Sucky Writing Skills (in Business World) = Good Writing Opportunities (for Us!)

A column in my local paper this morning was yet one more gloomy drumbeat of many these days about the sorry state of writing skills amongst young people. According to a recent Pew Research Center Study, “64% of teens report that the informal styles often found in electronic communication do bleed into their school work” (i.e., 50% have used informal capitalization, 38% have used text short cuts like “LOL” or “ur,” and 25% have used emoticons).

In addition, The Nation’s Report Card on Writing 2007, while generally showing improvement over 2002, still showed only one-third of 8th graders writing to the “Proficient or higher” level.

Those kids grow up to be the workers of tomorrow, and one can’t assume that their writing skills will suddenly become strong and compelling, minus the shorthand and emoticons. In fact, what’s already happening is likely to continue happening.

A December 2004 New York Times article, “What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence,” discussed a study by the National Commission on Writing, which concluded that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.

And when a company that wants to stay competitive knows that its people can’t write to the required level to maintain that competitiveness, chances are good they’ll turn to those who can. I’ve said this forever: writing skills suck in the business world, and that can only bode well for those of us who have the skills.

What are some of the most egregious examples (actual or recalled) of bad writing you’ve come across?

How has your writing practice benefited from the poor state of writing skills out there in the business world?

31 replies
  1. Mike Sieber
    Mike Sieber says:

    I’m not shocked by this at all, but it is great news for the freelancer. Nearly everyday I come across simple mistakes like using your when you’re should have been used. This could be attributed to poor/no proofreading, though.

    Also, almost forgot to mention how cool it was that you used the word “Sucky” in your headline.

  2. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:


    Good post on this subject…I think this could be expanded on.

    I have used the current examples of marketing collateral in small businesses numerous times to gain offline clients before I decided to specialize online.

    It is amazing to me that a business owner would let cruddy writing into his or her marketing…but it happens all the time.

    Joseph Ratliff

  3. Graham Strong
    Graham Strong says:

    Hey Peter,

    In this IM, Twitter-pated world, it is only natural that language will erode. And in fact this is nothing new — if you read books and other writings from say 100 years ago, it becomes quite obvious that our vocabulary is not what it used to be.

    I think some will embrace the double-plus goodness of reducing the language. After all, what is language but communication? As much as we writers — the keepers of the words, perhaps — may hate it, “brb” takes a fraction of a second less to read, and several seconds less to type than “be right back”. If it gets the same message across faster, why wouldn’t the average person choose it?

    As for the impact on our business, we already see that too. Many people admit they don’t know how to write, and will pay for that slick copy that gets results. Others will be rotfl that they paid so much for that “professional” copy when they’re [sic] writing is just fine.


  4. Mary Anne Hahn
    Mary Anne Hahn says:

    Hi Peter:

    I absolutely benefit from “the poor state of writing skills in the business world.” Although I don’t freelance full-time yet, I receive requests nearly every day at my day job to review, revise and/or rewrite everything from e-mail annoucements to newsletter articles. I am sure that these requests will result in wonderful testimonials (and future clients) when I do decide to freelance full time.

    Mary Anne

  5. Deb
    Deb says:

    I say take advantage of it! I had two jobs last month from pointing out errors on websites I visited. Granted, for payment I accepted merchandise, one of which was worms! Yes, I said worms! I proofed a site that sells red wigglers for fishing and composting. Didn’t take but a few minutes and he is sending me $40 worth of worms for my compost pile. “Working for Worms” will be announced soon.<>
    Speaking of emoticons, does anyone else have trouble writing a sentence without a 🙂 at the end like I do? 🙂
    I enjoy your blog Peter, and you are cuter than ever. (I “met” Peter before he became so famous)

  6. Christopher Richards
    Christopher Richards says:

    There has to be appreciation of what good writing is. You can’t sell writing services to someone that doesn’t understand that grammar, spelling, economy, and flow are important. Like any sale there has to be a reason to buy.

    In corporate America it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. Business schools are responsible for feeding students with bombastic language. We don’t need to say, utilize when we mean use, or this point in time when we mean now, or methodology when we mean method or procedure. I like the Economist’s style book. I base my business writing on their model as much as I can.

    I’ve seen some of the most horrible use of language by the communications departments of higher education. It’s puffery that hides any meaningful content. I wrote an article called No More Excellence in a print newsletter. You can read the piece in text or listen to the audio on my website

    Confused writing comes from confused thinking. Sometimes poor writing comes from no thinking at all. And by that I mean parroting concepts without digesting their meaning.

    When business people are so rushed and demands on them are heavy, they don’t have time to read for pleasure. Only by reading do you come to appreciate this rich language of ours. Writers are voracious readers.

