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Ken Magill

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More Writing Advice from a Fat Drunk Who, When He's Sober, Can Write


By Ken Magill

This is not your father’s marketing column.

Did that opening sentence sound stupid to you? Yes? You want to know why? Because it’s stupid. And it’s stupid because it’s a cliché.

Turning someone else’s worn-out phrase and thinking it’s clever is one of the most common sins in trade writing.

And the reason I picked that particular cliché is I’ve seen it twice in the last week.

Want to know how to tell if a phrase is a cliché? If you’ve heard it, it’s a cliché.

Another way—although not fool proof—is imagining saying it out loud to a family member. “Honey, this is not your father’s tuna casserole.” See? Stupid. Don’t use it.

A popular and highly annoying cliché currently making the rounds is “big data.”

If it were up to me, everyone who writes the words “big” and “data” in succession would get a nice taser shot—with each letter.

“Big data” has become so overused, a Google search of the phrase in quotes brings back 21 million results. Trade writers use phrases like “big data” because they want to show how hip they are. But a large portion of potential readers just groan and move on when they see it.

One of the most important elements of good writing is avoiding trying to show people what a brilliant wordsmith you are.

It’s not about you. It’s about your readers.

One way to spot unprofessional sentences is to look for the ones where you’re showing off.

Showing off is one of writings biggest temptations and we all occasionally fall for it. Generally the sentence in which you’re showing off is the one you love the most. Kill it.

For example, I recently turned in a job for a client, part of which was explaining Can Spam.

In attempting to explain that claiming Can Spam compliance is no defense of sloppy email marketing I wrote: “Claiming Can-Spam compliance to justify idiotic marketing practices is akin to a salesman shouting profanities at a prospect and justifying his actions by saying: ‘Yeah, but I didn’t dig out her spleen with a dessert fork.’”

Oh, I’m just so clever, aren’t I?

When the job came back with edits, the client wrote in the margins next to the oh-so-clever dessert-fork sentence: “I’m not liking this one too much,” or something along those lines.

I thought: “Of course you’re not liking it too much. And there’s a reason for that. It’s because it’s a really crappy piece of writing.”

I struck the line without argument, feeling a little chagrined that I let it go out in the first place.

Even those of us who have been writing professionally for years occasionally make amateur mistakes. The challenge is finding a way to spot the mistakes and remove them before they can cause embarrassment.

Often if you just let a piece sit and cool off for a day or two, the offending passages will jump off the page. Another way to fend off bad writing is to appoint one or more gatekeepers. I have four: a long-time editorial colleague, my wife and two of her co-workers.

If I think something is clever, funny or witty and they say it’s not, I don’t argue. I fix it. And if I can’t fix it, I kill it.

None of my gatekeepers saw the dessert-fork line. So in the course of writing the above-mentioned whitepaper, I broke two of my own rules: I fell in love with a sentence and failed to see that feeling for the warning it should have been, and I didn’t have any of my gatekeepers read it.

As a result, one of the bad-writing gremlins who are always at the gate snuck through.

Bottom line: Whenever you think you’re being a clever writer, you’re probably just being a hack.


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Ken Magill
Date: 2012-08-29 10:53:51
Subject: I learned a long time ago...

...never to hit the keyboard loaded. I edited a freelance piece years ago under the influence and the next day saw that I had made a complete mess of it and had to redo the whole thing. So rest assured, I didn't write this or anything else drunk since.
Posted by: Andrew Barrett
Date: 2012-08-28 21:42:14

I bet you wrote this when you were drunk. (It's okay; I read this when I was drunk, so each cancels the other out.)