Category Archives: writing

How to write badly (6): Creating a terrible case study

Back in June 2012, I started an informal series of blog posts about the skill of writing badly. Given all the effort so many writers invest in ensuring a dismal outcome, it is unfortunate that there is only very little helpful guidance available to them. Most of the resources available single-mindedly and with a degree of thoughtlessness focus on making writing better. Two comments: They work as well as the bumper stickers that advocate for “Free Tibet” or other good causes. Also, very few people want that. Evidence shows that far more writers have an interest in truly awful results and would benefit from practical support in achieving them, especially in the fields of corporate and technology writing.

Take the time to prepare and don't shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

Take the time to prepare and don’t shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

It might be helpful to treat some typical output formats more thoroughly. Consider the business case study (as opposed to the medically flavored alternate, which has its own opportunities for badness). Go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re familiar with the darn things. Companies spend many millions to produce case studies. Most often they are the result of a writer’s intuitive misapplication, although there is also a burgeoning video channel for them. For the most part, a case study is intended to impress upon readers that real customers use a company’s products or services to their advantage. Project managers and writers work hard to identify and interview willing customers, shepherd them through an interview, obtain approval for the drafts, publish them online, print them on paper if their budgets are too large, and try to keep them alive before they become obsolete. Case study writers often obsess over representing the authentic voice of the customer and truthfully portraying how a service or product helps a company achieve something worthwhile.

As regards infernal writing, the case study industry is generally in fine shape. Many of the stories companies publish—usually expensive and requiring lots of effort—are terrible. They sound alike and canned, are not convincing, show redundant repetitiveness, and insult readers by patronizing them. Many writers, however, are not aware of the many worst practices available to them, which needlessly restricts their effectiveness. Here are some tips and tricks you might want to try.

Misdirection. Many writers send their respondents a list of questions or even a full-fledged questionnaire to prepare for the interview. To make sure the interview does not become overly productive, let them have the questions beforehand. But don’t mention them in the conversation. Ask your respondents about other topics and hope they did not prepare for them.

Stuffing. Boring the reader to tears gets you well on the way to abysmal awfulness. Good for you that case studies offer lots of opportunities to do just that. Many case study writers already know that blatantly bland statements about industries and markets are very effective. “Like many businesses in its industry, XYZ Company found it needed to grow through change in order not to lose customers and market share.” You can get much worse by discussing the people you interview and quote. Nobody cares where they went to school, which degrees they have, what organizations they belong to, how old they are, what they wear, where they worked before, and whether they like Zinfandel better than Zappa. As the born bad storyteller you are, you can make use of all that padding. If you’re really clever, you sneak it under a section heading that promises more relevant content, and readers won’t even know what happened to them as they pass out.

Aggressive foreshadowing. In an early part of the story, you talk about issues and challenges the company faced. Later, you repeat the same content, but now you modify the statements to say that they achieved or resolved these things with your client’s product or service. If you stay as close as you can to the original description, nobody will believe a word, because they know you’re tailoring your facts. Perfect!

Uninteresting and unhelpful quotes. When you quote people, try not to make them sound too real or specific, because that would add credibility and interest to the case study. You can go over the top in at least a couple of ways, by including overly enthusiastic as well as negatively trending statements.

Too positive assertions are annoying to read, make company and customer look silly, and prompt readers to groan. So use them. Some customers have natural talent for this. All you have to do is make their words sound a little more pretentious. If, “The new accounting software helps us avoid errors and stops us from losing money, which means we won’t go bankrupt,” is too mild, tart it up: “At the end of the day, our magnificent new accounting solution enables the company’s strategic viability for the long term by facilitating comprehensive error prevention and eliminating the dramatic losses we experienced in the past. People simply love working with this product.”

If you feel like adding a dash of sobriety to such excessive enthusing, you get bonus points for having quoted parties insinuate that the product or service wasn’t all that. “We believe the product helped us become more effective in our customer outreach, although we were not able to measure any results,” is not bad. Something like, “We gave the service a try and it delivered well for a while, but then our needs changed and we dropped it,” also has its attractions. If you are more of a risk-taker, try to incorporate some outright negativity. “The cost of the software was quite high, and some people never got the hang of it, but it gave us much of what we looked for.” Or: “The asset maintenance service was often prompt, but we still had a few unexpected breakdowns.”