    It may make you wince when you read a sentence like this: Every person should have their own computer. People even speak like this. How easy would it be to simply recast the sentence to make it grammatically correct?

    I can’t even imagine how much business is lost through poor communications. But when those that hire us appreciate that world-class customer service is just fluff, and thinking out of the box can only be uttered by someone so bereft of imagination, that’s when business comes in. And there’s nothing like doing good work to get recommended.

    One more thing.

    I’d like to share an idea here. If some smart writer could write a phrase book that translates phrases from Teenage into English then they would make a fortune. I live next to a school. A bunch of kids walk by my window every day. I try to listen to what they are saying. I can’t make out a word. I think it’s English they are speaking. Perhaps the book should be a Teenage/Geezer phrase book.

  7. Kendy Sproul
    Kendy Sproul says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thank you for the wonderful, and very accurate, post on this topic.

    Reading through websites, newsletters, blog posts and even some print publications is too often enough to make me want to rip my hair out and run screaming through the streets.

    I have a teenager who is into texting and I can fully attest to the common downfall of our nation’s writing skills. Even with a mother who is constantly trying to instill in him the correct writing skills, he often admits to unconsciously using text-type spellings, abbreviations and lack of punctuation in his school work.

    It’s all very frustrating as a writer, but at the same time, encouraging to know that by having good writing skills we have something very valuable to offer Corporate America.

  8. peter
    peter says:

    Great comments everyone!

    Graham makes a good point about language evolving naturally over time, and how if something is easier to read and type, it makes sense that it could end up catching on in the written vernacular. Still bugs me though. As a Yankee living in the South for most of my adult life, I adopted “Ya’ll” early on, not because I was trying to fit in, but because it was such an economical word – said plenty in one syllable… 😉 (Oops there I go with the emoticons, so Deb, I guess you aren’t the only one! (and thanks for the kind words – you’re a sweetie). And worms? That’s a new one… Hey, barter can be a good thing…still think I’d have insisted on a nice fishing rod…

    And great input from Christopher – it’s almost as bad sometimes in Corporate America as it it in higher education, but having seen a lot of the latter, I have to give them the award. Says so much about the power plays, overinflated egos and jockeying for status so rampant in that milieu – kind of sad actually.

    Brings to mind the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek expression on the subject: Eschew Obfuscation.

    And thanks to Mike, Joseph, Mary Anne and Kendy for weighing in!


  9. Tom Welsh
    Tom Welsh says:

    Awl of yew are rite on! Eye cant improve upon this accept two say, thank yew! Its stuff like this which drives me crazy, and eye sea it awl the time. Butt won good thing, we can all ways count on Spellcheck to catch hour miss steaks, rite?? Weigh too go!

  10. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    When I started freelance writing, I tried to convince anyone with a pulse to hire me. And I’d often run into business owners who wrote copy themselves and saw no reason to hire someone else to do it.


    Because they used Word, of course! After all, Word comes with spelling and grammar checking. Plus, they spoke English, so when you added all that together, who really needed to spend money on a copywriter? LOL

    At first, I’d try to explain the difference between good spelling/grammar and writing copy that motivates people to take action. But I eventually wised up and started targeting better prospects.

    While not exactly a “Corporate America” example, I thought I’d pass this along…

    A few years back, I taught a marketing communications course for the continuing education program of a local community college. As an ice-breaker, I gave each student the following ad to look over:

    The ad came from one of those home business opportunity magazines and never ceases to bring a smile to my face.

    I’d have the students circle anything they thought was wrong, then we’d discuss it. (They always got a good chuckle from the second paragraph.) My point was to show them how bad writing could be in the real world and how it wouldn’t take much to rise above it if they’d follow what I was going to teach them.

    I did have to admit to them, however, that the guy probably still made a ton of money off the ad.

  11. peter
    peter says:

    Great stuff, Mike! And you’re right – all the crummy writing out there put out by successful people makes you realize how much more effective something could be if it were done right… Course, not everyone looks at it that way… sigh.


  12. Mike
    Mike says:

    From ‘through’, ‘cough’, ‘ought’ to ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’ we now swing all the way over to this abbreviation bonanza. Do we prefer the former style just because it’s more established? More familiar?

    There was plenty to roll our eyes at before the rise of the technological tide…

    Thanks for the insiteful comments, folks.

    (hee, hee)

  13. Devon Ellington
    Devon Ellington says:

    I was in Philadelphia a few months ago, and one of the churches I passed had mixed up “its” and “it’s” on an enormous outside banner — I nearly had a fit. That, and a high profile novel a few months ago, which had so many typos in it I nearly threw up and mixed up “where” and “were”.

    When I buy a book, I expect it to have gone through copy editing, not merely spell check.

