How to Improve Your Employees' Business Writing Skills
How to improve business writing skills is a vexing issue for many businesses. Employees' ability to write clearly and convert complex information into summarized, well-written business documents offers a huge competitive advantage.
Although improving business writing skills seems like an easy thing to do, it really isn’t. Many senior executives and leaders struggle with large chunks of data and disparate information. They lack the ability to extract relevant information from mere noise and convert it into a meaningful, result-oriented message. Forward-thinking managers will proactively develop their employees’ writing skills to improve overall productivity. This article highlights the value of excellent business writing, includes a framework to assess writing quality, and offers a guide on improving employee business writing through practical training and tools.
The High Costs of Low-Quality Business Writing
Employees spend too much time planning, writing, and proofreading business documents. Final documents have too many errors. Sentences lack a logical transition of ideas. The end result is a poorly written document that reflects poorly on business and impairs employee productivity. The additional time required for writing and revision, as well as the potential for miscommunication errors, has a significant price.
Let's consider the cost implications for a typical work unit of 30 employees earning $60,000 per year, who write for 3 hours each day (roughly 40% of a 40-hour workweek).
Cost calculations of writing:
Employees' total annual salary expenses: $1,800,000
Percentage of employee time spent writing: 37.5%
Annual employees' writing costs: $675,000
Total annual employee writing hours: 21,600
Studies we have conducted for the past 15 years indicate a 30% reduction in writing time after our professional business writing training.
What are the savings implications for these 30 employees, if they follow an efficient business writing process?
Annual company savings: $168,750
Annual savings per employee: $5,625
Estimated writing hours saved annually: 6,480
Weekly writing savings: $3,515.63
If you’d like to calculate your potential savings, check out of our free ROI Calculator tool.
The Value of a Strong Business Writing Program
Building strong business writing capacity in your team has significant benefits beyond the budgetary benefits described above. Improved writing leads to improved communications. Jeff Bezos is a business writing evangelist, requiring his now-famous executive memos in lieu of Powerpoint presentations because the writing process “forces better thought and better understanding.” Poor writing, whether in a client proposal or an internal email, can lead to misunderstandings or incorrect interpretation of information. Improved business writing can avoid problematic errors, promote a healthier corporate culture, and ensure your business leaves a positive impression.
An employee training program can also be a draw for talent. Modern employees are seeking companies that will support their professional development. A business writing development program has a strong appeal due to the nearly universal need for this craft.
How to Improve Business Writing Skills Step One: Assess your Team’s Current Level
Before deciding on the approach to training, the first step is to assess your employees’ business writing skills accurately. This evaluation involves separating the substance or content of employee-written business documents from the syntax or language. These two elements of business writing must be analyzed separately.
Substance refers to the content and organization of ideas in the business document. It is the fundamental aspect that distinguishes a well-written report from a poor one. It refers to your employees’ ability to skim through volumes of data and prepare a summarized report with only relevant information.
There are four useful indicators for measuring the substance of writing:
It should match audience awareness.
It should be customized, keeping in mind the readers and the target audience.
It should be logically categorized in appropriate headings, subheadings, and bullet points.
It should be logically sequenced with a proper flow of ideas and transition of thoughts.
Review a variety of writing samples for different target audiences, which could range from client emails to technical reports. Assess each sample for the four indicators in this framework. Writing can often appear strong or read well but falls short of meeting these qualities. Effective text consistently hits all four indicators. Writing that needs improvement consistently misses one or more of the indicators.
Syntax refers to the language of the document. It includes grammatical errors, active and passive tenses used, tone, and sentence structure. Even employees with strong substantive abilities can make syntax errors. Unlike substance, however, syntax is rather easy to evaluate and syntax errors are easy to fix.
Syntax can be loosely measured with software writing tools:
- Microsoft’s Readability Index (Flesch Reading Ease Score & Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, built into Word and Outlook)
- Microsoft Grammar Check (Built into Word and Outlook)
- Grammarly (Grammar-checking software)
Analyze syntax by running writing samples through one or more of these tools. The generated results will offer insight into employee writing levels and the types of common syntax errors.
