The three ingredients of cost-effective writing

750 words | 4 minutes to read
After more than a decade of working with other knowledge workers, as both a consultant and writing teacher, I have concluded that the cost-effectiveness of our writing outputs boils down to three crucial ingredients.

  1. Clearly define goals and briefs
  2. Only allow essential contributors to work on the output
  3. Appropriately design the information

These three ingredients result from behaviours – from what people do, not from what people think or say people should do – and while I don’t know anyone who advocates for their opposites, a team that is openly and consistently expected to achieve these three activities will produce better outputs for lower costs.

To help you to achieve these activities in the writing work you are involved with, here is a brief clarification of each one.

#1 Clearly define goals and briefs

The success of any activity is intimately influenced by the quality of its goal. If the goal is clear and compelling, the activity is more likely to be successful – and achieved for a reasonable cost – than if the goal is unclear or arbitrary.

A clear goal is the starting point of a clear brief, and a clear brief is an essential tool for anyone wanting to write as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If a brief is loose in any way, a writer will write more than is necessary – and take longer to do so – and the superfluous material will either dilute the effectiveness of the document if it isn’t edited out, or further increase the cost if it is.

So, the quality of a document (or other form of writing output) depends on the performance of both briefer and writer. In my experience, organisations that appropriately re-value the influence of briefs enjoy tremendous productivity gains.

#2 Only allow essential contributors to work on the output

A loose brief is a recipe for wastage with a single writer, and that influence grows exponentially with every extra person permitted to contribute to the output.

Let me make an important distinction here. I am not talking about the number of people contributing to decisions about whatever goes into an output – a five-person brainstorming session may identify optimal content more effectively and efficiently than a sole writer – I am talking about the number of people actually writing, reviewing, editing, and authorising the output.

In government departments, where writing teams are the norm, improving this process represents a huge opportunity for improving the cost-effectiveness of writing outputs and, due to the prevalence of such work, the entire organisation. In my experience, it is still common for people who have not received the brief to be invited to edit or rewrite material, which defeats the purpose of the brief and leads to unnecessary and inconsistent content, and expensive rework. Not surprisingly, it also tends to frustrate the briefed writer (or writers).

Every hour not spent rewriting is another hour available to think-up better content in the first place. Excellent writers tend to think and consult widely, and draft and polish sharply.

#3 Appropriately design the information

In today’s information overloaded context, pretty much all information needs to be designed for consumption.

If you think of information like clothing, it makes sense that if you have a multitude of options for what clothing to buy and wear, you will choose something well designed rather than merely functional. The same distinction – and choice – applies to information.

Clothing stores often contain a ‘basics’ range, so not everything has to be overtly designed, but unless an item of clothing is designed for comfort, ease of use, and attractiveness, as well as for its basic utility, it is unlikely to be bought or worn.

Too many documents are difficult to read, difficult to navigate, and boring to look at. They are not tailored, so they are passed over by all but those paid to labour through them – an excessively costly exercise.

So, I encourage you not to rely on auto-pilot, that is, writing how you have always written or as you are implicitly instructed by an out-of-date template. Rather, pop your designer hat on every time you write and, without reinventing the wheel or flouting branding guidelines, design your valuable information appropriately for its purpose, audience, and context.


Don’t put off improving how you write, or how you manage writers. Attend Simon’s public courses in Auckland or at Victoria Professional and Executive Development in Wellington.

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Meet Simon at Clarity2016, the plain language conference for law, business, and government, Wellington, 3–5 November 2016.

Posted in Information design, Information strategy, Writing skills.

Simon Hertnon

Simon is the founder of Nakedize. He is the author of several books and is an Associate of Victoria University of Wellington Professional and Executive Education.