Badmouthing competitors. Few things ruin a company’s and its customer’s standing and credibility faster than a complete misstatement regarding a competing offering. If the customer discusses a leading financial software product and you can get away with a quote to the tune of, “We considered [name of competitor product, but found it couldn’t do many of the complex calculations we need,” that’s golden.

Frivolous descriptions. If you want to beef up the word count and make the story a little less interesting, you can always describe random details of the product or service the customer used. It helps make things worse if they are not in any obvious relationship to the customer’s issues or achievements. If a software or hardware product was deployed, you can create some additional confusion around the process, how long it took, and how well users took to the new tools.

Horrendous results. Some good customers spend their budget on an expensive product or service and cannot point out that anything meaningful has changed. These case studies practically write themselves. However, most companies accomplish something or other. You may need to get creative here, because this might be the most interesting and convincing part of your story. What works well to achieve a bad outcome is if you can highlight minor achievements, such as small savings of time or money. “We save a couple of hours every quarter using this product,” will do nicely, for example. Also, try to direct attention toward irritating, irrelevant aspects of the story. “The outsource IT service employees wear elegant, branded shirts, which helps identify them to employees, and they have created mostly positive relationships with our people,” is reasonably bad. If you cannot get around pointing out significant improvements, you should try to temper them. “We achieved 100% return on investment in six months, although not everybody agrees with that—some people always resist change,” shows the right touch. “We found many new efficiencies in our processes, although many of those were well underway before we got [product]”: nice job. If the customer did not need certain employees anymore because of the fabulous new efficiencies, don’t worry about “reassigning resources” or the like. The case study will be much worse if you simply say people were fired.

If you follow all or most of these simple worst practices, your customer success stories will always be bad enough to infuriate readers. Promise!

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Urban Hiking: A Way to Grow with the Power of Attention

In most of our cities, you find areas you don’t know much about, even if you live there. When you travel through them in your car or on public transport, you don’t pay much attention to them. They just don’t look all that interesting or attractive. Maybe they’re not entirely safe. Walking there may be unpleasant and difficult because of intense traffic, missing sidewalks, freeways and rail lines cutting off access, or a lack of intersections where pedestrians can cross safely.

At home and when we travel, we should pay more attention to these places. We surround ourselves with exquisite, complex environments and infrastructures, but we don’t always know what’s there. The people working or living in these overlooked areas don’t always like it there, either. They may be too poor or uninterested to take pride in their neighborhoods, and let properties fall down and streets be strewn with refuse. If their work takes them there, they probably know exactly how to get in and out while paying minimal attention to what they don’t want to see. As a consequence, many cities include neglected and forgotten districts with large populations.

I think the best way to learn about these areas is to walk through them. It gives you a chance to see the faces, breathe the air, see the sights, without escaping the moment. You never know what you might find. In many years of exploring cities in different countries, I have always found the forgotten districts to be worth the time, risk, and effort it takes to get to know them. Sure, by all means, visit the historic centers, parks, waterfronts, and lovely neighborhoods. But take time out to walk through the no-man’s lands.

If you have a good map of the city you’re in, take a look—how much of it do you actually know or come through with any frequency? How much of it is undiscovered country? Does that make you a little curious? Are you wondering how people live in certain parts, where they go shopping, what their houses, markets, and community bulletin boards look like?

Start with a good map of the city you want to explore. Digital and printed maps are both fine.

I find what often works well is taking public transport to the last station and walking back from there toward the center of town or a neighborhood I know. I recommend this especially for cities that have a roughly circular layout, such as Paris or Cologne. Elsewhere, maybe you need to ask somebody to drop you off with a car. Or, if there’s enough unknown territory to get to know, pick a district and traverse it in a number of directions.

What did I find by doing this kind of hiking? Lots of things tourists don’t see. Niche neighborhoods where people never expect to see an outsider and therefore don’t treat you like a tourist, but like a real person. I will never forget the friendly faces and small interactions in a horribly poor and unhealthy neighborhood at the fringe of Mexico City. There are cemeteries that give you insight into histories and mind sets. Green areas where nature reclaims the territory and settles it with a surprising variety of plants and animals. Fantastic views of city landmarks from new angles. In some older, industrial cities, an amazing wealth of lovely bridges. Post-industrial landscapes, some rotten, some lovely. Commercial buildings, factories, port facilities, train yards, and pocket parks with powerful esthetic appeal.