How to Improve Business Writing Skill Step Two: Tailor Your Training
Once you have assessed your employees’ writing skills, you will have accurate measurements about the business writing skills of your employees and organization. The training program should be tailored to the needs found in your employee skills assessment. Improving issues related to writing substance requires a training program, whereas syntax issues can be solved through quality control and consistent use of writing tools.
Fixing Substance Problems: Build a Training Program
Improving the substance of employee’s writing is highly beneficial but also requires a more substantial training program. This training program can include elements from internal and external experts based on your company’s existing capacities and needs. All programs should have two components: an educational portion and a mentorship portion. There are three approaches to achieve this:
Train your employees and mentor them on your own.
Hire a business writing expert to train and mentor.
Hire a business writing expert to train employees, and establish an internal mentoring program.
The benefits of a strong program are enhanced when the writing training is built for the long-term. For companies that are new to these trainings, starting with a one-off program can be an important first step to achieve the benefits while investigating what an expanded program may entail.
Internal Training and Mentoring
An internal program builds on the writing and teaching capacities of your leadership team and staff to train and mentor your employees. The design, implementation, and follow-up are done in-house. Training your employees on your own is a lot of work and requires business writing experts on staff.
Caution: Just because an employee is a strong writer doesn't mean he or she will be a strong writing trainer. Writing training requires the ability to deconstruct a document and break down the rhetoric and syntax. If you are going to train internally, hire business writing experts with experience teaching business writing. You want teaching experience also, not just writing experience.
Appoint these employees as trainers and mentors for the rest of the organization. This should not be a secondary job responsibility.
Hire an Expert Vendor for Training and Mentoring
For companies that do not have the internal capacities or inclination to build and manage a business writing program, a specialized education company can provide a turn-key, holistic solution. This approach requires an investment of money, but you will be assured of results.
Here are a few factors you need to consider when hiring an expert vendor:
- The credentials of the training organization are very important. Who developed or will lead the training?
- Credentials are very important! I saw a "business writing expert" promoting herself recently with the credentials of "Email Doctor." However, she had no writing or teaching credentials. She described her background as "Ten years accounting experience. I was the go-to writer in my office. I'm now a corporate-escapee living a happy freelance life helping people write more clearly." Credentials and relevant experience matter.
- The structure of the training program
- The ability to customize the training
- Willingness to provide ongoing support materials
- Flexible delivery logistics
These considerations will ensure that you source a program that meets your employees’ training needs and your desired scope and style of training.
Hire an Expert Vendor and Establish and Internal Mentoring Program
This hybrid program relies on external expertise to bring your employees’ written communication level to a new standard and then builds on the training through internal mentorship and guidance. Essentially, managers provide on-going mentorship by communicating that strong business writing matters by:
Modeling strong business writing. Employees always model their bosses, so be sure managers are modeling the business writing that communicates the company values and skills.
"What counts is what's counted." Be sure strong business writing skills are included in performance evaluations.
Establish an informal document review meeting twice a year. As a team, view sample emails and reports and other key documents written by employees. Critique and improve these - being certain the tenor is support rather than punitive.
Fixing Syntax Problems: Quality Control and Writing Tools
Syntax issues are simpler to resolve than substance ones. These rules are standardized and can be identified and remedied through review processes and software.
Many syntax errors can be caught through a formalized review process. Larger documents are typically revised by more than one employee prior to being sent to an external party. This examination can be systematized to ensure that not only the content is verified, but also the syntax. Document checklists or procedures can be established to ensure these controls are in place. In addition, a company writing style guide can ensure consistency in syntax and tone.
A formal review process is impractical for brief written communications, such as email. The implementation of software writing tools can ensure that all employee writing is reviewed without an onerous process. Verify that employees understand how to turn on and use tools like Microsoft Grammar Check and Readability Index. For more advanced guidance, freemium subscription services such as Grammarly, provide syntax corrections and explanations to enhance employee education.
Add Value to Your Company, Your Employees, and Your Clients
Excellent business writing is vital in the modern work environment. Improving your employees’ writing skills requires a thoughtful assessment and a targeted training program. This investment in your employees will produce a significant ROI. Improved internal communication, better customer service, and employee retention are all high-value benefits of a business writing improvement program.
To learn more about how to improve business writing skills for your employees, download our guide, Four Steps to Improve Your Team’s Business Writing Skills.
About the author
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.