Thursday, July 30, 2009

“The Gobbledygook Manifesto,” by David Meerman Scott

On this blog, I have devoted five posts to explaining why empathy is the most important skill a marketing writer must have:

When a reader says your writing is not clear
Empathy for the non-technical reader
Writing can make or break the sale
Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot
The greatest error: failure to empathize

I have been intentionally frank. But you’re still with me, so I’m going to recommend another frank document about empathy. This document can boost your empathy. It can boost your ability to use the kind of language your buyers want to see and hear.

It’s The Gobbledygook Manifesto, by the renowned marketing strategist and bestselling author David Meerman Scott. It is a brief (10-page) and powerful appeal to marketing writers to stop using “superlative-laden, jargon-sprinkled hype” and start using “plain language” that tells buyers “what specific problems your product solves” – and to use this language all the time.

For many years, I supervised teams of marketing writers and editors. If The Gobbledygook Manifesto had existed back then, I would have made my people memorize it.

David says that many marketing writers don’t even aim their words at buyers:

“Because these writers don’t understand how their products solve customer problems, or are too lazy to write for buyers, they cover by explaining myriad nuances of how the product works and pepper this blather with industry jargon that sounds vaguely impressive.”

If that sentence does not describe the way you work, be proud and walk tall. You are one of the champions. But I still think you should read the manifesto. It could help you educate your colleagues and managers.

The Takeaway: Download The Gobbledygook Manifesto, by David Meerman Scott. Print it out and read it. Read it again every three months so you won’t backslide. And follow David’s blog – he frequently comments on gobbledygook in his posts, as in this recent example.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Even giant corporations can cause readability problems

Today IBM and SPSS issued a press release announcing a merger agreement.

The companies have better-than-average records for readability and clarity. As a writer and editor in the software industry, I followed both companies for decades, and admired their writers.

So, out of curiosity, I submitted today’s release to the Flesch Reading Ease test. Here are the scores:

Average sentence length: 29.3 words (very long)
Average word length: 5.6 characters (not too bad)
Flesch Reading Ease score: 12.3 (harder to read than a tax form)

For calibration, here are a few sample ranges of test scores, from higher readability (top of list) to lower readability (bottom of list):

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers
10s Many high-tech web sites

The Takeaway: In the software industry (and many other tech industries), the names of products and product categories are usually long. So the quickest way to increase readability is to reduce sentence length. If you write for a tech company, strive for a readability score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if names are long. But try not to drop below 30. For most readers, below 30 is too hard to read.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

When a reader says your writing is not clear

In an earlier post, I quoted a long passage from “Good Writing,” a 2,400-word essay written by Marc H. Raibert. The passage described a procedure that writers can follow to “get unstuck.” I am going to quote one more passage from the essay, this one on a different topic.

[Beginning of quotation]

Trust Your Readers

When you get comments back from your readers, trust what they tell you. If they get confused at a particular point, don’t argue with them explaining why what you wrote really is clear. Rewrite that part to overcome whatever confused your reader. You’ll be surprised to find that more than one reader will get stuck in the very same place in your paper, even though what you wrote was perfectly clear, and they just confused themselves. When a reader marks a word or sentence in your paper, they are telling you that something is wrong here. It is not necessary that you take the specific advice that a reader gives. Their suggested correction may be good, or you might generate a better one.

[End of quotation]

That is reliable, solid, career-building advice. From my experience as an editor working with more than 400 writers, I can say with confidence that there are three facts about writers and how they react to readers:

1. Most writers are humble. They have empathy. They do what Mr. Raibert says to do: rewrite.

2. Some writers are arrogant. They do what Mr. Raibert says not to do: argue.

3. With few exceptions, arrogant writers eventually fail at writing.

Arrogant writers fail because they keep rejecting reader feedback and therefore never improve their ability to write clearly.

Humble writers prosper because they keep accepting reader feedback and therefore are constantly improving their ability to write clearly.

The Takeaway: Try to be humble, not arrogant. If you can’t do it – if you are arrogant by temperament – you would be wise to look for a different line of work.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Clarity and getting unstuck

“Getting stuck” is something that every writer has experienced. Most of us, even full-time professional writers, get stuck frequently.