What do you need for this? Good shoes and comfortable clothing. A sense of adventure and curiosity. An open mind that lets you set your expectations and limitations aside for a few hours. A good map, honestly—not one of those hotel-issued travesties that just show you the downtown core. ID. Some cash to pay for a snack or transportation, but not too much. Your camera, but use it respectfully if you take pictures of people or their private property—get permission when you can. Some paper and a pen, or a recording device, to take notes. This kind of adventure doesn’t cost much except time and attention. Of course, it is also very sustainable as long as your body holds up: Your environmental impact will be minimal.

And, what can you get out of it? That depends on who you are. You might make a new friend. You might fall in love with a forgotten waterfront, a building, or an old bridge. You can tell stories. You might want to take action on a social or environmental situation you become aware of.

However, what I think is best about urban hiking is that it gives us a chance to re-soul districts that are part of our world, but we have numbed ourselves to their existence. Expanding consciousness is always preferable to shrinking it or keeping it the same. Attention is a marvelous, powerful force. If enough people give attention to something, it can change and grow. And so can we, the walkers.

In another posting, I might make some suggestions for walks in cities here and there. Please tell me if you have any you would like to share.

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How to hire a good writer

When content is important to you in making the world aware of your products, services, and company, you need to figure out where it comes from. You can syndicate, crib, copy, and cross-link only so much. Sooner or later you will need your own content. That means you have to find a writer. I’m sorry to hear that.

Writers are easy to find, but it can be so hard to gain any certainty that they are a good fit for what you need. Throw a metaphorical blank page in the air and dozens of them will rush to fill it with verbiage. Independent, hungry contract writers beat the pavement, looking for clients like you, claiming to deliver great quality for minimal cost. Talent agencies promise to hook you up with the best in the industry, carefully vetted and background-checked.

And yet. With all this abundance of talent, much published writing is an embarrassment. It’s far too easy to find poorly written web pages, white papers, case studies, blog posts, and more. Most anybody I talk to can share bad experiences with writers who didn’t understand what the client wanted, became upset at feedback, lacked any flexibility in voice, tone, and style, and had the social graces of a hung-over porcupine.

This is probably not what you want in a writer.

I once worked in an agency where writing was the mainstay of everybody’s paycheck. We hired writers from time to time and tried very hard to figure out who the best candidates were. To that end, we developed a writing test. Most candidates went through this step onsite in the office. Some of the tests were simply bad. If that was the case, one thanked the people, wished them well, and hoped they wouldn’t be upset. Other tests were great. With minimal source material and in a short time, some hopeful writers produced a nice page of technical marketing content. Unfortunately, even the best tests were no reliable predictors for performance on the job. Some writers who tested well went to become fabled contributors. In other cases, the test was the last good piece of work one ever saw. At least once, a writer delivered a very fine test piece, got the job, and quickly realized that writing was no longer of interest to him. Another time, a well-testing writer showed up for the first day, and we never saw him again after that. We spent many hours evaluating candidates and their tests, but we were never able to rely on a meaningful outcome.

At another company, portfolios were important. Writers dutifully brought them in or provided the links to them. When these people applied themselves to what we did, the results could be all over the map. Eventually, I understood that a portfolio simply shows a person has done certain work in the past (unless they faked their show pieces, which is pathetic and happens more often than you think). A portfolio, however stuffed with neat samples, has nothing to do with what a writer will do next. In fact, there are lots of people looking for work who simply don’t yet see that it’s time to move on and that for one reason or another, writing is no longer what they can or should do. It’s too bad, but don’t feel obliged to hire them because you feel sorry.

A good writer personality is more like this – engaging, resourceful, committed, and with a sense of humor.

You gather I don’t recommend testing or judging from portfolios. But how can you be reasonably assured that somebody you interview can come through in a writer role? Here are some suggestions.

