You don’t have to be the David Attenborough of writing to be able to spot sucky writing lurking in the undergrowth. Once you know what makes bad writing bad, you’ll see it everywhere.
In this post, I’ll help you identify 10 different kinds of bad writing, from common-or-garden verbosity to the most elusive (but alas not endangered) SEO keyword fails.
Don’t be too wordy. Your audience needs clear, relevant and useful writing, not poetic nonsense. And, like you, they are very busy. So keep it punchy and readable. Trust me, your readers will not only thank you for your clarity, but also for respecting their time by not wasting it.
2. Filler words
Cut the padding. Filler words are like the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ in everyday speech. They slow readers down and make your copy hard to follow. Proofread your work with an eye for superfluous words. Use readability metrics, including Articulate’s own, to keep sentence and word length in check. Try to make your writing flow as smoothly as possible, keeping in mind how people actually read.
3. Pious throat clearing
Cut out the waffle.
Make your point concisely and don’t bury your lede. It helps to have a general idea of what you want to articulate before you start writing. If you type blindly, your sentences will ramble and the point you were trying to make will get lost. In other words, it'll become sucky writing.
'If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’ (and without these overused clichés).
If you overuse common clichés, or business clichés, they can become irritating and distracting. Your readers may resort to skimming over your content or avoiding your writing completely. Try to use original anecdotes or metaphors instead. They’ll show off your creativity while avoiding the eye-rolls and sighs.
6. Insider/company jargon
You’re not writing for your boss or your colleagues. You’re writing for would-be customers. So write about their issues in their language, not about your stuff in yours. This starts with your marketing personas and tone of voice guidelines.
Have you seen the acronym ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC? (No, I didn’t make that one up.) It’s a US Navy term and it’s also the longest acronym in the English language.
I know what you’re thinking: it looks like someone’s just face-planted their keyboard. You’d be right not to put something this long and complicated in your writing. In fact, unless an acronym is very well known, try to avoid them all together. They can disrupt your writing’s fluidity and distract your reader.
8. Long words
Choose short words over long ones. Long words are harder to read, less clear and, ironically, they can make you look stupid or at least like you are trying too hard. Research shows that cutting the word count on a web page by half made the text 58 percent more readable. The Plain English campaign has a massively useful A-Z of alternative words.
9. Overstuffed with SEO keywords
You want Google to put your content at the top of people’s search results. But tricksy, blackhat approaches to SEO can backfire. Google is very clear about this: ‘Make pages primarily for users not search engines.’ Keyword stuffing doesn’t work and, worse, it’s just horrible to read.
Instead, try to understand your customers’ problems and needs and aim to give the best answers you can. A good test for great content is that a reader would pay to get the information or would write you a thank you letter for sharing it. It’s a high bar but aiming low with keyword-stuffed, factory-produced word salad content falls a long way short.
This is not worth your time. Yes, you may get a good click rate, but once your readers discover that your headline was a lie, they’ll lose interest and abandon your content. Be open about what you’re writing about - people don’t like bait and switch.
If your readers don’t want to read it, it’s sucky writing
Do you ever start reading something and find it hard to finish? Maybe it didn’t quite grab your full attention, or perhaps the words were hard to follow.
Whether you’re looking at someone else’s content or writing your own, try and understand why it might not read correctly. Read it out loud and use this list as a starting point. If it’s your own piece, you can always make appropriate changes. And if not, well... you have my permission to stop reading.
See also: how to edit
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