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Why do good writers (occasionally) produce bad copy?

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Picture of Matthew Stibbe
on 4 January 2007
How to write Writing Strategy edit

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 came up with a few suggestions.

When good writers produce bad copy 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Brand restrictions. 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.
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  • 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'.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Editorial structure. Good writers need good editors and good proofreaders. Remedy: see my post How to give good feedback.
  • Not sharpening the saw. Like any professional, writers need to train, develop their skills and learn how to edit their own copy. 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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.

See also Why interviews go wrong, The top ten lies of writers, Seven types of bad writing, How to encourage your staff to write better.

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