An HBR editor recently told me that the most common reason he rejects submissions is that he cannot understand what their authors are trying to say.
This is an HBR editor. A senior one, too. So we can assume that if he can’t understand an article, probably submitted by an expert who knows something about something (because that’s who submits articles to HBR), it must be pretty badly written.
No one would dispute the idea that good communications are critical to both marketing and sales, as well as to written materials that are served to clients as project deliverables. Yet bad writing abounds. It keeps coming back like the dead mouse your cat drags into the house. Why?
There are two main reasons an article may be bad. The first is that the subject matter is banal – something we know already. Obviously, no amount of good writing can fix that. In fact, good writing lays weak content bare.
The second is that the writer does not know what good writing is. Several myths are commonly held among well-educated people (who are not professional writers) about what makes for good business writing. Some of the most harmful are that business writing should:
- Be dry: This leads people to use nominalizations and write in the passive tense. Here’s a mild example that among people accustomed to reading business writing will not raise an eyebrow: “The desire to form business alliances is about innovation acceleration and market-reach expansion.” While relatively (although not completely) clear, it’s dry, and risks putting a reader to sleep. Why? First of all, there is no subject (“to form” is passive, leaving us to wonder whose desire the writer is speaking of) and there are three nouns that should be verbs (nominalizations). The sentence is easier to understand if we rewrite it to say what it means: “CEOs are keen to cooperate with other firms so that they can innovate faster and expand their markets.” Now we have a subject (CEOs) who wants to do three things (cooperate, innovate, and expand their market), and we have emotion. They are keen to do this. The new version is more interesting and easier to relate to.
- Be erudite: Erudition is often confused with wordiness, which produces longer sentences that are harder to read. George Orwell wrote in 1946, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times in 2013 gave a “flannel-free writing award" to Wan Long, founder of Shuanghui International, a meat processing company. To explain what his company does, he could have written: “We process porcine products with a sales-centric go-to-market strategy.” Fortunately, he did not. Instead, he wrote: "What I do is kill pigs and sell meat." It may not impress, but it’s good, solid English, and the reader’s brain does not fog over trying to understand it.
- Use faddish business jargon: I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my fill of low-hanging fruit, and blue-skying. Jargon gives rise to two problems. The first is that these phrases mean different things to different people, so their meaning is imprecise. Does low-hanging fruit, for instance, refer to cost savings that are easiest to achieve, or that yield the greatest gains? Second, it makes your writing sound like everyone else’s, which is the opposite of what you want when you’re trying to keep your reader awake.
- Have a conclusion: Authors commonly write a final section headed Conclusion, which summarizes what a piece says. Readers are easily bored by being told the same thing twice and, if a piece is well written, a summary at the end is redundant. An article is much more memorable if, for instance, the final paragraph or two give the reader a “call to action.” My colleague, David Rosenbaum ended this article on the perils of writing a business book thus: “So before you start that book think once, think twice, and then try forgetting about it. See how that feels. It may feel very good indeed.” Maybe that is a call to inaction, but it drives the point home succinctly and leaves the reader with an option he may not otherwise have considered.
If you are an expert in your field, it is not likely you’re a great writer too. There are many well-known business authors who hire writers to write their books. If you do prefer to write yourself, it’s a good start to know the traps that you might fall into. And having an editor review your writing might be a good idea, too.
In any case, if your ideas are good, don’t let bad writing get between them and your reader.