Why is Business Writing so Bad?

by Jason Ocker

Last week on the Maark Insights blog, we examined the challenges of business writing, from the complexity of its subject matter to the limitations of its vocabularies to the suspicions of its audience—all hurdles that, once mapped, can be navigated by the dedicated. But business writing will always be difficult (until the robots start doing it, I guess), and that’s a big reason why there’s so much bad business writing out there. Epidemics of it. Like it’s an inseparable part of the form. Which is strange and dangerous because the written word is an organization’s most consistent and constant touchpoint with its customer.

But there’s more to the fetid garbage heaps of bad business writing than merely that it’s difficult. Oftentimes, it’s the fault of the business—and the writer—themselves.

Lack of Priority within the Business

Too often, the business itself doesn’t prioritize writing. It’s a minor role, instead of a strategic one. Take the term, “copywriter,” which had a pretty twisty road in the English language until it eventually landed in modern culture as an advertising word: the copywriter wrote the copy on an ad.

These days, business writers do much more than ad copy, and “copywriter” seems like a diminution of role. Note that every type of writing has a copy editor (novels, journalism, etc.), but those fields don’t employ copywriters. Those fields employ writers (who also get names denoted by the form in which they write: Novelist, journalist, playwright, screenwriter). And you can kind of see this marginalization with the role writers play in the business. They’re often sidelined in the corner with their secondhand assignments (“This thing needs words, make words”) instead of at the table where strategy is decided and motivating the work themselves.

As more companies shift to content marketing, the role of the business writer has become more elevated, but even then, the writer is often looked at as a mere scribe to the more holy subject matter experts who can’t or don’t have the time to write, instead of the original source of the content that the writer should be.

After all, if the written word is an organization’s most constant touchpoint with the customer, then the writer has the most constant relationship with the customer.

Lack of Story or Strategy

The written word doesn’t work well without purpose (and not one like, “We just need a new brochure for the sales team.”). There are fundamental things that must happen before a writer even hits the first key: The company or the campaign or whatever must have both a strategy and a story.

The strategy is how all the pieces of collateral that the writer is composing work together and to what goal and audience. The story is your unique message to your audience. Neither the story nor the strategy can be vague nor general nor undifferentiated. If they are, you’ll get vague and general and undifferentiated writing. The story and the strategy need to be defined, detailed, documented (I’ve written before for another publication on the four elements you need before you can claim to have a story).

Without a story or strategy, you get check-the-box content without a real purpose or point of view. And writing without a point of view is all the things we hate about bad business writing.

Lack of Ownership

Writers in general, from their first essay in college, are used to having bylines. “I made this,” it says under the title of the piece. I am responsible for it, I stand behind it, these words are mine. That doesn’t mean others haven’t helped them with it—editors, copy editors, colleagues, subject matter experts—but it’s the person in the byline’s sword to fight with or die on.

Your corporate brochure, the main content on your website, none of that has a byline. And that’s a place to hide. And anytime there’s a place to hide, someone will take it. And the way to hid with text is to obsess about approvals. If you can get sign off from enough stakeholders, if everyone in the chain is “okay” with the text (and who wants “okay” writing?), then that can go live and everybody can sort of wash their hands of it.

So byline your homepage and brochures. Just kidding. But someone needs to own that content in a real way. It needs to be theirs just as much as anything they would put a byline one. Again, it doesn’t mean it can’t be shown to stakeholders for feedback. Even the solo novelist listens to advisors and editors, but maybe the final decision should be more with the writer If that’s the answer, that writer must be a priority member of the team (see #1). You basically need authors more than writers.

Elevate the Writer Role

Elevate the role of the writer in a business, and you elevate the writing. Elevate the writing, and you elevate the business. But to do that, the business needs to prioritize writing. The words. The main communication with customers. You need to consider this aspect of the business with as much thought and planning as your technology stack (a massive investment that will, in the end, deliver words). The organization also needs to have a strategy and a story in place already before a writer is ever given the greenlight. Finally, ownership of the writing must be clearly conferred and protected to make sure the best work and your best words are representing your company to your customers.

Photo adapted from Levi Clancy on Unsplash

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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