Getting stuck is not identical with “writer’s block.” Getting stuck is typically a relatively minor problem of short duration. Typically it occurs after the writer has begun a writing project. Writer’s block is often a relatively major problem of long duration. It often has psychological causes. Typically it occurs before the writer has begun a writing project.

There are many procedures for getting unstuck. I’ve seen and tried a lot of them – even “invented” one or two.

But I can’t take credit for what I consider the best procedure. It appeared in “Good Writing,” a 2,400-word essay written by Marc H. Raibert in 1985. Don’t be put off by the age of this essay – these kinds of procedures don’t go obsolete.

[Beginning of quotation from Mr. Raibert’s essay]

How to Get Unstuck

There usually comes a point in writing a paper when you get stuck. You try generating several descriptions or statements, but nothing you write seems to work. When this occurs, it is likely that you don’t have a clear idea what you want to say, or you don’t fully understand some of the things you planned to explain. This is normal – it takes more understanding to explain clearly what you did, than it took to do it.

When you are stuck, try listing the points you want to make. Then return to writing sentences and paragraphs, and to revising. An outline can be very useful when you’re stuck, especially when you have already begun to write text. You may find that you can write good paragraphs that clearly express parts of your story, but you still have trouble with the overall organization of your paper. For instance, after generating several pages of text you read them to find that they ramble and repeat, and that parts of your story are missing. You can’t figure out what you’re trying to say. At this point you should make a new outline and reorganize using the following procedure:

1. Write down the topic of each paragraph you have written, in one or two words each.
2. Shuffle the topics into a coherent outline, adding topics as necessary.
3. Rearrange the paragraphs of text to follow the organization of the outline.
4. Revise the shuffled document, and add text for the added topics.

This procedure will often help you figure out what you’ve done, what’s missing, and to get back on the right track. Occasionally, you may even try this on a sentence by sentence basis.

[End of quotation]

You can now see why I included this passage in a blog about clarity. As Mr. Raibert points out, getting stuck is usually a matter of insufficient clarity.

By the way, his essay is a wonderful source of advice for anyone who wants to become a technical writer or a writer of research reports.

The Takeaway: If you “get stuck” while you are in the middle of a writing project, you probably need more clarity. Follow the advice in the quotation above.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unintentional hedging (3)

In two previous posts (1), (2), I described how easy it is to slip into the habit of “unintentional hedging” (the unintentional use of kind of, sort of, about and other hedges). Here’s another example.


On July 14, The New York Times ran an article, “Daffy’s, Discounter of Clothes, Promotes a Rental Bargain,” which quoted Jan Jacobs, an adman:

“ ‘One thing we all have in common in New York is that we all pay too much to live here,’ Mr. Jacobs, whose agency is based in the West Village, said. ‘Real estate is sort of the No. 1 dinnertime conversation in New York …’ ” (Boldface added.)

Mr. Jacobs used the distinct phrase “No. 1,” but hedged it with “sort of.”

The reader is left to wonder what he meant. Did he mean “one of the more common dinnertime conversations” (i.e., if it’s not No. 1, it’s close to No. 1) or did he mean “I think it’s the No. 1 dinnertime conversation, but I’m not sure because I haven’t researched it” (i.e., it could be No. 1 or something close to No. 1, or something far below No. 1), or something else?

In short, we do not know what he meant. We don’t even know whether he intended to hedge.

The Takeaway: Stay alert and try to avoid unintentional hedging. If you intend to hedge, hedge: “I’ll be finished in about ten days.” Otherwise, don’t hedge. Say what you mean. You will earn more respect.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mantra overload (4)

In an earlier post, I quoted Vivek Kundra (photo), who appears to be a heavy user of mantras even by the loose standards of politicians. During an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kundra had crammed three mantras into one sentence.

In a speech at the Federal Office Systems Exposition, Mr. Kundra again proved to be a virtuoso of vagueness. He managed to work six mantras into two consecutive sentences:

“…making sure that we put information out there [1] in the public domain and a different worldview of what it means to be a citizen.... [What] the idea of citizenship in terms of civic participation and transparency [2] or open government allow you to do is to embrace [3] the notion [4] that the government is about [5] we the people [6] and that it’s taxpayer dollars that are being spent.” (Boldface added, to highlight mantras.)

