Big companies worry about communications. They want every word they send out to stay on message. The goal is to protect or promote brands. This means a lot of unreadable corporate writing pours out of their headquarters.
Many companies have brand bibles. These are like editorial style guides – they standardise language.
While newspaper style guides make life easier for readers, brand bibles have other goals. They aim to help the company sell.
That’s the theory. In practice this is often counterproductive.
Companies love complicated product names, often littered with jarring capital letters in weird places. Some add odd-ball punctuation. You’ll find trade marks and copyright symbols. Some pepper text with stock market abbreviations.
They give everyday nouns capitals. Some insist on spelling entire words in capitals. They use obscure acronyms and far too many adjectives. And don’t get me started on all the passive voice sauce ladled over this sickly concoction.
Corporate writing is often hard to read
None of this is easy to read. It doesn’t help the flow of information from one mind to another. Every non-standard affectation is like a roadblock on the highway to understanding.
Readers often switch off. They just don’t care.
And yet companies persist. Why?
They carry on turning out crap communications because it is safe. Nobody loses their job if they stick with the brand bible. Managers can tick off boxes all the way up and down the chain of command.
Everyone is happy. Except the poor soul who has to read the awful prose.
Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is a great online writing improvement tool.
You cut and paste your writing into a box, hit the button and the software scans your words.
The Wasteline Test counts and highlights the weak verbs, abstract nouns, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs and waste words. It then gives you a ranking from lean, through fit and trim all the way up to heart attack.
New Zealand academic Sword designed her test to help university students improve their writing skills. She has also written a book, The Writer’s Diet.
The Test works just as well for most types of writing. It’s always good practice to write as short and snappily as possible. This will help.
All you need to know about web writing in under 300 words. From my Wordcamp NZ presentation.
- Start straight away. Don’t waste time warming up.
- Reduce barriers between your ideas and your audience.
- Write clearly. Use readily understandable language. Be unambiguous.
- Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true.
- Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.
- Go easy on adjectives and adverbs.
- Try to imagine your reader – an ordinary bloke or woman. Write for that person.
- Use ‘be’ verbs sparingly to make your writing more interesting. Use them even less in headlines.
- “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Most people think it was Mark Twain; it was Blaise Pascal, a French Mathematician.
- Keep sentences short; up to 20 words. A 15 word sentence limit is better.
- Keep paragraphs short; usually one to four sentences. Only use more if you need to.
- Use plenty of full stops and line breaks. Use lists and bullet points. Be generous with crossheads (secondary headings).
- Highlight keywords with bold or italics.
- Writing is story telling.
- Summarise your story in the headline.
- If you write an introduction use it to tell readers what your story is about. Expand on your ideas in the following paragraphs.
- Write so you can cut the story at any point yet readers have the maximum information.
- Aim for short and crisp. Online readers tire after 200 words and start dropping out at around 300. Keep most stories below this length although you can write longer pieces.1
- You can find longer explanations of all these points elsewhere on this site.
My presentation from WordCampNZ in 300 words.
1. While this is still true, there are good reasons to write more than 300 words. Google prefers longer posts and readers are less scared of scrolling down than they were in the past.
I hate seeing the word aplenty in headlines.
At first I thought my reaction to seeing the word in a news headline was a matter of personal taste. Or perhaps prejudice. To me the word feels old-fashioned and pompous.
After a moment’s thought, I realised aplenty offends me because the word is an adjective masquerading as a verb.
The best, clearest writing mainly uses nouns and verbs. Only use adjectives when they make the meaning more precise.
Headlines are a concentrated form of writing crunching meaning into a handful of words.
There’s less room for adjectives in headlines than in everyday sentences. Good headlines use nouns and strong verbs.
A headline like ‘iPads aplenty’ doesn’t include a verb. The word aplenty plays a verb-like role but it doesn’t shout, sing or dance. It just sits there flaccid, weak and boring.
And it doesn’t convey much information other than to tell use there are lots of iPads.
So what? Why are there lots of iPads, where are there lots of iPads?
If you want to tell readers there are large numbers of iPads use a verb, preferably an active one:
iPads flood Auckland
If you think flood is overused try; choke, swamp or saturate, just don’t use aplenty.
Use capital letters for proper nouns. Avoid them for common nouns.
Proper nouns are the names of things. So use capitals for the names of people, places, months, days of the week, companies and so on. Don’t use capitals for common nouns.
People run into difficulty with capitals because there’s a temptation to use them for important words. In business writing people often use capitals as a way of avoiding offending someone or something by implying he or it isn’t important. There is also the question of narcissistic capitals.
Another difficulty is with titles. Newspapers typically use a capital letter when the title comes directly before a person’s name but not otherwise.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is correct, but it would be the prime minister’s desk.
In his book Newsman’s English British newspaper editor Harold Evans says;
“Avoid using them unnecessarily. The Parks Committee, but subsequently the committee. The South West Regional Hospital Board, but then the hospital board.”
One piece of advice I had early in my career as a journalist is: “If in doubt use lower case unless it looks wrong”.
Lastly, do not use capital letters for emphasis and avoid writing words in all capitals.