  • Creativity and innovation. Take a look at what your potential writer does on her blog and website, and on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and in other social media. Does she come up with interesting ideas to make white papers, presentations, case studies, and other workhorses more interesting and valuable? Does she sound like somebody you would like to hear more from? Somebody you might like to collaborate with?
  • Ability to connect audiences and writing technique. Everybody will tell you that they keep audiences in mind when they write. They know it’s expected. But many writers will draft in the same style, using the same voice and tone, almost all the time. Ask your writer candidate to discuss a couple of portfolio pieces and show you how exactly she reflected the interests of different audiences.
  • Engagement. What happens when you disagree with your writer candidate? Does she engage in a civil, professional manner, or does she get upset or withdrawn? You need your writer to be an articulate, pleasant conversationalist even when challenged (or edited), or she will not be able to work with people and accommodate different perspectives. How much does she share in the conversation, and to what extent does she react to your statements and questions?
  • Fun and caring. What does it feel like when your writer candidate talks about her work? What does she like about it? Do you find that believable? Do you get a sense that she enjoys her work, or is it just a passion-free way to pay the bills? Do you get the impression she has the enthusiasm to work with you and your people and write, day in and day out? Does she do any writing of her own, just because she loves it?
  • Subject-matter expertise. This should be easy to ascertain. Presumably, the writer has some level of experience with your industry or the type of products and services you offer. Get her to talk about that. How does she see the industry changing? What are the most challenging problems, the most interesting new developments? Does she pay attention to how other writers and their companies in your industry communicate? Does she volunteer any of this, or do you have to elicit it?
  • Questions. Never, ever pursue work (or anything else) with somebody who does not have questions. Such people are just not there for you. You should avoid them, no matter what else they say or how smart they seem to be.

If you get a good response on all or most of these points, good luck to you and your new writer! I’m sure you can accomplish some valuable, enjoyable work together.

(By the way, if you need a writer, might you require editorial assistance as well? We discussed that a while ago.)

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How to write badly (5): “Let’s make up some bland quotes!”

We carry on with our master class on writing badly, which commenced not too long ago and has intermittently continued since then.

As a bad writer, you may find yourself in a bit of a quandary when you have to quote people. You’re supposed to include the voice of the customer in marketing case studies and press releases. You might need to quote the CEO or other executives and won’t get a chance to talk to them. In the company blog, you have to quote business partners that comment on your products and services. If it’s news you need to perpetrate, readers will expect that you give them an impression of what victims, bystanders, offenders, fans, crooks, and thought leaders are saying. The problem is that people usually don’t speak nearly as horribly as you write. They can be lively and interesting, whereas your inclination is toward the bland and predictable. That means you have to make up properly bad quotes, or you will have to explain the odd quality gap between quotes and other copy. I understand this is work and therefore unwelcome. To make your life a little easier, here are a few standard quotes you can use with minimal adjustments.

People talk. For you as a bad writer, this presents so many opportunities to ascribe lame, warmed-over quotes to them.

When you use these quotes, be careful not to insert too many specific references. Their charm largely depends on vagueness and intimation. Busy readers will appreciate that they can scan over a couple of lines without missing anything. You save time that way, too. But you still need to apply your restrained, unmistakable touch. Have you heard that silly story about the joke club, where people have simplified joke telling by calling out the numbers of known jokes instead? A visitor wonders why anybody still laughs if the jokes are so familiar. “It’s in the way it’s told,” somebody explains. It’s like that with these quotes. With practice, you will be able to slip them into your copy as if they came naturally.

About a technical product or service

  • “[product or service name] is an end-to-end solution for the issues we were facing. I would recommend this to anyone.”
  • “[product or service name] stands out because of the innovation incorporated in it. Its rich feature set makes it extremely valuable.”
  • “I don’t know what I would do without [product or service name].”
  • “[product or service name] is a best-in-class offering that will add value for years to come.”

About a company

  • “[company name] demonstrates true leadership by innovating in its industry.”
  • “[company name] leads the pack of comparable vendors because of its track record.”
  • “We are proud to partner with [company name] in advancing innovation in our industry.”
  • “Risk-taking innovation and thought leadership are in [company name]’s DNA.”
  • “[company name] has practically re-invented [category].”

