When Bad Writing Happens to Good People

Small business bad writing

Feeling persuaded, entertained, informed, or even outraged or you are bored silly and/or confused.


A couple of weeks ago, over lunch with a friend, I spent fifteen minutes critiquing the menu of a nearby restaurant.

The friend, a book author, and I were not discussing the culinary offerings, however. Instead, we were trying to see how many typos we could find in the one-page menu.  “Spring beats” is the one I fixated on because the error was whimsical and somewhat charming.

Now, you might think only insanely nerdy people who work in the publishing business would be that interested in a couple of typos.  It’s quite possible that many patrons of this fine establishment don’t even realize that they are technically ordering a rhythmic element rather than a root vegetable, and wouldn’t think twice about it if they did.

That said, the “beats” were a distraction that kept us from taking in the ambiance, the friendly service, and the quality of the appetizers for quite a while.

This is a longwinded way of introducing the idea that good, clean, polished writing can elevate your communications, both personal and professional, and enhance your business dealings.  A message that is presented in crisp, lucid, intelligent prose is much more likely to be ingested and digested than a sloppy, ungrammatical, and meandering one.

You are either sucked in by what you are reading—feeling persuaded, entertained, informed, or even outraged by what’s in front of you—or you are bored silly and/or confused within the first two sentences.

The former is an empowering experience.  The latter is a drag.

We’ve all been victimized by endless memos full of ungrammatical, loopy sentences that tell us nothing new or interesting.  We’ve all had messages—whether casual e-mails from friends or essential missives from colleagues—that were impossible to decipher or whose purpose was undercut by a criminal lack of proofreading and self-editing.

In my line of work, getting your foot in the door (securing an agent to sell your book to publishers) depends tremendously on good writing.

You might be thinking, “Well, duh, that’s obvious.”  But, I’m not talking about literary, lyrical, transcendent writing that wins Pulitzers and makes you a household name.  I’m talking about the query letter that accompanies the manuscript.

You’d be amazed at how often these arrive with our names misspelled, grammatical errors galore, and unintentionally funny typos (someone once sent us a query proposing a book on “pubic policy” instead of “public policy”).

Why, we ask ourselves, if you’ve spent years writing a novel or memoir that you desperately want to have published, would you not take the time to proofread and craft the accompanying letter so that there’s not a strike against you from the get-go?

Same goes for all manner of business communications. Bad or careless writing can torpedo your message, even if that message is a good and essential one.  So:

Why not cut back that three-page e-mail that repeats the same thing over and over again to an efficient and effective couple of paragraphs that your intended reader will actually read?

Why not read over what you’ve written before you hit “send” and check it for grammatical and logic errors?

Why not outline your message first and then do a draft or two before you send out an important memo to the staff, so that what you intended to say is actually what comes across?

Why not have someone else proofread your writing if you know that your spelling prowess peaked somewhere around fourth grade?

Why, if your message is instructional, do you not test it out to make sure that the steps you’re suggesting actually work and are easy to follow?  Cookbook authors have to test their recipes to make sure their dishes are edible when the home cook tries to recreate them.  And, who hasn’t tried to assemble a piece of furniture with instructions that seem to have been written by a space alien using Google translator.

As we move further and further away from our hunting-gathering days, communication is what makes our world continue to go around.

Taking the time to think about how we communicate, especially in the age of social media, and making sure that our message gets across cleanly and effectively is something we should pay more attention to…from the kindergarten classroom to the board room.

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Miriam Goderich
Miriam Goderich is a partner in Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, a well respected, New York based literary agency with an impressive client list. She is involved in developing new projects and taking them from the conceptual stage to publication and her areas of interest include literary and commercial fiction as well as some genre fiction, narrative nonfiction, pop culture, psychology, history, science, art, business books, and biography/memoir. Miriam received a BA in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from Columbia University. She was born in Cuba and grew up in Spain and Miami, Florida.