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 the great American novel. 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 artform 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 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 are made-up quotations that 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.
  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 is more likely to be read?
  6. Needs to go on a diet. Most writing can be improved by liposuction. Consider the Gettysburg Address. 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 a strong purpose. Bad writing has either no direction or has too many.
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32 Responses to Seven types of bad writing

  1. Robert says:

    I like this post. I should have it as a daily mantra chanted at dawn, elevenses, lunch and at tea-time.

    I especialy like the liposuction bit. I can take each point you make and direct you to a salient example of my writings. Maybe not the budget one but I know I have let my brevity slip aside for verbosity.

    I cringe when I hear ‘passion’ used in a discussion or point being made by the last person on earth to be passionate about anything except himself!! Used in the wrong context it makes a brilliant fool of the user. So I shall parody it in an Oozetoon. We use a lot of the ‘solution’ word too.

  2. Great post matthew – you’ve given me a lot of food for thought on my presentation at next weeks UK Partner Conference now (over use of the word solution) and I love the Senna reference. RIP

  3. As I read on through your post everything you wrote rang true.

    I see too many examples of overwriting, and marketers and public relations professionals are often the worst offenders.

    Thanks for putting it all so succintly.

  4. Great advice, Matthew.

    When is the book coming out?

    I mean when are writing it?

    I mean when will you write a book about writing for God’s sake?

  5. Sylvia says:

    The statement is stronger without “not when there is nothing left to add, but”

  6. Linda says:

    I do not write for a living, but I type the words of someone who does and unfortunately he is a laywer. He loves to hear him self talk and he writes the same way. I am printing out Matthew’s list and will just leave it sitting on my desk hoping he will see it. Maybe he will take the hint, but I’m not holding my breath.

  7. Matthew – Thanks for this. I’ve realized recently a lot of PR writers go through a three-stage evolution.

    Stage 1: They use 50 words to say something, but it’s unclear as to what they’re saying.

    Stage 2: The 50 words become 100, but they can explain the idea clearly.

    Stage 3: They can explain an idea in a tight concise 50 words.

    And during this evolution they fight with/through your seven types. Great stuff!

  8. Gino says:

    If we take a moment to think about who we are about to talk to and what we want to effectively communicate before typing ahead and clicking the send button, our communications would be so much more effective. It’s a difficult habit to stick to. This is true for both personal and business communication.

  9. Thank you for revealing the seven steps of bad writing. I’m always happy to find someone who is standing up for the English language (including our version here in the US). The enemy speaks in jargon – and buzzwords are everywhere, especially in the business world. I hope my new blog, Business Writing Today, is helpful in a small way. I just subscribed to your blog. Keep up the good work!

  10. Shane says:

    Thanks for this post. Points two and three are painfully familiar from a lot of PR-material I’ve come across. For my own writing, I think keeping texts short is the greatest challenge.

  11. Florence says:

    I’ve thought about these points, your ideas will help me a lot. This will be a great help; I’d even wish to translate this post for my regional language readers.
    .-= Florence´s last blog ..Why pay for Pirated stuff? =-.

  12. Melusine says:

    Also, life is too short to be bored stiff most of the time.
    By bringing a smile to your reader’s lips you might go a long way to win his heart.
    The first stop on the way to his purse …

  13. Linda says:

    I especially liked the 5th point. It’s really a must to take into consideration what a reader might think or feel, otherwise percept the reading. It’s point #1 to my mind!

  14. Pretty good post, this is one of the best articles that I have ever seen! This is a great site and I have to congratulate you on the content.
    I appreciate it!
    Thanks a lot for a bunch of good tips.

  15. Nyasha Themba Dhliwayo says:

    “The above article is a highly favourable discourse on the art and practise of professional writing,” meaning “good post”.


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