The Takeaway: In writing, and especially in formal writing, use mantras sparingly or not at all. Mantra overload can make you look too stupid to know what you mean or too lazy to express it clearly. Mantra overload can even make you look slippery, because readers will mentally associate you with politicians. Whenever you catch yourself using a lot of mantras, slow down and choose your words more carefully. Keep asking yourself, “What do I mean?” Your writing will almost automatically become more precise.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Using commas correctly (2)

When a noun is preceded by a series of two or more adjectives, the rule is to separate the adjectives with commas. The commas help the reader recognize that he is reading a series of adjectives and that a noun will appear immediately after the end of the series.

This assistance to the reader is especially important when one or more of the adjectives could otherwise be mistaken for a noun, as in the following example.

CORRECT EXAMPLE: Doreen placed the bolts in a light, square, steel pan on the workbench.

There is an exception to the rule: If the last adjective and the noun form a familiar phrase when combined, that phrase “feels like” a noun to the reader. Therefore the reader doesn’t need to see a comma before the last adjective.

CORRECT EXAMPLE: Ben is a thoughtful, energetic young man.

The adjective young and the noun man form the familiar phrase, young man.

Here’s an incorrect example that appeared in The Boston Globe last week.


“It has been 14 years since lawyer Jan R. Schlichtmann of Beverly rocketed to fame as a result of ‘A Civil Action,’ the best-selling book made into a movie starring John Travolta that chronicled Schlichtmann’s nine-year legal battle against companies accused of leaking contaminants into drinking wells in Woburn….

“ ‘I sit here and almost drown in the irony of [a recent lawsuit],’ the wiry, 58-year-old replied in his wood-paneled office…”

To the reader, the adjectival phrase, 58-year-old (the word man is implied), feels like a noun. Therefore, the comma after wiry is not needed. In fact, the presence of the comma is confusing. The reader pauses and silently asks, “Why is that comma there?”

The Takeaway: When a noun is preceded by a series of two or more adjectives, place commas between the adjectives. Exception: If the last adjective and the noun form a familiar phrase when combined, that phrase “feels like” a noun to the reader. Therefore, do not place a comma before the last adjective.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mixed metaphors (2)

Mixed metaphors can reduce the clarity of your writing in two ways. First, mixed metaphors can make your readers pause to wonder what you meant by combining two or more metaphors in an incongruous way.

Second, mixed metaphors can make your readers pause to laugh at the incongruity. Every time you make your readers pause, every time you distract them, you run the risk that they will miss your main point, or even stop reading.

In addition to reducing your clarity, mixed metaphors can reduce your credibility. The more intelligent of your readers will think, “He’s careless with words; maybe he’s careless with facts.”

Example of a mixed metaphor

Here’s a simple example of a mixed metaphor:

“Stockton, California is one of many flash points of the housing bubble.”

A flash point is not a place; it is a temperature. It is “[t]he lowest temperature at which the vapor of a combustible liquid can be made to ignite momentarily in air.”

When, as in the example, the metaphor flash point is combined with the metaphor bubble, readers will become confused. Is the flash point the point at which the bubble forms or the point at which the bubble becomes so large that it bursts? Neither of these events involves ignition. The sentence is nonsense.

The Takeaway: Whenever you write, pay attention to the metaphors you are using. When you combine metaphors, double-check the definition of each metaphor and make sure there is no chance of a mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors will confuse and distract your readers. They will also damage your credibility with the more intelligent of your readers. These readers are keenly aware of your diction. They are judging you, line by line. Always strive to win their esteem.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Concise writing is usually clear writing (3)

Here is another excellent example of concise writing and clear writing. It is a poster satirizing the Big Three U.S. automakers: GM, Chrysler and Ford. (Warning: strong language.)

You could read thousands of pages of recent news coverage of the auto bailout. You could read a stack of books about National Socialism (Nazism). You would learn a lot of historical details but you wouldn’t understand any more about the concept of the bailout or the concept of Nazism than is captured in the 112 words of this poster.

