Poor writing costs

If you could reduce your business costs by 40%, would you?

Readability expert William H. DuBay believes you can—simply by improving your writing. In Working with Plain Language (PDF), he asserts:

“As much as 40 percent of the total costs of managing all business transactions is caused by poor communications. Today’s companies waste precious resources on email and websites that don’t reach their audience. They often contain large amounts of information that is incomprehensible to large portions of the reading public.”

Forty percent?! That’s amazing! How can that be?

Real money

DuBay’s paper cites examples compiled by Joseph Kimble, a law professor who authored a paper titled, “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.” Kimble’s paper references the findings of 25 studies on the benefits of plain language. For example:

  • FedEx hired a writing consultant to revise their operations manuals. Kimble says, “Readers of the old manuals searched for an average of 5 minutes to find information and found the correct answer only 53% of the time. With the new manuals, the average search time dropped to 3.6 minutes, and the success rate improved to 80%. With some further improvements to the index, the team estimates—very conservatively—that the new manuals would save the company $400,000 in the first year, just in the time that employees spend searching for information. That’s not counting costs that flow from getting wrong answers.”
  • The United States Department of Veterans Affairs hired a writing consultant to revise some of their form letters. They then quantified the results. Kimble writes, “Results for the old letter: 750 sent out and 1,128 calls received. For the new letter: 710 sent out and 192 calls received. The VA project coordinator estimated that the savings on this one letter alone, if adopted at VA offices nationwide, would be more than $40,000 a year. And remember that the VA sends out thousands of different letters.”
  • Kimble uses the example of computer company Allen-Bradley to show that good writing also impacts marketing and sales: “When Allen-Bradley surveyed the marketplace for its programmable computers, it found that the documents that accompany the product were the second most important factor (after workmanship) in influencing customers to buy. With the help of writing consultants, the company developed a training program for its writers, prepared a style manual for its writers and one for its vendors, and began to review its computer manuals. …And as just one benefit from the new plain-English manuals, calls to the company’s phone center fell dramatically from more than 50 a day to only 2 a month.”

Hidden costs

Those are dramatic dollar amounts, but what about the losses that aren’t measured because you aren’t even aware of them? Commenting on Is Proofreading Important?, fellow blogger Angus Lewis wrote, “When I see an ‘except’ where an ‘accept’ should be or hear ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ in a prepositional phrase, I make a judgement about the author or speaker. It’s almost unconscious but it does happen.” And marketing expert Allison Nazarian includes those kinds of unspoken judgements in her list of “big costs” that result from writing errors:

According to Nazarian, most executives don’t stop to think about the many ways in which bad writing costs corporations and the public sector big dollars. She outlines some of them here…:

  • Poor copywriting in annual reports can alienate, lose and/or confuse stockholders.
  • Poorly written text can create a disconnect with customers; replacing customers can be extraordinarily costly.
  • Miscommunication from poor writing can hurt employee morale.
  • Unclear, unprofessional and/or confusing web copy can create a poor overall impression of a company, affecting search engine rankings and help the competition.

Worth the risk

Wow. Alienated stockholders, disconnected customers, low morale, poor impressions, and low search engine rankings, in addition to wasted time and money—is really worth the risk?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to make a small investment in a professional writer? Or at least a proofreader?

Let me know.

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • john November 10, 2011, 7:26 am

    Good morning Mel,

    Great artical. I am gong to read it to my eight grade grammer classes. Me wonder how much of it they will catch. Perhaps at this stage in life only the most sharpest will see what this article means for themselves, they’re grammar classes and there careers. May the Lord bless your day! John

    Reply
    • Melanie Jongsma, Wordsmith November 10, 2011, 7:48 am

      John, I hope you’re going to read your comment to your classes, too—for extra credit! (My first instinct was to correct it, until I realized you were being funny!)

      Reply

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