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Tom Waits – yes that Tom Waits – once quipped in an interview,
“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering. It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate” (Vanity Fair, excerpted at maryellenmark.com).
Tom, I couldn’t agree more.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Bad Writing
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I get kind of annoyed by bad writing. It’s a character flaw of mine, I suppose, but one I’m just not willing to address yet.
Before we go any further, before we call out specific examples of shitty language, I’d like to lay out just what I mean by “bad writing.”
It’s an open ended term that needs some form and substance. After all, just about anything can be considered bad writing if you look hard enough. This meandering and somewhat frivolous article is no exception.
Bad writing is a few things. First, it’s horrible grammar –
I’m not talking about dangling modifiers because god knows I use those all the time. I’m not even talking about using then and than or you’re and your incorrectly.
Those can be forgiven. Well, they can be forgiven the first few times. If you keep pushing your luck…I can’t help ya.
When I say horrible grammar, I’m talking about the most basic building blocks of language. Things like inconstant tense and putting punctuation outside of quotation marks. Nothing gets me going like punctuation outside of quotation marks. For fuck’s sake people – did you not pay attention in third grade?
(Disclaimer – I realize there’s a stylistic difference between how punctuation is placed in the US and the UK. I’m talking to our US brethren here)
It’s not that hard to avoid horrible grammar. If you’re not sure, just Google the phrase you’re writing! That advice applies especially to marketers of all shapes and stripes. More on this point later.
Your Copy is Soulless & Not in the Sexy, Vampire Way
More than just sloppy grammar – bad writing is cliched and heartless language.
Copywriting. Content writing. SEO writing. Notice what they all have in common?
This racket involves writing, so why the hell would you get into it if you can’t write?
I’m not saying you have to be the next Hemingway – hell, we don’t even need another Hemingway – I’m saying you need to care about the words you create. Don’t settle for okay and for god’s sake don’t settle for eh.
Bleed a little bit for your words. Hit backspace once, twice, five times this sentence alone. Check out possible synonyms and rock back and forth for a minute because you’re overwhelmed by everything. Struggle to find exactly the right word. Struggle to find a word that’s going to produce exactly the emotion you want.
The clicks of your keyboard are tantamount to giving birth. Don’t be the asshole that injects heroin for six months and gives birth to a strung out baby. None of us want the wailing and crying that baby brings with it.
The Human Experience
After bemoaning sloppy writing, Mr. Waits goes on to hit something universal. The most universal subject we can touch on actually – the human experience.
He says, “It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate.” I love this idea and not only because it’s grandiose and gives literally no fucks.
I love this idea because it sounds remarkably similar to something else I love.
Inspiration and elevation – did someone say call to action? Tom Waits is saying writing should inspire you to do something. Tom Waits, in so many words, is saying writing should convert you.
Maybe not in the traditional sense of a conversion, but in the sense that writing should produce a specific and measurable reaction – do we feel better after reading? Do we fill out the contact form?
Both are measurable and the result of language!
And language, ladies and gentlemen, should encourage us to be better at this thing called life. Language should encourage us to do something, whether that something is getting up from our desks and going for a walk or buying a new car.
And here we’ve reached the part where I tell you to step outside yourself and think about your reader. It’s the only cliche you’ll find in this article, I promise.
Good writing and good marketing both engage. They don’t vaguely and generally consider that someone will one day notice them – they actively seek out an audience and hold that audience captive. They don’t hurl themselves at an unsuspecting individual – they seduce with all the grace, wit, charm, and sex appeal of James Bond or Marilyn Monroe.
I think it’s important to stop here and regroup. I’ve been throwing out some possibly offensive stuff and just wait until we get to the passage below in second-person. Let’s sit back, take a few sips from whatever we’re drinking (am I the only one with scotch?), and think about kittens.
Look at that little guy! Or girl. It’s actually pretty sexist of me to assume that’s a boy kitten. Not cool, Dave, not cool.
Okay, ready to move on?
If You Can’t Write – Don’t Market
The h2 says it all. Lest I’m accused of making sweeping pronouncements with no evidence, let me provide you fine folks with an example. Not just any example either – the “fictional” article below is based on several very real articles.
You know the ones I’m talking about. We read them everyday while scrolling through Inbound.org or whatever aggregator you prefer. They’re everywhere.
Let’s say I happen to come across a piece of content you’re promoting. It’s a B2B marketing article titled 10 Hidden Landing Page Hacks. If the title of your article is one giant cliche, why would the content be any different?
Oh, I’m wrong? You mean your 400 words don’t rehash the same ten points Unbounce made last week? I thought so. Even worse, you use limp and passive language like “your conversions will skyrocket thanks to these tips!”
I’m going to stop reading right about there. The words on your digital page are – how do I put this nicely? – making me want to blind myself with a rusty fork.
I’m going to stop scrolling before I even reach your CTA – which, by the by, reads “Sign Up Now!”
Nope, don’t think I will, even if I had gotten to it.
Look, everything about this “fictional” article is generic, soulless, and fucking repulsive.
There’s no actual value to this type of writing. It’s the stuff flooding whatever social channel we happen to use at all hours. It’s the reason people only read headlines. It’s the stuff that gives content marketing a bad name – well, some of the stuff anyway.
There’s No Excuse for Crappy Writing in Today’s World
There really isn’t. A quick search for something like “copywriting resources” turns up more options than you can shake your iPhone at.
Consider a few of my personal favorites:
- This list of 75 resources from Kissmetrics
- The Content Marketing Institute
- Or, my personal favorite, The Middle Finger Project
There’s one resource I didn’t mention above – one resource that, when listed, may torpedo this entire article.
Are you ready? You know the best way to become a better copywriter? Study poets.
Now, between the gut wrenching laughs you’re currently having and before you write me off as a crazy person – which, by the way, I am & we all are – hear me out.
Poets agonize over each and every word they write. Poets leave a piece of their heart on the page. Poets give a shit about exactly what language can do. Poets seek, above all else, to produce an emotional reaction through their work.
Guess who else is in the emotional reaction racket?
So yeah, if you want to be a better copywriter – if you want to be a better marketer – spend some time studying poets. Spend some time with Fence and Yes Yes Books. Spend some time with Publishing Genius and Copper Canyon.
Spend some intimate time with words, lines, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and books.
Or quit – the choice is yours.