"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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