    I agree that the drop in skills can work to our advantage. I’ve also found that the so-called employers who are only willing to pay $1/article for 20 articles/week type get the type of skill-free writer (one reason there’s so much poor content out there, especially on the web). They are not the type of clients with whom I could build a good relationship anyway.

    The truly legit potential clients recognize the difference between skilled and unskilled writers and are willing to pay for high quality.

    THOSE are the clients I pursue!

  14. Cori Smelker
    Cori Smelker says:

    One of my favorites is ‘irregardless’. I hear TV anchors use it and wonder who writes their stuff for them!

    A billboard here in San Antonio one of the major freeways proclaimed, “Your Invited”!! For the love of Pete that is an expensive error to make.

    Mixing up compliment and complement is something I see quite often.

    I got hired as the freelance editor for a glossy upscale magazine here in town. I started off as a freelance writer for them (still do that too) and had to correct the then-editor because she didn’t know the difference between blonde and blond; and between fewer and less. The publisher asked me to come in as an editor and I am billed as the senior editor now. So, having the skills provided an extra client.

    Once a client sees excellent work versus so-so work, I find they are willing to pay the price.

  15. Tom Welsh
    Tom Welsh says:

    This could end up being the longest blog string ever, since the vein is so rich! How about “upcoming,” “totally unique,” “free gift,” “don’t miss this if you can,” and the ever-popular “end result”?

    I gotta million of ’em!

    Tom W.

  16. Deb
    Deb says:

    This is no lie, I got a “writing” newsletter this morning, advertising her course, and it had you’re in it as youíre, not once but twice!! Just found another, donít instead of don’t.
    Is this a new language or am I’m missing something? I’ll wait for a reply before I bring it to her attention. I seem to have the ability to spot spelling errors or typos. They just jump off the page for me; anyone need a good proofer?

  17. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks, everyone, for all the great (and sometimes hilarious!) comments! I’m sure this could go on forever… 😉

    And Deb,

    I’m virtually 100% sure that the you’re/youíre and don’t/donít thing is nothing more than something an email program is doing to her text in translation. I’ve seen it happen to my text as it moves across the ‘Net. Not necessarily that exact same thing but sometimes even worse, and it always seems to happen with apostrophes. Very frustrating to say the least, since people think it’s an error on your part! I’d let her know, but I’m certain she wrote it correctly to begin with…


  18. Deb
    Deb says:

    Oh, and irregardless of the outcome, this woman will keep on writing. 🙂 Oops sorry Kendy ;0)

  19. Deb
    Deb says:

    What can you expect from someone that writes for worms? My upcoming debut in
    a totally unique venue, which I won as a free gift, the end result being my
    fabulous writing–don’t miss this if you can!

  20. Michael Scully
    Michael Scully says:

    Deb @20 — I was just about to say what Peter said @21. Those apparent “mistakes” are just too weird. (The accent marks make them look like Gaelic words! — Of course, when I first typed that, I typed “Garlic words.” Yikes.) Was it an HTML- or RTF-formatted email, or plain text?

  21. Tom Welsh
    Tom Welsh says:

    Deb @20: I catch errors all the time in copy from WRITING courses as well! I often offer to proof their stuff gratis, and have yet to receive a response. (Yesterday I referred an AWAI editor to this blog.) I see numerous websites offering/hiring contract proofreaders at “rock-bottom” prices, so the inevitable conclusion is that they just don’t care! Horrors!

  22. Star
    Star says:

    It’s a “good enough” world, hadn’t you heard? The American educational system is so bad, kids can’t write, nobody reads (even bosses), the phrase “you get what you pay for” has less meaning than 20 years ago, since people can’t judge what they are getting. Having a bad brain day, don’t mind me.

    Let me add something else. I sometimes use a story in my pitch letters about how my sister started getting Texas Monthly for some reason. We don’t live in Texas or know anyone there. She gave it to me, the magazine maven. I got hooked. The writing was so good I read every issue. That is what good writing can do–make the reader read. And keep the reader from setting it aside. Think the vast majority appreciate it?

  23. Tom Welsh
    Tom Welsh says:


    Is that the pub that Molly Ivins used to write for? If so, I loved it and you are right….and I don’t live in Texas or know anyone who does, either. But consistently stellar writing wins the day!


  24. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Hi Ernestina,

    Glad you like it! Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page and both the web development guy and his designer have links there… Good luck!


    P.S. Neither your email address ( in your post nor your web address ( worked. I tried to send this message to your EM but it came back undeliverable, and your URL got an error message…

  25. Gilberto
    Gilberto says:

    Hi, I just hopped over to your web site through StumbleUpon. Not somthing I would generally browse, but I enjoyed your thoughts none the less. Thanks for creating some thing worthy of reading.

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