This Is What Writing Looks Like


Readers have asked me to demonstrate how I write and edit. So I’m starting a new series where I take examples of really bad business writing and point out some flaws. Then I’ll show a new, revised version that communicates a similar message, only this time the words won’t hurt your eyes.

Our first guinea pig comes from the Atlantic online. (Oh, the Atlantic, how the mighty have fallen!) “Customer Analytics: the New Source of Value Creation” is a piece of sponsored content provided by IBM. Here are a few sentences I’ve pulled:

The successful CMOs will be the ones who will drive change across the enterprise to ensure that every touch point is building brand equity instead of diluting it.

Companies will also need to start paying attention to a whole new set of metrics in this new world. They need to understand who their brand advocates and detractors are, and what shapes their attitudes and drives their behavior. They need to keep track of near-advocates, and what type of interactions will turn them into advocates.

Similarly they need to keep a close eye on near-detractors, and what type of actions can reduce the probability of them turning into active and vocal detractors. 

Let’s take a look at some problems with this prose.

successful CMOs — Why focus on the Chief Marketing Officer? Why not talk to the rest of us? Surely the author doesn’t expect only CMOs will read his post. He must know that lots of people could see this piece, people with lots of different job titles. It looks like a cheap ploy to stroke his reader’s ego.

Also, notice that both words begin with that dreaded s- sound. Repeating sibilants is the worst kind of alliteration.

will be the ones who will — Why the future tense? Better to keep it in the here and now. This is what marketing people do. Also, note the needless repetition of the word will.

drive change — How many times have you heard this phrase this week? And while we’re at it, let’s stop driving results, driving metrics, driving retention. No more driving anything but automobiles, period.

across the enterprise — A fancy way of saying “everywhere.” Which is just another example of words so vague as to be meaningless.

touch point — Another cliché. This seems to be the current favorite catchall term for every time a customer sees or hears about your company.

building brand equity — There is very little that one person, even a mighty CMO, can do to build brand equity. Equity works the same way for houses and brands. You know what really builds equity? Longevity. If you want to build equity in your house, hold on to it for a really long time. Likewise, companies that have been around the longest tend to be the ones with great name recognition. Don’t believe me? Coca-Cola.

companies will also need — Again with the future tense. Why not do it now?

a whole new set of metrics — Bad writers hide behind nominalizations like “metrics” when what they really mean is a verb, like “to measure.” Besides, what are these metrics supposed to measure?

this new world — Can we quit it with the whole new world stuff? Every ad, every blog post, every white paper makes it sound like the French Revolution happened last week. I’ll make you a deal. You invent a machine to teleport me and my luggage to Hawaii and back. Now that would be revolutionary. Then I’ll give my permission to call it a new world.

advocates — So many companies are desperately seeking brand advocates, the word has already become a cliché. When a company uses the word advocate, what they really mean is “customers who love what we do so much that tell their friends about it.”

near-advocates and near-detractors — Ugh, such unpleasant sounds. When you conjoin two words with a hyphen, not only do you add an extra layer of clunk, you push your reader’s comprehension. To do so twice in as many sentences is unforgivable.

What caused the author to write this way (assuming he wrote it himself, and not one of the “content providers” working for the Atlantic)? My hunch is that he doesn’t really know what he wants to say. So he reaches for any phrases that sound businessy in the hopes that readers will think, “Wow, he uses so many words, he must really know what he’s talking about.”

Instead of that vacuous business prose, IBM could have published something like this:

Great marketing isn’t about creating a great brand. Think about it – how many brands do you love? Exactly. Nobody falls in love with a brand.

No, real marketing genius means creating a product that people will love.

But how much do your customers love what you sell? It’s hard to measure how people feel. But you’ve got to try. Go outside, find out who is talking about you, what influences their thinking, what makes them tick. Do they love your product, or do they hate it? Chances are, you’ll find a lot of people on the fence, or totally apathetic.

Your job is to convert them.

Better? I’d love your feedback. Leave me a comment and tell me what you think.

