Want to be trusted online? Don’t commit these 11 writing blunders
By Chris Gillespie, founder of Find A Way Media
Kinda sorta try to not even do it
What makes bad writing bad? Plenty has been written for novelists. But legends like Strunk and White would probably quail at the grammatical atrocities committed online, in business.
From analyst reports written in pure passive-tense to technology blogs whose authors insist that clarity is for creatives, the web is dense with word butchery.
I always ask myself: What is it about this writing that makes it so difficult to read? Why don’t I understand? And why am I having trouble believing this author?
What follow are 11 of the most common reasons this occurs.
Whenever possible, avoid:
1. Being condescending
“Just think about it”
“It’s obvious that __”
First off, don’t tell me what to do. And really, if it’s so clear and obvious, why tell the reader at all? Condescending colloquialisms may reflect how we talk but they’re a subtle put-down, especially in writing.
2. Making unsupportable claims
An editor recently corrected the following statement from my writing:
“Sports fans love personalized content.”
To her point, I can’t really claim this. Do all sports fans love personalized content, or just some? If it is all, can I prove it? Without evidence, it's best to couch your all-or-nothing statements in some appropriate uncertainty such as, “Some fans” or “many fans.”
It’s a similar story for making sweeping generalizations, such as telling the reader what people in previous eras thought. Leave the history to the historians, especially if a simple Google search undermines your argument, as was the case with an article I recently read. The author stated:
"More than a hundred years ago, the concept of analytics might not have meant much in the minds of business owners and managers. They probably didn’t even know what the word ‘analytics’ meant.”
That sounded fishy, so I looked it up.
The word analytics itself has been in use since Shakespeare’s time. What the author was probably trying to convey was that analytics software is, historically speaking, new, which is true. But what we as readers hear is that our beloved author feels superior to people from earlier eras and didn’t bother to conduct a simple search.
The statement comes across as shrill. But that’s not all that article can teach us.
3. Making competing claims
If you ever want to know what it’s like to listen to someone argue with themselves, you have at least two options: Take the New York subway or read an article where the author hasn’t done enough revision. It’s not uncommon for authors to learn more as they write, but it makes for a poor user experience if their opinions change inexplicably throughout.
In aforementioned analytics article, after claiming that people 100 years ago had no idea what the word “analytics” meant, the author went on to point out that the word “analytics” is derived from Greek and is actually quite old.
Always edit with an eye to revising your competing claims. If they must compete, explain why.
4. Going crazy with caps
From a LinkedIn post:
“We need more Top of Funnel content”
Unless “Top of Funnel” is the name of a product, there’s no need to capitalize it. Writers frequently capitalize common nouns that they regard highly, the way they do proper nouns, such as cities, streets, names, and companies. But the internet isn’t a monarchy and you don’t have to bow to things with fancy titles.
5. Mixing metaphors
From an article about WeWork:
“New, mid-century modern-styled offices are popping up like flies all over New York City. They’re the long tentacles of the coworking giant WeWork, which is taking off like a rocket.”
Yes, I wrote this, no I’m not proud. None of these metaphors jibe. They paint three separate pictures that, together, are an awful mosaic and cause needless brain strain.
6. Unnecessary lists
From a website of a marketing software:
“A documented strategy can help product marketers deliver outcomes, revenue, and results.”
The three items in the above list are synonyms. Pick one. As it stands, the above sentence reads like a stream of consciousness, as if the author was thinking it through as they wrote it. In the now timeless admonition, omit needless words. The above sentence can become:
“A documented strategy can help product marketers deliver revenue.”
7. Giving vague advice
From an article about customer service:
"Make sure your agents are able to provide solutions when they find themselves up against a wall with a frustrated customer.”
Tell me, are your customers Italian mobsters who literally pin your poor support agents to the wall and spew threats in South-Boston accents? If so, this sentence works. If not, what does it mean when someone finds themselves up against a wall? And what’s the solution? These assertions are fine in your first-draft but they’re doughy and formless. Before anything goes to print, chisel them into precise terms.
“Make sure your agents are trained with the skills they need to resolve frustrated customer issues.”
8. Unnecessary jargon
From an analyst white paper on video marketing:
"Tactics must deliver timely and relevant information to the buyer as well as capture buyer information and insights that can be used to offer increased value and relevance with each exchange."
Analyst agencies like Forrester, Gartner, and SiriusDecisions are, without question, the reigning heavyweight champions of saying nothing in as many words as possible. They write like this because they’re hedging their bets. Big companies invest millions of dollars based on what they say and analysts can’t be caught writing anything too concrete.
Here is how I’d rewrite this mess if I intended it for human consumption:
“Data enables the marketing team to learn and improve. We think buyers should select video platforms that capture lots of data.”
I'll bet that with time, you could do even better.
9. Using “-oriented”
From various LinkedIn posts:
Unless we’re talking about chairs and where they’re situated in a room, the above nouns aren’t oriented. They just are. If you take away -oriented and it doesn’t make sense, for instance, “Make sure the metrics are business,” then you weren’t conveying much information anyway. Best to consult a thesaurus and find words that are more precise.
You could say, “Make sure the team is focused on results,” “I’m good with people,” and “I enjoy words that sound businessy.”
10. Highly questionable quotes
Consider the quote:
“If you can’t explain it to a five-year-old, you don’t understand it well enough.” - Einstein
A cursory Google search will reveal that there is plenty of reason to doubt Einstein ever said those words. The quote has also been credited to Richard Feynman, Ernest Rutherford, David Hilbert, and Kurt Vonnegut. Be careful not to perpetuate false attributions which are all too easy to make online. If a reader notices, they might question the validity of your entire piece.
One good place to double check your attribution is Snopes’ questionable quotes archive. (Nothing in there about Einstein's quote, sadly.)
Wait. Someone check this one.
From an article on marketing:
“If teams are entirely dependent upon data, it can be a bit crippling when it comes time to make a decision.”
What is “a bit crippling?” Is it similar to being a bit murdered? Kinda, try-to, sort-of, almost remove all softeners from your writing.
Take the time to say precisely what you mean. Revise away the above 11 blunders and you're well on your way to building credibility online. Where, y'know, everyone is credible.