About a person in a new role

  • “[name] expects to hit the ground running and deliver results rapidly.”
  • “Her leadership experience makes [name] a great fit for this challenging role.”
  • “As a natural communicator, [name] will not have any problems in meeting the expectations of [people in whatever roles].”
  • “Numbers don’t lie. [name] has delivered strong results in her last position and we expect her to do so again.”

About a problem

  • “We welcome the opportunity to address this challenge with confidence.”
  • “Circumstances are never quite fair. But we will address the concerns promptly and get to a satisfactory resolution.”
  • “[problem] has been blown out of proportion. While we don’t expect that [problem] will cause any issues for our customers, we are closely monitoring the situation.”
  • “[problem] came at us out of the blue, but we’re ready to take action. We will face this issue with resolve and resourcefulness.”

About something horrible somebody did or said

  • “A diligent review of all the facts will present a very different course of events. In the meantime, I should refrain from commenting further.”
  • “I always strive to maintain the highest standards of integrity. I apologize if some people have the impression that I may have fallen short in this situation.”
  • “I regret if I offended anybody. That was certainly not what I intended.”
  • “I’m reviewing the situation and will have more detailed comments presently.”

About a murderer

  • “He usually kept to himself, but seemed like a nice guy. We didn’t know him well.”
  • “He seemed like an angry guy and always had arguments with people. We didn’t know him well.”
  • “This clearly shows the need for strengthening gun control.”
  • “This clearly shows the need for empowering more law-abiding citizens to carry guns.”
  • “He gave my wife a strange look the other day.”

About a weather-related or natural-disaster situation

  • “I knew we were in for something terrible.”
  • “This is really too bad. We all feel the same way.”
  • “When we were young, we never had events like this happen.”
  • “We will pull together and get through this just like we did through other situations like it.”
  • “We are getting desperate and very concerned this might get worse. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

You’re welcome! More soon.

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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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Let your content include obituaries

I always read the obits. Article-length obits in the Guardian and the New York Times are usually very well-written, although the paid obits in the NYT are usually as pretentious and badly put together as anything you will see in a small-town paper. The Guardian’s other lives obits feature wonderful portraits of notable, relatively unknown people. The Seattle Times generally does a decent job and encourages people to get creative with pictures and stories in paid obits (which thereby become more profitable). When I’m away from home, I always buy local newspapers and magazines and, yes, I’ll read the obits every day. If I wouldn’t have paid attention to the obits, I still wouldn’t know about such incredible people as Patrick Leigh Fermor or Horacio Coppola.

A German “notification of death”

In other countries, the obits tell you a lot about how people feel about death and dying, who they love and what they fear. There’s nothing like the tense emotion, expressed in few well-chosen words, of the “Todesanzeige” (notification of death) in German newspapers. In Italian cities, you see obit posters on billboards and walls, often next to advertising, often with heartfelt messages and beautiful photographs of the deceased.

But when it comes to companies? Nothing, really. You find pictures, bios, and lists of the leadership group, key people, or even the entire team. Sometimes, a notice may commemorate a founder or past CEO who is no longer living. For the most part, nobody seems to die at work, or if they do, it’s a tragedy of which you don’t want to remind anybody. That’s too bad.

If I were apply for a job or wanted to choose a product or service, I would definitely read a company’s obits first. In doing so, I would look to get a sense of how the organization treats and values people. After all—let’s get real—people do die while they have jobs, and it will probably happen more and more. By choice or because of necessity, many of us will still be employed when we die, although probably very few of us will have this happen to them while we’re in the actual workplace—although that, too, is not uncommon.

So, why not publish obituaries along with your other content?

Italian billboard obits

They should be part of the “about” section. Recent obits would stay up for a certain amount of time, say 90 days. After that, they would be in an archive, where one could still access them. As employees get older and are not ready to withdraw from the workplace, you might even bring up the subject with them—maybe they would like to write their own. I know I’d take the opportunity.

