"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Being Human is Overrated (But Not When You are Writing)

"Bill Gates once asked me, 'Could you make me more human?' I said, 'Being human is overrated.'"

This doubly priceless quote comes from Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's former campaign strategist. (Hat tip: The Atlantic.)

When it comes to writing copy, the human touch is still vital. Here are some tips for making copy that reads like a human being wrote it. This is a useful trick if you're writing a speech, ghostwriting copy that is going to be by-lined to someone else or just trying to fetch some slippers and a pipe for your own material. 

  1. Write like you speak. Use occasional colloquialisms. Use everyday abbreviations, such as don't.
  2. Interview someone. In half an hour, you should get something that only they would say and that sums up the situation perfectly. Some of my best lines came from my clients during interviews.
  3. Short sentences. Conversation is rarely made up of paragraphs. It's more like a David Mamet dialogue. Short and snappy. Well, dog my cats.
  4. Short words. As I've mentioned before, unnecessarily long words make you look dumb. Ten dollar words can also make your copy sound pompous.
  5. Marketing speak. Words you would not use with your family or friends have no place in people-centered writing. Solution, market-leading, cutting edge, award-winning, optional etc. etc. Trademarks and over-capitalization make copy lumpy and difficult to read. Avoid frankenquotes. See my Devil's Marketing Dictionary (Parts one, two and three) for more.
  6. Don't be afraid of humor. I just finished Gore Vidal's autobiography, Point to Point Navigation, and it has a great gag in it. At a wedding, someone said to him "I'm always a bridesmaid but never a bride." He replied, "Always a godfather, but never a god."  Humor and politics separate us from the animals. Use it. Just be funny.
  7. Replicate speech patterns. You don't need to write up every umm and ah but it's okay to throw in the odd yes, no, but, etc.
  8. Embrace the exclamation mark. Yes, I know the grammar Nazis will come and take away my keyboard. But if you want to sound like a real person, you could give it a try. Go for it!
  9. Use everyday metaphors. Ground your writing in the familiar.
  10. A sense of person, place or time. Include something biographical or descriptive that shows that the author is a real person. "I'm writing this at the kitchen table..." or "When I was at university..."

 The master of this kind of writing was Alistair Cooke. Somehow he managed to make the serious sound informal. It's worth looking at (and listening to) some of his Letters from America.


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 20th 2008, 10:59 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I'm a professional ghostwriter (www.donwriteforyou.com). Plus, I'm Editor In Chief of a lifestyle magazine (www.110mag.com).

Everything in the article was right on! Kudos to Mr. Stibbe!

I have a good rule for exclamation marks. I use them with actual exclamations (as in my previous two sentences).

And I deliberately write exclamatory comments, such as, "This is the best article I've read on the subject in the past decade!" An exclamation mark certainly belongs at the end of that; high energy sentences like that belong in our writing.

Other tools in my own writing include deliberate use of semicolons (as in the previous sentence and ellipses. They provide variety in writing; they permit me to play with the flow of ideas, sentence patterns, word flow.... An em dash is a good tool to prevent run-on sentences from running on — they point the reader's attention.

(I don't have time to polish this to perfection; I've got to get back to work.)
Wednesday August 20th 2008, 1:39 PM
Comment by: Susan R.
Oh, mercy. “Write like you speak.” There’s an unfortunate sweeping generalization if I ever saw one. Trust me, there are plenty of venues where writing like you speak is totally inappropriate. Fortunately, blogging is not one of them so I can be chatty here.

I’m Susan Raab, corporate publishing specialist: Content Wheel—Make your ideas roll (www.contentwheel.com).

I write for prospects (copywriting) as well as for customers (information products). What I know is that when you’re writing to create a relationship with a prospect, yes for heaven’s sake reveal yourself as unique human being—engaging and funny. Use all those extra words that give your writing the rhythm of your spoken voice. Use incomplete sentences, catchy constructions, even grammatical errors to catch the readers' attention, shake them out of lethargy and get them engaged.

But after you’ve taken their money, watch out! We can read at least twice as fast as we speak, when the writing style supports speed. And customers expect to be able to read what they’ve purchased at very high speed indeed. They’ve already parted with their dough and they want the value they paid for RIGHT NOW.

Yes, humor and stories still have their place, but as teachers rather than entertainers.

Matthew, I’m sure you must also be an expert in writing for the web, where visitors spend so much more time scanning than reading. Don’t you agree there’s a difference?
Wednesday August 20th 2008, 1:58 PM
Comment by: J. G. K.
Keep it simple. Frequently, one has a tendency to throw away humility in an effort to become perfect. Article is very good! Salient and to the point. I am not a good writer, but by using the points raised, one should stay the course.
Saturday October 4th 2008, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Kevin W.
Much of this is accepted by those familar with styles of good writing. However, one thing I don't see mentioned here is the need for precision. I am frequently guilty of writing overly long e-mails and documentation; a bad habit of mine, because I want to provide enough contrext to ensure that I am not misunderstood.

Often I read things written by others in a short-handed fashion only to find that the intent or meaning of the message is unclear (or subject to interpretation). This requires further communication in order to ensure that we have a common understanding.

Writing as we speak; without the accompanying auditory and visual cues is, I believe, a common source of miscommunication. It may make the reading more interesting, but it can wreak havoc in a business letter or technical document.

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Matthew's tips for successful blogging.
Why do technical types have trouble writing for lay readers?
Matthew says, say more with less!