How to write How we work Writing

How we work: our writing manifesto

If we don’t find something pleasant, at least we’ll find something new.’ – Voltaire

The ability to communicate effectively is a competitive advantage. Yet, in business, good writing is surprisingly rare. We all experience bad writing every day, in all sorts of arenas:

  • Jargon, waffle, hype and verbiage get in the way of real meaning.
  • Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.
  • Websites waffle and waste your bandwidth and readers’ time.
  • Emails don’t get to the point, or make it too brusquely.

In short, business suffers from bad writing. Consequently, deals fail, careers stumble and money is wasted.

The Articulate manifesto

This is our manifesto. We think these truths are self-evident, but the consequences are not. These are the rules of better business writing:

Rule #1 You have no right to your readers’ time

They are already as busy as you are. That’s not all. The market for information is becoming more and more competitive. There are more newsfeeds, more websites, more emails, more magazines and more TV series than there five or ten years ago. In fact, here’s a guide to staying sane when the world of information overwhelms you.

As a result, readers spend nearly all their time doing something other than reading your content. You must earn their trust, interest and time.

Rule #2 Readability is vital

To earn your readers’ trust and get their attention, your writing needs to be clear, simple and direct. Good spelling, punctuation and grammar are a start. Saying what you mean in the fewest, shortest words possible also helps. Using the right format, stories, examples, appropriate metaphors and the right document structure helps too.

Rule #3 Be a reporter

In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities,’ said Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen Buddhist priest, but ‘in the expert's mind there are few.’

We are all experts in our own world and the only way to get past that is to become professional beginners. Editors talk about ‘self-sourcing’, which is where a journalist uses their own experience or ideas as the source for an article. Bad journalists self-source. Good journalists are good reporters. They talk to people. They ask questions. It’s the same for writers.

Rule #4 See the world from your readers’ perspective

man with VR headset

First, be relevant. Too much writing is about the writer, their company and their problems. For example, most marketing campaigns are about what the company wants to sell, not what the audience wants to buy.

Second, unless you can see the world through your readers’ eyes, you aren’t going to understand the problems they want to solve, the objections they might raise and the things that are going to excite them.

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Rule #5 Writing happens

Those blank pages need to be filled. All those web pages need copy. Because most people can write, they think that writing is a commodity. Something that can be left until later. Something that is a low priority. By analogy, most people can kick a football, but not everyone is David Beckham.

Any time you see ‘lorem ipsum’ placeholder copy, it’s a sign that the person in charge doesn’t think writing is important enough. Yet somehow those pages get filled. Writing happens and you always pay for it whether you do it yourself or you get an agency to do it.

However, you can choose where and how you spend your money. You can hire someone in-house to write better copy or, go to an agency and delegate to professional writers. You can improve your own writing skills. You can change the way you manage writing.

This all matters because bad writing is expensive

The default option – in most cases – is bad writing. This has a real business cost. Get it wrong and you confuse readers, bore them, lose their trusts and waste the money you spent getting them to read your stuff in the first place.

In 1983, Coleco lost £35 million in just a few months when customers returned thousands of new Coleco Adam home computers because they couldn’t understand the manual.

You’ve probably gone to a website to sample a ‘free’ online trial, only to be put off by a daunting click-through contract or some weaselly small print. Buying tickets for events online is a minefield of small print and time-pressure, which can lead to you buying something you don’t want by mistake. Bad writing can leave people feeling cheated and confused.

But, mostly, bad writing is a leaky bucket. Money just drips out in lost opportunities. We think people know this intuitively. When we talk to them, most people admit that they’re not happy with their website or that they’d like more compelling product literature or case studies.

This is how we put bread on the table at Articulate Marketing, so we know there is demand out there.

The consequences of bad writing for a business

  • First, you lose money you spent delivering the words to the reader. Expensive website? Waste of money. 50,000 brochures? Recycling fodder.
  • Second, you lost the hoped-for result. Have you ever read a brochure that bored or confused you? Did you buy the product afterwards?

To understand the cost of bad writing, go back to why you’re writing something in the first place. In business, we’re not really bothered about artistic expression or entertainment. What we want is to persuade and inform people.

Writing fails if the reader doesn’t understand it, doesn’t believe it or doesn’t remember it. If the writing doesn’t make the right impact, then the reader will not act. They won’t buy what you’re offering.

Consequently, comprehension, credibility and retention are the requirements of business writing.

It is possible to track the impact of clear product descriptions on sales, well-written manuals on support calls and snappy website copy on traffic. On the other hand, it is very difficult to add up the costs that come from poor marketing collateral, obscure press releases or badly-worded letters.

To help calculate the cost of bad writing, imagine you had a tool that could tell you how successful a piece of writing was at meeting these requirements. The opposite of a bullshit detector. (A good shit detector, perhaps?) It could tell you how readable it was. Think of readability as the ‘clickthrough’ rate for writing.

We follow our own rules

It’s taken us time to develop and refine our manifesto. And yeah, we’re more than a little proud of it. What’s more, we’ve used it to write articles, whitepapers, eBooks and more that have delivered meaningful growth for clients.

Want to learn more about how to create content so you can grow your business? Download our free guide to inbound marketing now. Go on, step up your standards.

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Originally written by Matthew Stibbe. Rewritten with new content in 2019.

Simon Collins

Marketing copywriter. Loves old cities and new music.