If you write anything for business, or you’re interested in writing at all, it’s well worth subscribing to the Good Copy, Bad Copy blog.
Recently Clare analysed and rewrote a passage of bad business writing, providing some excellent advice in the process.
In my job I often have to extract content from press releases, an unerring source of bad writing. Clare’s post and my own press release experiences lead me to think about why people write so badly.
1. The untrained write
I suspect that in many organisations the person who is responsible for product/service/event x is also responsible for writing about it.
Or, worse still, the sales department is responsible.
You don’t need an English degree in order to write well. Anyone with a GCSE in English Language understands the parts of speech and the difference between active and passive voices.
But you need to know when to use certain techniques, and which practices will make you difficult to understand and create the wrong impression. These are skills that need learning and exercising.
2. Good business writing is too simple
Well, it’s not, but it appears to be. After all, we learn how to write simple, factual sentences before all the apparently complicated stuff, like building tension and writing to persuade.
Good business writing falls squarely in the ‘simple’ category. It deals in facts and gets to the point.
Unfortunately, untrained writers feel that short, unadorned paragraphs and sentences don’t constitute proper writing and that a sprinkling of adjectives, adverbs and complicated sentence structures add the required gravitas.
But readers aren’t interested in complicated, ‘proper’ writing…
Reading is a contextual act. If we’re enjoying a novel in the comfort our home we’ll take the time to ponder and re-interpret sentences, wallowing in the book’s complexities.
Reading in a business context is different. It’s unlikely we’re looking for a challenge, or even entertainment. We’re just looking for information that can help us do stuff.
And we’re probably reading in a less than perfect environment. Unless you’re the boss, it’s unlikely you can close the door, recline in a comfy chair and take the time to read properly.
Instead, we’re probably sitting at a poorly lit desk peering into a desktop monitor. I know I am right now.
Writers need to realise that they have an audience before even thinking about who that audience is. Web readers couldn’t care less about how ‘proper’ the text seems if it’s a struggle to read.
What good business writing looks like
Estate agents are usually terrible writers. Except when it comes to the nitty gritty of room descriptions. Then they demonstrate an admirable economy:
10’1 (3.07) x 8’ (2.44)
Inset lights. Double glazed window to rear. Single drainer sink unit with mixer tap. Fitted electric hob (AEG). Fitted electric oven (AEG). Extractor hood. Aluminium style splashbacks. Range of eye level units. Range of base units with cupboards and drawers. Tiled splashback. Space for washing machine and fridge/freezer. Jonathan Waters
Note the punchy sentence fragments and the descriptive, concrete adjectives (fitted, inset and tiled) that provide essential details, rather than talk up the kitchen. There’s no waffle here, which makes the passage seem trustworthy.
It’s a most un-estate agent like piece of writing, but I think it works well because it provides me with lots of information without making me work. It also shows that anyone is capable of good business writing.