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When Good Writing Goes Bad

In my business writing classes, I see a lot of very good work: beautifully written sentences, attractive formats, positive language, well-organized information, flawless punctuation.

Nevertheless, when we sit together in small groups to discuss participants’ drafts, the reaction of readers isn’t always what writers had anticipated, when they hear comments like these: 

What’s your goal? An interview? A phone call?

I’m not sure what you want your readers to do.

It flows well. What does it mean?

I just can’t get through it. Is there a main point somewhere?

Writers appreciate such feedback, especially if they haven’t yet sent out the document. They often respond, "Great point! What was I thinking?"

What were they thinking? How does good writing go bad?

Good writing goes bad when we aren’t certain of the purpose of our message. It goes bad when we haven’t thought about what we want our readers to do and think in response.

And it goes bad when we know our purpose and what we want from our readers, but we don’t stay on track. It’s as if we know our destination, but we casually slip onto a side road that leads in another direction.

Although I write daily, teach business writing, and love to do both, I have been struggling with a marketing piece for days. Why? Because I have been trying to force one document–just two sides of a sheet of paper–to do 16 different things. In the last couple of hours, I finally acknowledged how I had gotten off track, and I refocused the message on just two important topics. Now it’s nearly finished and very good.

If you are struggling with a cover letter, proposal, report, recommendation, solitication, web page, or another piece of writing that seems to have gone astray, ask yourself:

  • Which one or two things do I want this document to do?
  • Which one or two things do I want my reader to do or think in response?

When you have the answers, examine them. Are your goals realistic?

If you are writing a cover letter, for example, is it reasonable to expect the reader to hire you in response? No. If that were your goal, the letter and resume would be 20 pages long. A realistic goal is that the reader will phone you for an interview.

If you are writing a recommendation, is it reasonable to expect the reader to respond by implementing your recommendation? No. If that were the goal, you would have to include all the detailed steps of the implementation. A realistic goal is that the reader will agree to move forward with your ideas.

Don’t let your good writing go bad. Keep it on the path to your destination by asking yourself the right questions and staying focused on realistic answers.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.