Good writing adds value: here’s proof

We’ve all heard it. We all believe it in our hearts. Good writing adds value.

But maybe you still don’t have a ready answer when someone says Prove it!

this-weeks-challenge-question-marcia-riefer-johnstonHere’s something for you: Marcia Riefer Johnston’s weekly Tighten This! game. (If you’re not already playing , you should be. In fact, why don’t you go over there right now, and then come back. I’ll wait.)

Each week Marcia supplies a challenge sentence that’s bloated with hot air and/or gobbledygook. The sentences are real, coming from corporate or governmental communications. Many of them are contributed by the game’s participants; Marcia finds the rest herself.

Players are asked to “tighten” the challenge sentence into something less wordy and more lucid. After the judges — Marcia, her husband Ray Johnston, and me — select a winner, Marcia compares the winning entry with the original sentence and calculates a cost savings based on translating the content into 25 languages at 25 cents a word, times 10,000 sentences (about the length of a Harry Potter novel, or a set of hardware setup guides).

In half a year, using Marcia’s formula, the Tighten This! writers have cut bloat to the tune of $29,812,500.

Nearly $30 million in savings, just by turning bad writing into good. That’s value!

Last week’s game brought one of the most dramatic examples of adding value. The winning entry trimmed a sentence from 51 words to 6:

Before:
The line manager or a mentor should be allocated to each new employee to act as a guide and counsellor during the induction process so that new members of staff learn about the company and are given the necessary support and opportunity to put their learning into practice in the workplace.

After:
Assign each new employee a mentor.

That’s fine, you might be saying. But my stuff isn’t translated into 25 languages. In fact, it’s not translated at all.

That’s OK. There are other ways in which good writing adds value.

Sarah O’Keefe’s and Alan Pringle’s Content Strategy 101 contains several sample case studies that demonstrate how good content can support both sides of a business case — cost savings and revenue enhancement — through things like reduced support calls to increased sales. I encourage you to buy the book: you’ll find it to be good value for your money.

So, yes, you can prove that good writing adds value. And adding value is what technical communication is all about.

Cam you share other case studies — especially ones in which you were personally involved — to show that good writing adds value?

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7 thoughts on “Good writing adds value: here’s proof

  1. Mark Baker

    Sorry. Larry, but that is not an example of tightening. Tightening means saying the same thing in fewer words. The example says a good deal less in fewer words.

    * The original defined what mentoring means in this context. The revision assumes you know what mentoring means in this context.

    * The original explains the goals of mentoring (and thus a success metric). The revision does not.

    * The original specified the time frame for mentoring. The revision does not.

    * The original specifies an alternative. The revision does not.

    As long as you are willing to omit information, you can shorten any piece of writing. All of moral philosophy can be reduced, but this process, to “Be good.” But at that point people ask how to be good, and you have to start putting it all back in.

    If you count the value of communication only in the cost per word, you are neglecting the reason you communicate in the first place. We communicate to change behavior, and the economic benefit of content lies in whether behavior is successfully changed. If you omit information without measuring the effect on the behavioral change you are seeking, it is equivalent to reducing the cost of car maintenance by taking bits off your engine.

    Many communications do contain unnecessary information, but the task of determining which information is necessary and which is unnecessary is not “tightening” and cannot be judged in abstract. It has to be judged in context by its effect on behavior.

    Personally, I’d bet you would have to provide a good deal more information to get a successful mentorship program off the ground.

    Reply
    1. MarciaRieferJohnston (@MarciaRJohnston)

      Mark,

      Good points, all. You’re right about context: no one can edit in the real world without context. Tighten This! is an impossible game for all the reasons you give and more. There are lots of things wrong with this game if you look at is as a typical editing exercise. I invite people to play anyway. (Details on this page http://writing.rocks/how-to-play-tighten-this/ under the heading “This Game Is Impossible—Play Anyway.”) Regulars tell me that the game prompts them to think more carefully about their day-to-day writing, and they enjoy the challenge. That’s an outcome I can live with. Besides, I can’t wait to see what Larry has to say from week to week.

      Reply
      1. Mark Baker

        Marcia,

        I don’t know that it is impossible. In the notes on the page you link to, you say “without losing meaning”. The rewrite above does lose meaning, so it fails that test. But that does not mean there could not be a rewrite that is more succinct without losing information. I actually think it would be really valuable to encourage people to look for ways of being more succinct without losing information.

        Lengthy and verbose writing turns people off. Writing that lacks sufficient information fails to inform them. Writers walk a fine line between these two extremes, so learning to be succinct is valuable (and for rhetorical reasons, not because of reduced translation costs).

        At the same time, the biggest foe of successful communication is the curse of knowledge, the extreme difficulty of imagining how people could not know the stuff we know. Because of the curse of knowledge it is very easy to “tighten” writing by removing information without any sense that anything has been lost. Writers should be encouraged not to fall into this trap.

        Determining what information is necessary or unnecessary and writing succinctly are both important skills for writers, but the latter must not be allowed to compromise the former. An exercise in succinctness that strictly forbid removing information would be both possible and genuinely useful. An exercise that mixes up the two, however, is problematic in a number of ways.

    2. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. What you say is true, of course, and one of the intriguing aspects of the Tighten This! game is the tension between trimming to improve clarity and trimming so much that meaning is lost. Many times I’ve cautioned our readers against overdoing it.

      In this example, which I admit I chose in part because it might provoke a reaction, some of the content is tautological. A mentor can be a manager or a mentor. The explanation of what the company means by mentor offers no distinction from the dictionary definition, so I think the explanation can safely be edited out. Yes, of course, I’m making an assumption that the reader will share the same “story” as the writer, the same notion of what mentor means. I think that’s a safe assumption. You may disagree. That’s OK.

      Finally, as you say, much more information will be needed before a successful mentoring program can be launched. One of the best things about Tighten This! is how it exposes those sentences that seem to be full of meaning but, when examined more closely, turn out to be lacking in it. Before, after slogging through those 51 words, the reader might not have realized that more information would be needed. After, it’s crystal clear.

      Reply

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