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Whose Fault Is Bad Writing?

I laughed at myself today, and the situation reminded me of bad business writing. Here it is:

We have a high school exchange student from the Middle East living with us this semester. Her household chore is to empty the dishwasher and put the dishes away when they are clean. Today I said to myself, “There is the apple corer/slicer in the wrong place again.” Before I got around to wondering if the appetizer forks were in the wrong slat in the silverware drawer, I laughed–hugely–at myself.

I have never told our exchange student that she is putting some things in the wrong place, despite the fact that every day I thank her for putting the dishes away. I have been telling myself that she will find the apple corer/slicer and other utensils in their correct places and then will recognize she needs to do things differently.

Hah! My approach has not been successful at all!

And I should know better because it is the same with writing.

Managers, editors, and others who review documents often do not tell writers what they are doing wrong in their documents. They simply rewrite, revise, correct errors, and bemoan the fact that they have too much work to do. They hope that when writers see the revised version, they will recognize that it’s better.

These managers are as effective as I have been with our exchange student. That is, nothing changes.

But whose fault is it?

I am going to go home in a few minutes. When I get there, I am going to tell our student where the apple corer/slicer, the appetizer forks, and the cheese graters go. She is very intelligent. I am sure she will get things right next time.

If you revise people’s writing, why not follow my lead? Tell those people what they need to do differently to create successful messages. I bet they can get it right too.


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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.

3 comments on “Whose Fault Is Bad Writing?”

  • A former employer once told me that I was “teaching [myself] out of a job”–and sure enough, a year later I was laid off. So I don’t do that anymore. If someone suggests I’m overworked, I just smile and say, “Job security!”

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