This Is Why You Suck At Writing*
*and why you really, really don’t.
If I had a penny for every time a client told me they had no confidence in their writing…
Well, I’d have a lot. Don’t ask me to do maths. I’m a writer.
While it’s not in my best interests to pat these people on the back, it does suggest a need to explore a deeper issue. You see, for those of us who didn’t pursue English beyond G/CSE, the big wide world of writing is pretty constrained.
We’re not talking about Nobel Prizes for Literature here. We’re talking about writing content for business. For marketing. And if you’ve got a pretty well-established career, chances are you’ve not looked at a schoolbook in a while.
Defining ‘writing’ – turning back the clock
Rewind 10 years and Google hadn’t even released Panda. It was still merrily letting people climb to the top by producing utter garbage through content mills. (I worked for one. I’m allowed to say that.)
Twenty years ago, Google was only entering the terrible twos. The biggest thing it had going for it was the Google Toolbar. Print advertising was a $150 billion industry. Kylie’s Spinning Around was #1. It was a magical time.
Thirty years ago, advertising was undergoing a seismic shift. Independent media company ‘spin-offs’ were all the rage. Ad agencies were embarking on the “new frontier” that was the internet, and some nutcase in Surrey was pushing her mother into labour.
But we didn’t really hear the term “content marketing”, at least, not in its “second era” sense until 2004, when Merriam-Webster declared “blog” as its word of the year. In the years that followed, YouTube rose to fame, and the Content Marketing Institute was born. Many, many years after we rounded off that final English essay, we met the dreaded obligation to write, once again.
So, what’s the problem with writing?
The problem with this obligation is that content marketing is a world away from academic writing. I recall drafting up an interview for Raconteur – the interviewee remarked that bad habits are “learned” in school. We are taught using prescriptive methods, and if we dare deviate from these, we’re penalised with bad grades.
These bad habits carry on into university. We’re judged on word counts. We’re encouraged to write long, sprawling prose – endless paragraphs with sentences that are so meandering, by the time we’ve got to the end of them, we don’t know if we’re coming or going. (See what I did there?)
This. Is Bad. Marketing. Why?
“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
That’s what William Faulkner said about Ernest Hemingway. It was supposed to be an insult. For a copywriter, it would be praise.
— jackiebarrie (@jackiebarrie) June 12, 2020
Yes, Faulkner, your colourful words might spark all sorts of images, but we’re not writing novels. We’re keeping it simple.
What your readers really want
If you want your content to make a difference, you need to turn off that schoolteacher voice. Otherwise, that toaster you’re writing about might just turn into an innovative solution that capitalises on cutting-edge technology to override tepid baked goods with multiple consumer touch points.
Just for a bit of fun, try this out for yourself. It’s a great way of checking for corporate BS in your copy. Let’s take an auto-generated example:
“Completely synergise resource taxing relationships via premier niche markets. Professionally cultivate one-to-one customer service with robust ideas. Dynamically innovate resource-levelling customer service for state-of-the-art customer service.”
Talk to your readers like a human.
You may have heard the term “keep it simple, stupid”. It’s actually a design principle, but it applies to writing, too.
Dave Trott summed it up best at BrightonSEO in September 2019. If you bore your readers with high school essay language, you’re going to make them feel stupid, and you’re going to alienate them. Bye bye sale.
So, what’s a good tool to use instead?
The Flesch Reading Ease Test
If you’re using WordPress, you might notice this niggly little tool with its judgemental red dots. Learn to love it – trust me; I hated it at first. The Flesch Reading Ease Test looks at two key variables:
- Sentence length
- Average number of syllables per word.
It then awards you a score, from 0-100. Get in the 90s and your copy is easy to read, matching the reading level of an 11-year-old. Get it in the <30s and it’s accessible to university graduates only. I know what you’re thinking. “But I want to sound clever!” Sounding clever ain’t very clever.
Your copy needs to be as simple as possible. That’s not to say that we think people are stupid or that they deserve to be condescended. They’re quite simply short on time. But more on that later.
The Hemingway App
The Hemingway App uses the same school grading principle, only this one is a lot harsher. It measures:
- Passive voice
- Simple alternatives e.g. “use” instead of “utilise”
- Hard to read sentences
- Very hard to read sentences.
Again, I hear you. Why the hating on the adverbs? Interestingly (deliberate), this is a bone of contention among some of the world’s best-loved writers.
Stephen King, who’s sold more than 350 million books, says:
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique.”
Meanwhile, the late Terry Pratchett, who’s sold more than 85 million books, would use adverbs unashamedly at every opportunity. For example:
“It’s for putting wine in,” she said defiantly. “My mother brought it back from Spain.”
“It hasn’t got a bull on it,” said Adam severely.
“It doesn’t have to,” Pepper countered, moving just ever so slightly into a fighting stance.
So yes, writing is totally subjective. Even today, people are questioning if King’s contempt for adverbs is going out of fashion.
What’s not going out of fashion? Technology.
And with it, our ever-dwindling attention spans. Whether you’re agonising over passive voice or not, people will still leave your website after 15 seconds if they’re not engaged.
That’s why we need to consider so many more factors, none of which come from prescriptive teachings. If you want to write good content, remember:
- Think about page design.
- Is it scroll-friendly for mobile readers?
- Can your reader navigate to a significant point with ease?
- These may render as ‘rich snippets’ in Google – short paragraphs that answer a user’s question, which can be found with a relevant heading.
- Does your content solve the user’s problem?
- Good copywriting doesn’t brag – it solves problems.
- Do you use a consistent tone of voice?
- Agree a set of brand guidelines if your team is larger than one person.
Ditch the dictionary. Try this instead.
Now that you’ve satisfied the robots (I’m half joking), try spicing up your copy with these tips.
Use the Gary Provost approach
With so many distractions, we need to keep our readers engaged. You can use Gary Provost’s ‘musical’ approach:
Use the force. (Science. We mean science.)
You’re writing for the customer, not your English teacher. The 12 most persuasive words in the English language (according to various studies) are:
Make it about them.
Long sentence or short sentence, buzzword or no buzzword, it’s not about you. Look at the persuasive words. It’s about YOU – the customer! Whatever you’re writing, make sure you use those personal pronouns with the gay abandon of Pratchett’s adverbs.
Keep it concise. Keep it simple. Keep it real. And yes, this blog post will probably fail MASSIVELY on the Hemingway Test. But it’s supposed to, so there.
Need help crafting your copy? Contact Katie Lingo.
22nd July 2020