Anyone who reads blogs or online publications has been exposed to the plague of bad writing across the Internet. The cause of this plague is a combination of 1) dodgy guest-posting or link-building services that employ people who have no business writing, with 2) lazy website owners who’ll happily post “free” content without bothering to proofread it.
When copy that wouldn’t have gotten past my fourth-grade English teacher (Mrs. Drinkwine, God rest her soul) gets published on otherwise respectable sites, readers suffer from time wasted reading articles that don’t really tell them anything and the mental anguish of plodding through inexcusably dreadful prose.
The use of content marketing continues to grow because high-quality content has value, to both vendors and their prospective customers. Low-grade content, on the other hand, helps no one (other than putting a few dollars in the pockets of its shady purveyors).
The popularity of content marketing and unfortunate proliferation of awful writing was addressed here previously in the post 17 Tragically Common Copywriting Mistakes to Avoid. Here’s a look at 14 more examples of distressingly common copywriting pitfalls and how to avoid having them end up on your website or blog.
And, of course, if you come across any “writers” who could benefit from the guidance below, feel free to pass this along.
1. “Sky is blue” statements. When Hotels.com spokesperson Captain Obvious says something like, “I’m in a hotel” while standing in the lobby of a hotel, it’s funny. When your content contains statements of painfully obvious facts, it’s not.
Sentences like “Digital marketing is very important for business today,” or “The Internet has changed a lot of things in our lives,” waste the reader’s time and communicate nothing of value. Your readers are busy people. Make every sentence in your content worthwhile for you to write, and for them to read.
2. Terrible opening sentences. As bad as “sky is blue” type sentences are, they are even worse when used as the first sentence of a web page, blog post, or article. Sentences that state the obvious, contain glaring grammatical or factual errors, or use odd word choices can drive the reader away without a second thought.
Your opening sentence is arguably the most important one, as it will “sell” the visitor on reading the rest of your piece (or not). While not every opening sentence has to be as memorable as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Dickens or even “It was a dark and stormy night,” from Snoopy, it’s worth the effort to craft an opening sentence that sets the mood and compels the reader to keep going, to desire to learn more.
3. Passive voice. Passive voice is a style of writing which should be avoided. Argh, no! Avoid using passive voice.
Granted, there are times when it’s appropriate to use the passive voice. Examples include reports of incidents by unknown people, certain scientific contexts, and situations where the action itself is more important than the doer. But check for passive voice carefully. It far too often muddles ideas and adds needless words.
4. Excessive wordiness. Your readers are busy. When you respect that by keeping your prose crisp and using only as many words as required to communicate your ideas or information, your writing is easier to understand and digest.
Conversely, when your writing includes unnecessary clauses, it wastes your readers’ time and makes them plod through needless verbiage to get to the point. Examples of “word inflation” to watch for and excise from your writing include:
- You should / you must / you have to. For example, a sentence like “You should consider investing more of your digital marketing budget in SEO,” works just fine without the “you should.”
- First of all / put your focus on. Just use “first” and “focus.”
- It needs to be said / it goes without saying / it’s true / it’s obvious / it’s not secret that / when it comes to. With rare exceptions, these types of phrases add words without adding value.
5. Bucket brigade. Though far too many people who should know better still promote this style of writing for SEO purposes, Nathan A. Drescher correctly points out:
Bucket brigade writing is when you write extremely conversational one-line drivel and break it up with something to refocus the reader’s attention on the text…The bucket brigade hopes to retain that reader for just a few more seconds. After all, that Google algorithm is watching…(But) You don’t need to keep (your readers’) attention with bucket brigade nonsense. Instead, you need to keep their attention with well-written articles that hit home. Neither bucket brigades nor clickbait do that. So ditch the bucket brigade.”
And as noted on my Write for Webbiquity page: The use of “bucket brigade” style writing is strictly prohibited on this blog.
You know why?
Because it sucks!
