How to write badly (4): Rocking the flow

We continue our summer class on writing badly, which started to minor acclaim quite recently.

Good writers always make a big deal of sequencing their thoughts just so a reader can follow along easily and a paragraph is a sort of organic entity that becomes part of a larger, beautiful whole, like a leaf on a tree. Well, if you’re aspiring to bad writing, it’s always fall for these leaves, and they’re dropping off the trees in an unpredictable manner.

Have you noticed how the truly righteous, when they go on and on about something, leave out the vital connections between their thoughts? That’s part of the quality we’re looking for when we disrupt the logical flow of your writing. You can find many good examples in letters to the editor. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is political, religious, cultural, or food-related—most highly opinionated writers are having a hard time keeping up with the syntax and logic, because they have so much to say, so quickly. They usually feel that smart folks like themselves will understand well enough, because they have a strong message to share.

If you place the equivalent of verbal rocks into your flow of copy, readers will stay with you and only eventually realize how confused they are. You need to exercise restraint in this practice.

The problem with such disrupted writing is that it often goes overboard. You lose the reader altogether instead of seeding gradual confusion. Don’t be heavy-handed—the right touches will knock the flow of the copy sideways and your audience will follow along for paragraph after paragraph. For example, if you change just the right word in the right place, you will ensure reader fascination along with befuddlement. Try a “what’s more” when you are really not continuing a line of thought. If you feel sure of your steps, use a “however” when you are not actually expressing an opposing concept. To soften the impact, you might experiment with “as well, however…” Even the occasional “also” inserted in completely inappropriate locations will advance the obscurity of the copy.

Reader still with you? You can pile it on. Try frivolously switching tenses in the middle of a paragraph. If you use a compound tense, such as the relatively rare past perfect, the flow will slow—I guarantee it! A fine trick is using the future tense for something that is going on right now. A lot of presenters and public speakers love doing this. Most listeners eventually catch on, but initially, yes, this is very confusing and will distract from what you’re actually talking about. It works perfectly well to make written copy more nebulous.

Assuming your readers are tenacious, you can mine your content in a more texturized manner. For example, consider demonstrative pronouns without clear antecedents—such an innocent, every-day practice. But this can work wonders in your bad writing. You can try obfuscating with personal pronouns if you dare, especially if you could refer to more than one person of the same gender. Who knows what she was trying to tell me, or who this was.

Finally, and I see this done gracelessly and very often in user manuals and other technical documentation, even in cookbooks, and in the recipes the newspapers crib from them. It works like this: Write perfectly fine paragraphs without using any of the simple tricks we just mentioned. Then, when you’re almost done, cut a sentence here and there. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll give yourself away. A missing statement every four or five paragraphs or so will do the job. People will read and follow along, maybe even try the steps you describe, and then—kapow! The conceptual trap door opens and it’s a steep drop down.

Just a few simple hints that help you rock the flow. If you like, you can work them in just like the last bad practice—write beautifully, then edit down. That way, you will avoid making the copy too obviously poor.

More soon—I promise.

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Filed under bad writing, communications, content, content marketing, marketing, writing

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