October 17, 2017

The cost of bad writing

It’s a $37 million-a-year problem at one organization

Bad writing causes 40% of the cost of managing business transactions, writes William H. DuBay, a readability expert at Impact Information, in Working with Plain Language (PDF).

Cost of bad writing

Eye on the bottom line How much does bad writing cost your organization? Image by frankieleon

He cites:

  • Newsletters that reach only a fraction of the targeted audience
  • Press releases that never make the news
  • Websites that fail to inform and motivate readers to act
  • Forms and applications that are badly filled in or left incomplete
  • Memos and business letters that require endless clarification
  • Legal notices and procedures that no one can read

How much is bad writing costing your organization?

Benefits of readable copy

“Try to imagine the costs of poor writing … in business, government, and law,” writes Joseph Kimble, chair of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s research and writing department. “The costs are almost beyond imagining, and certainly beyond calculating.”

In his plain language book, “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,” Kimble goes beyond trying to imagine those costs. He shares more than 25 case studies of organizations that have saved time and money and otherwise improved business practices by making their copy easier to read. Among them:

  • Save money. FedEx saved $400,000 per year by rewriting operations manuals to make it 80% less time consuming for users to find the information they were looking for. That doesn’t count the costs of mistakes when users couldn’t find the right answers.
  • Save time. When the FCC rewrote CB regulations in plain language in 1977, the agency was able to reassign five full-time staff members. Before the rewrites, all five were needed to answer questions about the regulations from the public.
  • Move people to act. When the U.S. Army rewrote a memo to 129 officers, suggesting that they perform a specific task, those who got the more readable memo were twice as likely to act on the day they received it.
  • Improve service. After technical writers at General Electric rewrote software manuals, customer calls asking questions about the software dropped by 125 calls per customer. The company estimates that is saves up to $375,000 a year for each business customer with the revised manual.
  • Increase reading speed. The U.S. Navy learned that it could save $27 million to $37 million a year in officer time by rewriting its business memos. Officers were able to read the revised memos in 17% to 27% less time.

Writing and the bottom line

Readable copy, Kimble writes:

  • Streamlines procedures and paperwork, makes it easier to train staff, and increases staff productivity and morale.
  • Reduces confusion, complaints, and claims, and it improves customer satisfaction.
  • Increases sales and raises the company’s standing in the marketplace.

How can you measure and report the cost of bad writing at your organization? How can you sell the benefits of readable copy?

  • Write for Readability

    If you write at the 11th grade level, 97% or more of U.S. adults won’t be able to understand your copy, according to the Department of Education’s latest adult literacy test.

    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New YorkAt Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day concise-writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New York — you’ll dive into the results of this massive worldwide literacy study to get a reality check on who’s really getting your messages and at what level they read.

    And you’ll find out how to write easy-to-read messages that get more people to read your piece, read more of it, read it faster, understand it better and remember it longer. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Save up to 40% of the cost of business communications by making them easier to read. (FedEx, for instance, saved $400,000 a year by rewriting operations manuals.)
    • Increase reading by up to 75% by making one simple change to your copy.
    • Use a cool tool (it’s free!) to measurably improve readability.
    • Analyze your copy for 34 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Measure, monitor, manage and report readability — your No. 1 tool for making your messages more effective.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New York

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Cut Through the Clutter workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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