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Invent New Words, Seriously

I’m glad to see Andrew Kaufman agree with me in the Guardian. Yes, we absolutely need to invent new words when naming things, especially because most of the good ones have already been sucked up by big corporations. Kaufman writes:

Inventing new words is one of the most rebellious things you can do. We all live under a set of prescribed social assumptions, which are embedded into our words. If you want to think outside your social conditioning, you will need a new word to do it.

But I fundamentally disagree with his assertion that, “Like every other word in the language, your new word should be a mashup of pre-existing words.” First of all, any linguist will tell you that not every word in the dictionary is built from other words. Some words are purely arbitrary in their origin.

As you can see from the list of examples he provides, portmonteaux, or words derived by mashing together existing words, are often silly or just dumb. It’s rare to find one that rises above the level of a bad pun.

True originality means inventing from nothing.  You have to find a euphonous combination of sounds that rarely occur together, and make them work. And then you get to sell your new word to the public, and see if it catches on.

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Against High-Tech Jargon

Wendy Marx writes a funny attack on acronyms and business jargon, especially the kind you find in the tech industry. Money quote:

There is also the mystique of jargon and highfalutin’ language. Creating your own nomenclature and acronymns like DSPs, SSPs, RTB, DMPs, and DDM, as the ad-tech world has done, provides a veneer of arcane magic that intimidates the outsider. Ultimately, however, it makes everything more complicated than it needs to be.

The whole thing is a must-read.

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What’s Your Favorite Neologism?

Longtime followers know how I love to harp on about inventing new words. Now here’s Bill Morris, writing in the Millions about “The Debased Art of Coining Words.” It’s a must read. Money quote:

Synergy – The repurposing of a fine old word to mean The Magic That Supposedly Happens When Moguls From Two Different Media Empires Get In Bed Together.

Love it! What’s your favorite neologism?

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Read This: How to Choose Words to Distinguish Yourself

Read this short article in FastCompany by Nacie Carson. It’s about finding the best words to describe ourselves, and choosing words to distinguish yourself from the rest.

Money quote:

Start with a statement about yourself as a professional using one of your current descriptors, like “I am an excellent communicator,” and then ask yourself “Why?” Why are you an excellent communicator? You might respond with, “Because I write concisely and clearly.” Then you ask yourself, “Why?” And then you respond, and then you ask again. A “why chain” is an excellent tool to help you drill down a generic descriptor to a more original term, and also help you to personalize it. You aren’t just finding a new way of saying “excellent communicator,” you are finding a way to describe your specific way of communicating. 

Some good advice in here. The challenge, of course, is living up to the words you choose for yourself.

What about you? Instead of “passionate and creative,” what words would you choose to describe who you are?


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Contest: Name My Next Book!

At first, I meant for WRITE LIKE A MAN to target, well, men. Because let’s face it, when it comes to expressing themselves in writing, a lot of guys need a lot of help. And almost all the language mavens I’ve met have been women.

When I checked the stats to see who’s buying and downloading my ebook, I was surprised to find the numbers split evenly down the middle. It’s about 50-50 male and female readers so far.

In the ebook, I make it clear that WRITE LIKE A MAN has nothing to do with gender. To write like a man means to communicate in a way that’s confident. To write decisively, even when you don’t know the rules. To be honest and tell the truth, to mean what you say and say what you mean.

As far as I can tell, those are virtues that belong to women and men alike.

Still, a couple of people have wondered if the title is meant to be sexist, as if to say that men are naturally better writers than women. That certainly wasn’t my intention at all. Like I said, in my experience, I’ve met more women who write well.

But just to make sure I’m not excluding anyone, I’ve decided to play fair and make a second ebook.

WRITE LIKE A MAN is getting a sister.

This one’s for the ladies. But what should I call it?

I’m opening this one up to the readers. Leave me a comment and suggest a title for my next ebook, coming out later this year.

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The Defensive Voice

In a must-read post for Oxford University Press, Peter Elbow explores the difference between writing and speech. Money quote:

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked.

It’s not only academics who write in this defensive crouch. Politicians, businessmen, and most other public figures will tend to anticipate arguments and cover their sentences in heavy armor.

However, to write in your own authentic voice means losing the armor and being vulnerable, taking the risk that someone might contradict you. Real, authentic writing can be scary. But that’s what it takes to be eloquent — and influential.



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