"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Why Good Writers (Occasionally) Produce Bad Copy

One of my readers sent me a thought-provoking email asking "why do good writers (occasionally) produce bad copy?" I thought about it for a while and here are a few suggestions.

  1. Dirty briefs. Luckily, I've only had a few pieces go off the rails. In each case, I can trace the problem back to an unclear, or non-existent, brief. Remedy: mutual understanding between client and writer is essential and a brief is how you get it.
  2. Group-think. Lawyers, academics and technology firms are notorious for writing things "because this is the way we've always done it." Often my role in life is just to be the person who hasn't been house trained. Remedy: read and write outside your field or company.
  3. Brand Nazis. Some people in big companies use brand bibles and conventions to turn good prose into ugly corporate speak; typically with too many capital letters (speed bumps for the eyes), impenetrable product names and trademark symbols everywhere. Remedy: learn the rules and find out what you can get away with. Use before and after examples to show why you recommend a different approach.
  4. Editing by committee. This is best illustrated by a video nasty: If Microsoft designed the iPod packaging. Remedy: try to get the client to filter all feedback through a single 'editor'.
  5. Death by redlining. I love getting feedback face to face or on the phone. I hate redlined documents. It's like a theatre director giving line readings to an actor rather than helping them explore the character and give a stronger performance. (Line readings = "when you say this line, raise your right eyebrow". Yuck!) Remedy: book up feedback calls or meetings when you accept the assignment and explain your working practice.
  6. Bad environment. Writers, like programmers, need a good working environment that is free from distractions and designed for the purpose. Remedy: I recommend Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Even though it is about software development, it applies equally to writers.
  7. Editorial structure. Good writers need good editors and good proofreaders. Remedy: see my post How to give good feedback.
  8. Not sharpening the saw. Like any professional, writers need to train and develop their skills. Otherwise, copy becomes stale. Remedy: I like to take time to read about writing. I also try to read good non-fiction prose. It keeps me sharp. I talk to other writers, though mainly novelists and playwrights. I have the solipsistic notion that I am the only freelance technology writer in the world and I don't want my illusions shattered.
  9. Deathmarch to publication. It's easy to let standards slip and lose concentration when you're faced with a tight deadline and lots of interruptions. For example, today I have to do three interviews and write two short pieces plus my blog. It feels like a slog and I'm not doing my best work. Remedy: try to train clients to give a reasonable deadline. (Or, in my case, don't move house at Christmas.)
  10. I surrender. Sometimes a combination of all these factors mean that I just give up and write anything that I think will be accepted by the client. I shouldn't (and I don't in 99.99 percent of cases) but it does happen. Remedy: pride in your work and saying no.


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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:

Thursday May 17th 2007, 1:57 PM
Comment by: Karen R.
Another reason I've hit is mandated style guides designed to make translation into other languages easier. I tried removing an infestation of thats in a technical document, and was told they had to remain because having them made translation easier.

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