weep. The act of reading exhausts us and makes us think that our life is too short to be abused in such a way. Why, we asked ourselves, are we being forced to read ten ‘in respects of’, a ‘pursuant to’, three ‘in terms of’ and an ‘It is important to note that…’? Why the passive-aggressive voice? Why paragraphs that are sentences? Why are sentences so damned long?
Weeping, we become dismayed and dismayed we become depressed and once depressed we become passive and in this passive condition we offer ourselves up as a human sacrifice to the state or the corporation. At such a dismal pass, we give ourselves over to their untender mercies and our disenfranchisement is complete.
We no longer stand equal but are made servile and knavish.
So in a free-country, clear writing matters because it serves in part to untie us from binding ignorance and inertia. It evens the balance between the powerful and the powerless and it holds governments to account just a little bit more.
We also have good pragmatic reasons why we should bother to produce clear documents. Clear text and documents save time and money, and reduce organisational risk. Clarity makes organisations more productive and more efficient. Clarity increases profit.
In Australia, we have very little information about productivity savings that result from producing clear documents. The Commonwealth Ombudsman cited a paper sent to the NSW premier to claim the benefits of clear writing as being 50 per cent reduction in drafting time and a 42 per cent reduction in the time spent by managers to edit document. Sometimes, a US Navy study is cited to demonstrate that clear writing saves millions.
For the Australian Public Service we can calculate the benefits of efficiently producing clear documents in two ways.
First, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates public sector cash wages and salaries in 2018–19 as totalling $167 billion.
Let’s say that public sector employees spends at least 20 per cent of their time writing or reviewing documents. The annual cost of this time is $33.4 billion.
If an organisation reduces the time spent researching and drafting and reviewing documents, by 0.1 per cent – 1 in a 1,000 –, then productivity benefits would total $33.4 million each year.
At a time when the public service must do more with less, and when individual officers are working under pressure, what organisation or manager would not bend down to pick up gains that are begging to be exploited?
Another way to calculate benefits is to conduct a formal cost–benefit analysis and focus not on the public service as a whole but a team, say of 10 individuals.
Imagine an APS manager who invests around $25,000 over five years to improve the systems and processes of writing and build the writing skills of her team. Say the team comprises APS and EL officers and to produce documents of the required standard they work for 99 hours instead of 100 – that is, they are one per cent more efficient in their work.
Using a cost–benefit framework, the returns on such an investment are enormous. Using standard assumptions to estimate benefits and costs, such a program would plausibly generate a return on investment of 113 per cent. That is, an investment of $100 generates benefits of $213.
If only the stock or property markets were so lucrative.
The conclusion is that no matter the way the benefits of clear writing are calculated, they are tangible, substantial, but definitely not flashy. We are not talking about pivoting, or about being dashing, agile or nimble. Rather benefits accrue because they are consciously and systematically created by smart professionals and good organisations.
We know 2020 has been a rubbish year, yet not everything is bad and not everything is lost. Time, effort and energy enable us to do the basics thoroughly and capably. And because the work of communicating clearly helps to create a more secure and more prosperous nation, then – really – who would argue for an incoherent status quo?