How to write badly: Keeping a healthy balance

Considering the popularity of bad writing in commercial and technical communications and marketing, it’s surprising that only very little credible guidance is available to help writers out. Most of the training and coaching for writers directs them toward excellence, not mediocrity. Is that really helpful? It seems to me that there’s way too much help available for a writer who wants to be good, but next to none for somebody who aspires to awfulness. Obviously, a lot of businesses, organizations, and public-sector entities prefer writing of poor quality. Writers need to be up to the task, and I’ll do my best to help us out. I know this will take serious effort and perseverance from you and me. Like anything that’s worth doing, bad writing doesn’t happen all by itself. I will get to the details of the discipline in an informal series of blog posts.

For today, let’s consider one important principle. Don’t overdo it.

You know why? Imagine a screen or page jammed with vague generalities, patronizing language, redundancies, jargon, passive voice, cute alliterations, puns, acronyms, clichés, very long sentences, recycled headlines, pronouns without clear antecedents, and so forth. Will anybody read it? Of course not. Viewers will stumble at the end of the second or third line, roll their eyes, and move on.

That’s not what you want. You need them to stay with you to the last miserable word, or they won’t get what you’re telling them, and your clients, if you are a commercial writer, won’t get their money’s worth. Readers expect to see what they know—some inarticulate, immature writing, but also some actual content that interests them and is not entirely what they’ve read before. Therefore, you need to learn to be disciplined in your pursuit of poor prose. A pun in the headline is fine, especially if it’s ambiguous. A ludicrous generalization in the first sentence, great—it will irritate some and make others curious. But after that, take it easy. Try to deliver at least a couple of sentences that introduce your subject in an attractive manner before you take a dive. At that point, think about offering a long, maybe not quite grammatical sentence that also includes a quote from a famous subject-matter expert. After that, try for a surprise—a clear, concise statement in fresh language. But be sure to follow that up with a non-sequitur generalization. See, you have already found your rhythm!

Many kindly readers know to expect and accept this writing style. Often, they don’t have a choice, because they have to make do with what they get from their bosses, vendors, business partners, even their friends and colleagues. And, in any case, a lifetime of exposure to poor writing works like anesthesia. It doesn’t really rattle you until you come out of it.

So remember: Your bad writing can’t be extreme. It needs to come across as genuine and unintended. Like it or not, you will have to sprinkle it generously with almost flawless, even luminous verbiage.

Mistakes need to be made, will be made—brilliantly. More soon!


Filed under bad writing, communications, writing

8 responses to “How to write badly: Keeping a healthy balance

  1. Your first line had me laughing with wine still in my mouth. Thanks for this. Your analogy to anesthesia gave me some chills. I have been having immense doubt-for-all-future-generations regarding writing because, while I used to have to haul myself and an appropriately sized backpack to the library to retrieve books about a topic, now there are wikipedia articles so that someone can say “Oh, Karen Horney’s theories of psychoanalysis? Yeah, I know all about thooose” and I was thinking that this was unfair.
    After I thought it was unfair, I thought it was just gross. Information is so easy to get, it’s like slaughtering your own cows all your life and then watching someone eat a Big Mac next to you and tell you that not only does theirs taste better; but it only cost a buck. You cannot even begin to explain to them what they are missing out on; and at the same time, you know that you can also not make them care.
    I’m not totally sure what I am saying, except that a how-to on bad writing seemed like it was incredibly relieving to write, and it was also fun to read and helped me see things in a way that was fun, new and unexpected like the chilly side of the pillow; when you first realize it exists.

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