Seriously, it’s annoying, childish, and unprofessional. You’ll never see an article in the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal written that way. And it won’t help with your SEO.
6. Mixed verb tense. It is true that your writing should never have had mixed verb tenses, as that will be bad.
Or, in dad joke form: The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.
7. “What” instead of “who.” This is a pet peeve, and far too often violated even by respectable publications. Simply, individuals and groups of people are “who,” while places and things are “that.”
For example: “Elected officials who lead states that are on the coasts should regulate building in flood plains. The voters who put them in office expect no less from a government that bails out irresponsible builders.”
8. “Things” and “good.” Though there are times when using “things” is a good idea, these two words are generally lazy, vague substitutes for clearer, more precise terms. “Things” may be ideas, concepts, facts, factors, elements, components, considerations, objects, or a host of other…well, things. Try using a more precise term for what you are referring to.
Similarly, “good” may mean, depending upon the context: effective, efficient, exceptional, impressive, wonderful, fantastic, thoughtful, solid, proficient, talented, or literally any of hundreds of other words.
9. Odd word choice. This is jarring when you see it. Synonyms are a writer’s friend, but they need to be appropriate to the situation.
For example, someone may have a collection of baseball cards that is large, extensive, or even huge; but not boundless, prevalent, or spacious (all of which are synonyms for “extensive,” just not in this context).
Similarly, that collection may contain cards that are rare, valuable, or prized—but not helpful, esteemed, or worthy.
This may sound obvious, but if you watch for it (especially in guest blog posts), examples will jump out at you.
10. Random capitalization. Though the rules for capitalization are fairly straightforward, too often writers misapply them to emphasize Important Ideas (ugh; no). For example, they may write that a certain device has impressively long Battery Life. Unless “Battery Life” is the actual name of a product or app, those words should be lowercase.
11. Colloquialisms. While professional business writing doesn’t have to be stiff and formal, it’s generally best to avoid colloquialisms or other excessively informal terms. These words or expressions can add spice when used carefully and sparingly, but too often are vague, unsophisticated, or just plain unnecessary.
One particularly grating example is the use of terms like “nowadays” or “these days” to refer the present. These can usually either be left out completely or replaced with simpler words such as “now” or “today.”
12. Etc. There are times when it’s okay to use this term to express “and so on,” but it should generally be avoided in professional writing. And if you do feel the need to use it, do so sparingly. I’ve seen it used eight times in one blog post. That ruined both the flow of the piece and the writer’s credibility.
13. Misuse of writing technology. While there are some great tools to help improve your writing, such as Grammarly for short pieces and Scrivener for long documents, beware of any AI or “article spinning” tools that claim to do the writing for you. Writing is still an intensely human enterprise.
Consider these two paragraphs from an actual guest post submitted to (but rejected for) this blog:
“Undeniably there are maximum chances that the marketing strategy that works aptly for B2C will not run appropriately for B2B. It is mainly because both of these have a varied set of customers. According to speculated data, around 69% of B2B businesses say that enhancing the quality of leads is one of the most crucial parts of their lead generation strategy.
“For those unaware, the B2B market requires an appropriate marketing strategy for acquiring high-profile leads. Of course, all these leads are from separate tech, retail, and manufacturing giants worldwide. Hence, the decision-makers in these organizations must consult all their team members before spreading the work and taking the final decision. It is something that stretches the sales procedure compared with B2C marketing.”
It’s almost impossible to imagine an actual human coming up with a word salad like this. While it’s not inconceivable, this is more likely the work of “writing software.” There are no magic bullets.
14. Confusing a “blog” with a “post.” This is a such a simple concept yet an irritatingly common mistake. Newspapers have stories. Magazines have articles. Blogs have posts.
Yet people who’d never say something like, “I read three newspapers about the upcoming election” (when they mean three newspaper stories) will too often say they plan to write four blogs next week (when they mean blog posts.) Ugh.
That’s a wrap. When some “professional writer” tries to pass atrocious copywriting past you, feel free to send them this post.