Have you ever been reading a piece of online content, only to suddenly realize you have no clue what the author is trying to say? Of course you have. We all have. And we’re not even talking about highly scientific or technical copy – but regular ole blogs or web pages that should have been easy to understand.
In a world where 4.4 million new blog posts are published daily, we’re inevitably going to run across some really poor writing or, to put it eloquently, writing that doubles as bullshit.
Author Josh Bernoff defines bullshit as: “Any form of communication that wastes the readers’ time and fails to communicate clearly and accurately.” And with a book entitled “Writing without Bullshit,” he should know.
Here you’ll find tips from sources that include Bernoff’s WriterAccess Academy session, along with our input, to help you identify and eradicate BS in your writing without losing your brand’s unique style.
How to Identify BS in Writing
Many elements can contribute to poor writing, especially when several of those elements are all piled together in a single piece of content. These elements include:
- Poor organization
- Passive voice
- Vague or useless intensifiers
Some content is just way too long. Wordiness ranked as the top contributor to BS writing in a poll Bernoff conducted on the topic. Wordiness refers to using more words than you need in a sentence, especially when those words bring no meaning to the piece.
Before: The executive meeting is canceled due to the fact there will be a seminar during the same time at 9 a.m. Monday.
After: Monday’s 9 a.m. executive meeting is canceled due to a seminar.
Review all the random thoughts that run through your head on any given day. Now write them all down and plop them, as is, into a blog post. We’re guessing that post would be poorly organized (not to mention excruciating to read).
Poorly organized content takes the reader all over the place, sometimes visiting the same topic several times – when all the info about that topic could have been covered in a single section.
Creating an outline before you start writing can keep things organized, as can sharp editing of the initial draft.
The passive voice is not inherently evil. It does have its place. But that place should not be every single sentence. Excessive use of the passive voice can make your writing confusing and weak.
Because the passive voice doesn’t always clarify the subject, it can also leave readers with a sense of unease. If they’re uneasy while they’re reading your content, they’re going to be even more uneasy when it comes to buying what you sell.
Passive Voice Example
Before: His first content marketing job will always be remembered by him.
After: He’ll always remember his first content marketing job.
Note: His first content marketing job would probably be his last if he wrote that “before” sentence.
Just because you have a sophisticated product or service doesn’t mean you have to talk about it in a language few can understand. Jargon is a specialized language used by a select group of people. If you’re writing for a select group that understands it, you have a little leeway.
But if you’re writing for the average consumer, jargon is only going to irritate and confound. Some of the most ridiculous examples of jargon can be found on the PlainLanguage.gov website.
Jargon: Right-sizing employment, strategic downsizing, the rectification of a workforce imbalance
Really means: Firing people
Jargon: Involuntary undomiciled
Really means: Homeless
Jargon: Economically marginalized
Really means: Unemployed
Jargon: Vehicle appearance operative
Really means: Car-washer
Told you they were ridiculous.
Jargon can also include words that are used ad nauseam, such as:
Vague or Useless Intensifiers (aka Weasel Words)
Vague or useless intensifiers are adverbs and adjectives that do nothing more than take up space. They don’t enhance meaning, although they can signal writer laziness. Bernoff calls them “weasel words.” The more weasel words in a piece of writing, the less inclined you are to believe what’s being said.
Weasel Word Examples
- Deep or deeply, as in “We are deeply sorry.”
- Strong or strongly, as in “We strongly believe.”
- Aggressive or aggressively, as in “We are taking aggressive action.”
The Toxic Combination
If you’re trying to create the worst writing, feel free to use a generous sprinkling of all the elements combined.
Toxic Combination Example
Here comes a ridiculous example, along with the translation of what the writer is trying to say.
Although you were brought onboard our organization as a way to leverage the strong power of words and their utilization in the way of contributing to effectively successful content marketing strategies, techniques, and tactics, and we had been advised by you of useful capabilities thereof, it has come to our attention that the prose penned as per your agreement has been neither useful nor capable and, unless rectified, strategic downsizing may be an action required in the near future.
Improve your writing or you’re fired.
How to Keep BS Out of Your Writing
Get to the point. Leave the longwinded passages for 18th-century novelists. Let readers know immediately what your content is all about.
Frontload your content. Share the most important information first. Take a cue from journalists and use the upside-down pyramid structure. The most important info goes at the top; the least important goes at the bottom.
Purge toxic prose. Once you’ve written your initial draft, it’s time to review and revise. Eliminate excessive instances of passive voice, jargon, and weasel words.
Remember: The truth is short. But it’s not always pretty, or comfortable to share. Although you can typically tell the truth in a sentence or two, people tend to pad the truth if it’s relaying information that makes them uncomfortable to share.
As if the cold, hard truth is easier to swallow if it’s surrounded by dozens of extra words. It’s not. Again, get to the point.
Create an outline. It’s amazing how much more organized your writing will be if you create an outline before you begin. Adapt as needed as you move forward, but try to keep related information together.
Revise. Revise. Revise. Bernoff served up a genius method for ensuring you’re keeping things concise and getting right to the point. Once you’ve completed the first draft, chop off the first paragraph. Does it still make sense? Then you didn’t need it.
Now repeat the exercise with the second paragraph, and even the third. Keep going until you’re opening with the most important info.
Treat readers’ time as more valuable than your own. This is another tip from Bernoff, one that reminds us not to waste readers’ time.
How to Retain Your Brand Writing Style
While you’re eliminating all the BS, you may start to fear that you’re also eliminating your unique brand style. You don’t have to be. Eliminating the BS will not automatically make your content generic or boring. Quite the opposite. It can make your writing more compelling.
Word choice plays a role in your brand writing style, as do several other elements. These include:
- Emotive language
Weeding out the garbage won’t weed out the elements that make your brand writing style unique. It will instead give them room to shine.
Summing It Up
People spend about 36 seconds reading an online news article, Bernoff noted. They’re likely to spend even less time reading your brand content, especially if it’s wordy, weak and takes 12 paragraphs to get to the point. In that case, they’re apt to spend zero time reading it.
You have about eight seconds to capture someone’s attention and convince them to keep reading down the page. The only way to do that is with content that delivers valuable information right from the start, written in a way that avoids BS.