What should be included in an employee obit? Here are some suggestions:

  • Basics of the employee’s biography and family
  • Role or roles at the company
  • Special accomplishments and awards, including unique contributions to the company
  • If you can state it authentically, how the person felt about working at the company—what the engagement meant
  • The employee’s unique style in leadership, communications, building relationships, serving clients and customers, designing innovation, and so on
  • How the deceased mentored and supported other employees
  • Quotes from colleagues and customers about this person
  • What the employee was known for—creativity, tenacity, sense of humor, efficiency, warmth, and other qualities
  • A photo portrait from early in the life of the employment relationship, and one from later

If you have a writer develop the story of a deceased employee with respect, elegance, and good taste, and publish it, I promise people will appreciate it—not just the employee’s family and colleagues, but also the customers and business partners you deal with. While death is a taboo subject for many of us, we all know it will happen to everybody without exception, it doesn’t help pretending otherwise, and we actually appreciate some assistance in facing reality. And, not to be crass, there is a business advantage to offering great obits on your site. If you honor your people in a beautiful, written appreciation, you will definitely stand out from the many companies that would never consider doing so. It shows that you are more mature, caring, realistic, and thoughtful than they are. Who knows, maybe even your products and services are more deserving of consideration than theirs.

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How to write badly (2): Think creatively about redundancies

We continue our series on writing badly, which started with minimal hyperbole a few days ago.

Marketing writers often think that the more they repeat their message, the better the impact. Often, they are also afraid of leaving anything unsaid—a reader might harbor doubts or even miss the point entirely, so it’s best to approach it from different angles. Distracted audiences might not even pay attention the first time they hear something, but maybe they’ll do better the second or third time. Apply this principle to writing content, and it will help you fill screens and pages quickly and result in the sort of labored prose that is a hallmark of accomplished bad-writing style. Thus: Recommended. If you want to stay within the healthy parameters of accepted writing behaviors and avoid surprising readers, you need to build redundancies into your copy.

As a bad writer, you need to guard carefully against your natural inclination to avoid redundancies.

Get creative in what you think of as repetitions and redundancies. You need to be bit subtle about it, or your readers will catch on to what you’re doing and think it’s some kind of gullibility or perseverance test. You need to keep your redundancies varied, or the audience will drift away. As you practice, start by creating redundancy within a sentence, using two or three similar expressions when one would suffice, be enough, or make your point. At the next stage, which requires a little more effort, you can elegantly repeat the content of entire sentences. Going beyond single words and short phrases, entertain your audience by rephrasing certain statements.

If you want to take redundancy to a higher level, you need to do a little planning. Have you seen those white papers in which the executive summary, introduction, and conclusion are alike except for some turns of phrase? That takes work. Or, consider case studies. Many times, a case study or success story introduces certain issues an organization experienced. Then, the writer tells you how the company used a product or service to address these issues, which can be happily recapitulated at that point. Finally, a concluding section presents what changed, giving room to restate the issues a third time. Even better, supporting quotes can echo the narrative with comparable redundancies. Customer evidence is practically the Holy Grail for writers who are dedicated to the pursuit of redundancy. I know some people are trying to move away from the gold standard, but many case study writers and their readers proudly and passively lag behind. You don’t want to go out on a limb, straying from the norm.

If your boss or client still has budget left to spend on your contributions, you can dream up entire deliverables that are completely redundant. Don’t try it with case studies—it’s too darn obvious when one company starts sounding like another. I’ve seen this done very well with white papers, where the risk of somebody reading more than one is low in any case. Also, with fact sheets, easy to knock off and quickly repeated for other offerings. A tip: If you want to test whether people actually read your materials, insert some completely off-the-wall content near the end and see if anybody comments. If they stay quiet, you’re free to repeat whatever you like, as long as you like.

Redundancy, already bad in itself in most writing unless it’s an opera libretto, can be worse if you apply yourself. Stay tuned as we explore complementary techniques. Mistakes will be made, again.

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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!

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Hello, there. Nice to see you here!

Thanks for stopping by! My name is Chris Lemoine. I live in Seattle, Washington, United States. I’m a writer and traveler who usually earns his living as a marketing writer, content strategist, and account manager. In this blog, I will share ideas and experiences related to writing, content development, communications, languages, and travels. If you want to see pictures from trips, visit Imagerie Lemoine. You can also find my profile on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect or send mail, especially if you’re thinking about sending me work. I’ll be happy to discuss projects anytime.

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