"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Seven Types of Bad Writing

Everyone can write. But not everyone can write well.

We all learn to write at school but then society makes a distinction between 'writers' and 'the rest of us.' A writer sits in a garret and writes poetry. The rest of us write memos. It's a false division.

Because everyone can write, people underestimate its importance and overestimate their own ability. Because they think that writers are creative weirdos they rarely think about hiring a specialist when they have something important to say.

I'm not talking about advertising copywriting. This is an art form at its best -- business haikus. I'm talking about brochures, websites, case studies, press releases, reports, letters and the humdrum daily word torrent.

What comes out of most companies is bad. In my experience, there are seven types of bad business writing:

  1. Thinks too much of itself. The UK satirical magazine, Private Eye runs a regular column lampooning the abuse of the word 'solution.' For example, Dow Corning's "Innovative solutions for wound management," which means "bandages." This kind of word inflation devalues meaning and arouses the scepticism of readers.
  2. Is too clever by half. For some reason, people are afraid to write how they speak. They want to sound big, grown-up and clever. So they use big words and long sentences. For example, I was presented with this beauty at a school board meeting once: "the Governing Body are agreeing this budget as the financial mechanism to support the education priorities of the school as identified in the School Development Plan and will adhere to the best value principles in spending its school funding allocation." It meant, "We approve the budget."
  3. Gets hyped up. Press releases often include "frankenquotes." These made-up quotations bear no resemblance to normal speech. For example, "Nortel has established a legacy in innovation and will continue to push the envelope..." Try saying that in a pub to your friends. See if they still listen to you afterwards. Or trust you.
  4. Tells lies. In the UK, journalists score low in public trust. Somewhere near politicians and spin-doctors. However, good journalists are obsessive about research, accuracy, good reporting, details and, yes, truth. What works for newspaper stories also works for business communication. Truthfulness in writing is as much about research as it is about intent.
  5. Ignores the reader. As a writer, the greatest skill is to think about what the reader needs to hear, not what you need to say. It takes an imaginative leap. For example, Google says "Please read this carefully, it's not the usual yada, yada." Microsoft says "This software is licensed under the agreement below." Which one are you more likely to read?
  6. Needs to go on a diet. Most writing can be improved by liposuction. Consider the Gettysburg Address -- short but strong. Antoine de Saint-Exupery said it best: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." This is especially true when writing for the web, when you need to cut the word count by about 50 percent.
  7. Has no direction. My favourite tutor at Oxford told me that I had to take my essays and drive them like Ayrton Senna (a famous racing driver). Good writing has purpose and direction. Bad writing has neither.

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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:

Monday December 11th 2006, 4:17 AM
Comment by: Carol B.
I would add an eighth to the list:

The writing is all over the map. Much of what is written by amateurs or ineffective writers is simply too scattered as far as organization and thoughtful construction. Pick a direction and go there, with some kind of plan for all the stops in between start and finish. Let the reader enjoy the journey, not experience vertigo from all the twists and turns.
Monday December 11th 2006, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Regna P.
This came at a very good time as guidance for a group of us who have embarked on writing articles for a devotional magazine. We are doing fine, but still need to read this as reinforcement to perfect our mission.

Monday December 11th 2006, 1:07 PM
Comment by: June B.
This article is terrific. I am so excited about learning even at my age. I've had a desire to write professioanlly for a while now just because I want to be correct, but especially because I want to represent my company well. I've been searching for a while now on how to do just that and I ran across the Visual Thesaurus and this article. I am really happy I did. I am looking forward to reading more articles and any other resources that will help me. Words are really inadequate to express how I feel right now.

Thank you for sharing!
Monday December 11th 2006, 8:43 PM
Comment by: Susan T.
I don't know how many times I have had to tell folks to write like they talk instead of trying to doctor up their prose with high-falutin' speakage. They end up making funny mistakes with words, reminding me of the old comedian Norm Crosby, who would casually substitute similar-sounding words for very funny effect. He is probably one of the first to make famous the phrase, "I resemble that statement."
Tuesday December 19th 2006, 1:04 PM
Comment by: rita H.
this is a very good article...and worth printing and posting at my desk...thank you
Saturday December 30th 2006, 10:07 PM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
I would add: Write from your heart and write within your everyday command of vocabulary.
Monday January 8th 2007, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Thought provoking indeed!

Thanks to Matthew stibbe!

Monday January 15th 2007, 4:00 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I teach business writing, especially ad copy, and what you say is very true. My students bring in advertising that appeals to them or that makes them go, "huh?" and we figure out what makes it good and what makes us want to go out and buy whatever they're selling.

Sunday January 28th 2007, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Malena L.
To add to your great list: Axe the $10 words. Because writers tend to have larger than norm vocabularies - thanks Visual Thesaurus! - it's tempting to put in a big word when a simpler word is much more impactful for the story.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Anne B.
As a corporate "ghost" for 25 years, I completely agree with your approach to business writing. Even before tapping the keyboard, however, is the challenge of educating clients to the value of well-written copy in their brochures, press releases, annual reports, etc. when they perceive business-speak to be the appropriate norm. Your example of Google vs. Microsoft illustrates this well.
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 1:10 AM
Comment by: Melissa K.
Time Capsul

We found a treasure trove of great journalistic writing when my mother thought about pulling up an old canvas floor cover in her family home. There were newspapers spread around neatly under it dating from the mid 1940's.

We very much enjoyed reading the old articles and noticed a big difference from the news writings of today.

They were beatifully written, detailed, told the stories and answered the readers questions quickly, and they were ...shorter.

Now that that I have them remembered, I think I'll go find out if she still has them. I'd like to share this treasure with my teenage children. I think they would be very good examples of how we all should write for the public.

I now prefer old books written around that time. It seems the differences remain throughout all different types of writing. I have become an explorer of the good ol' days of literature.

Try it!

What is a canvas floor?
The stuff seems to be an early form of linoleum. It was made from a substance like thick pressed tar paper. It is printed in tapestry designs and has definite borders. You would buy a canvas floor as you would an area rug, by size. There is no cutting-to-fit or the design would be ruined.
The newspapers, we are left to suppose, either served as insulation or, more likely, to prevent the floor from sticking and becoming irremoveable.
There was nothing wrong with my mother's canvas floor. It has proven to be very durable. These floors are very valuable for their designs, and will crack from age when lifted up.
In the end she replaced the papers with new, and only carpeted over it until she could arrange a buyer to come and remove it properly someday.
Friday August 17th 2007, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Howard D.
A good companion to Strunk & White. Still the best word on the subject. Cheers to Matt.
Thursday September 6th 2007, 10:38 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Your facetiousness fails you at times. With point 2, your boiling down of the message doesn't suggest the originator is trying to be too clever, but rather that you're content with being more dim. The longer sentence conveys more information, which is why, strangely enough, people use them.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Interesting article. Keep up the good work!

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