Where Bad Marketing Copy Comes From

Like many people who call themselves writers or editors (or both), I have an almost allergic response to the uninteresting, uninspired and sometimes unreadable tripe that all too often passes for “professional writing” these days. Likening my reaction to an allergy is only a slight exaggeration, too. It may not be physical (unless you count the eye roll), but it is immediate, uncomfortable and involuntary.

The Internet is rife with lists of words marketing and business writers should stop using, examples of horrible writing and editing, and a veritable army of trolls ready to pounce on the merest grammatical slip, whether real or imagined. Adding to the chorus of moans, groans and gripes would serve little purpose. That isn’t what we should be doing. We should instead ask and try to answer these two more important questions: how did we get here, and what are we going to do about it?

I would love to have the capacity and tenacity to perform some hard-core, in-depth research into historical shifts in writing standards in business and marketing, but I don’t. The following four ideas come from my decades of reading, writing, and editing.

Here’s where I believe bad marketing writing comes from:

Downplaying the value of quality writing. I want to believe that everyone in a company, from the ivory tower to the mail room, wants his company’s writing to be high quality, reflecting the overall quality that each company hopes to provide with their products and services.

I want to believe that, but I’m too cynical. I know there are some people in management who place little value in high-quality writing. For these people, writing serves only the purpose of transmitting data. Anything beyond data transfer is pointless.

Seeing how lawyers save time (and therefore money) by using boilerplate text for the bulk of their documents, some business owners have adopted the same technique (and foisted it on their staffs) for their business writing.

But nobody reads that stuff. (When is the last time you read a Terms of Service document from start to finish?) If you want people to read what you write, modeling it after text that is largely ignored and universally panned is not the way to go.

Another bad argument against the value of quality writing is that a company’s amazing product or service should speak for itself. That’s great if it does, but if you’re writing about it, it isn’t. Whenever you write about your brand, you’re speaking for that brand instead of letting the brand speak for itself. Are you writing something interesting and well-edited or something dry, boring and riddled with errors?

Company higher-ups who place little value on the quality of their business’s writing are, in my estimation, probably also . . .

People who don’t read. Imagine an artist who misidentifies a Caravaggio as a Pollock. Or a psychologist who is flummoxed by the word psychoanalysis. Or a classical musician who knows Beethoven only as a big-screen Saint Bernard.

Sounds ridiculous, no?

Yet there are plenty of people out there who somehow lay claim to being professional writers, copywriters or content editors who haven’t read a good book since they were assigned one in a college English class.

These people who write but don’t read “learn” how to use the language through their everyday experiences with language, which means tweets, email, snail mail, TV, cereal boxes, etc. Highest on the list, though, is conversation.

The problem with “learning” how to write by listening to people talk is that extemporaneous conversation is disorganized, disjointed and unedited. It’s a breeding ground for verbal shortcuts (i.e., clichés) punctuated by visual cues that don’t translate to the written word. It lacks the smooth transition between ideas that build up to a conclusion that epitomizes the flow of good writing.

What writing becomes, then, is a combination of Mad Libs and one of those magnetic poetry sets: Discrete blocks of rote phrases and shortcuts connected by subject-specific words to create a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of text. Yes, it breathes and walks and might even help you move a heavy sofa, but it’s also awkward, unnatural and just plain ugly.

I don’t mean to discourage people who want to become writers from continuing to write and share their work online — on the contrary, I encourage it (but also encourage these wannabe writers to read more good books). But people who do not read, who have little experience with or interest in the vast complexity and malleability of the English language, should not be writing your company’s copy.

And if they are, you’d better have a damn good editor backing them up.

Genuine doublespeak. We hear about doublespeak in government all the time — about some unscrupulous politician masking personal financial gain behind muddied and muddled phrases — but these cases are often only the most extreme. Doublespeak in marketing writing can be just as duplicitous (e.g., “negative profit”), but it’s usually subtle and less malicious.

In politics and business, doublespeak, euphemism, or jargon — whatever you want to call it — serves to put distance between the speaker or writer and uncomfortable truths.

For example, people these days expect to get things for free — entertainment, information, software, safety and so on. Therefore, plainly stating that a business seeks profit, that in fact making money is the only thing that keeps the business in business, seems like a big customer relations no-no. So we end up with a word like monetize. Monetize turns that uncomfortable part of the business/consumer relationship into a characteristic intrinsic to the inanimate product the business sells and not of the business itself. Monetization is how a company makes a profit and how a consumer spends money to use or own a product, but it obscures the unappealing fact that the company takes money from the consumer.

So it is with downsizing and reductions in force, audience segmentation, planned obsolescence and so much more.

Laziness. I put this one last because I really do think that it’s the smallest contributor to the bulk of bad business writing. Writers do try, but for one reason or another fall short of the goal.

Grammar trolls, on the other hand, would have you believe that every typo, misstatement, worn-out phrase and unfinished edit is a product of personal or academic laziness. These people have either never worked in a professional writing environment or they have managed to perfectly forget their own past errors.

Laziness can certainly be a contributing factor to bad writing, though. Explaining complex topics and writing about them in thoughtful, interesting ways takes time. When a writer isn’t willing to put in the time (or, because of deadlines, isn’t allowed the time), she relies on the idioms and clichés that help her finish sooner but not better.

It’s fairly easy to diagnose and treat the symptoms of bad business writing, but more important is eliminating the ultimate source of such content. In this blog post, I point out some of the causes of bad writing; in my next post, I recommend treatment — things you can do to counteract the problems I outline here.