The poster explains why people who run big corporations – in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, in the United States in 2008-2009, or in any other country or era – decide to beg politicians to take over their corporations.

It explains why politicians are pleased to oblige.

And it explains what the takeover does to citizens who voted for those politicians (and to the citizens who voted against them, and to the citizens who didn’t vote at all).

The Takeaway: Whenever you find yourself struggling to concisely summarize what appears to be a big, complicated concept, stop! Take a few minutes to clear your mind of your “mental baggage.” Discard the prejudices, denials, euphemisms, circumlocutions, projections, fears, evasions and lies that you have associated with the concept. Adopt the point of view of an intelligent but disinterested observer. You will be amazed at how simple the concept becomes. Then the intelligent, disinterested observer within you can just tell the story as it is. That is how the fellow who wrote that poster could do it in 112 words.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The maniacal use of “comfortable”

In several posts I have discussed the abuse of certain fad words; for example, issues and drive. For various reasons, many writers have developed a maniacal attachment to these words. They abuse these words egregiously, most often for purposes of obfuscation.

Today I want to discuss the abuse of comfortable. This abuse has continued and increased for years. The abuse became a controversy in the social-media world this week, when TechCrunch published an article titled, “Twitter Grows ‘Uncomfortable’ With The Use Of The Word Tweet In Applications.” The article quoted a statement from an unnamed employee at Twitter:

“ ‘Hi,

Twitter, Inc is uncomfortable with the use of the word Tweet (our trademark) and the similarity in your UI and our own. How can we go about having you change your UI to better differentiate your offering from our own?

Thanks,’ ”

TechCrunch asked Twitter management for clarification and received a response from Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter:

“ ‘The ecosystem growing around Twitter is something we very much believe in nourishing and supporting. As part of this support, we encourage developers of new applications and services built using Twitter APIs to invent original branding for their projects rather than use our marks, logos, or look and feel. This approach leaves room for applications to evolve as they grow and it avoids potential confusion down the line.

As we build our platform team, we will be adding more guidelines and best practices to help developers get the most out of our growing set of open APIs. We have healthy relationships with existing developers who sometimes include Twitter logos, marks, or look and feel in their applications and services. We’ll continue to work together in a fair and flexible way to ensure success for Twitter, developers, and everyone who uses these services.’ ”

TechCrunch commented: “It’s a rather vague statement that doesn’t really make it clear whether the use of the word ‘tweet’ is now frowned upon or not.”

I comment further, on the unnamed employee’s reference to the policy and on Mr. Stone’s statement of the policy:

The reference to the policy

When an employee uses a vague word while referring to a company policy, the reader or hearer cannot know for certain whether the employee is (1) uninformed; (2) semiliterate; (3) literate but careless; (4) literate and usually careful, but careless while making the reference; (5) literate and careful, and signaling (consciously or unconsciously) that the policy itself is vague.

The statement of the policy

The vagueness of Mr. Stone’s statement indicates that the unnamed employee’s use of uncomfortable was probably an example of (5). That is to say, Mr. Stone’s statement demonstrates that the policy is vague; therefore the unnamed employee probably was revealing the vagueness of the policy.

The Takeaway: Don’t abuse the fad word comfortable. Write like a grown-up; say what you mean and mean what you say. If a policy is vague, don’t discuss it publicly. If pressed, say that your company has not yet clarified the policy enough for public discussion. And always assume that anything you write about your company could be demanded in a subpoena someday; to assume otherwise is childish. For a good example of a grown-up statement of policy, take a look at this page of the Sun Microsystems web site. Yes, it’s tedious, but many grown-up things are.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Avoiding redundancy (4)

In previous posts (1, 2, 3), I used real-world examples to demonstrate that redundancy causes more damage than we think. Here’s another example:

Today I stopped for gas at a Citgo station in Hanover, NH. Attached to the pump was this sign:


A triple redundancy!

(paying before pumping = paying first = prepaying)

The Takeaway: Remember two things about redundancy. First, every redundancy impedes your reader for a second or two. Second, redundancies have a cumulative effect; the more redundancies you use, the worse you look. At some point, your reader will conclude that you are careless or stupid.