These Lazy Writing Mistakes May Be Turning Off Your Readers
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Here’s a terrifying tale: readers are looking–actively seeking, even!–for a reason to stop reading. Author Christopher Moore described it as writers buying time from the reader on credit. What he means is that they don’t owe you. You owe them. So you get them for the first sentence.
They go to the second.
Then the next paragraph.
Then the next.
But give them any reason, and they would love to stop reading and get their time back. They are merely lending it to you.
Goodreads created a fascinating infographic on the most commonly abandoned books, and why people never finish them. Some of the books are quite good and that makes you realize the truth in the idea that readers are just looking for an excuse to go.
Are you giving them one?
Lazy Writing Techniques That Bomb
Lazy writing happens when we are more aware of what we need instead of what our reader needs. We make assumptions based on what’s easiest for us when we write.
And lazy writing is a super fast way to get readers to abandon that content you created.
Writing when you should have stopped long ago.
Is your reader screaming for you to hurry up and get to the point?
Do you write to hit word counts, to finish an assigned post on the editorial calendar? The road to blathering is paved with word counters.
Brevity forces us to distill a message, and reduce it to its core. Word counts, post length ideology, meandering topics, shallow content, lack of research–all of these make it easier (and oddly, faster) to write lots of words.
You can spend more time writing high above the core of the topic and float on the surface rather than drilling deep and extracting the point. Lots of words are the rafts that help us float at the surface.
Lazy words and phrases that have no meaning.
When a word or phrase has been used too much, it loses meaning. You also have your own pet phrases that you use in place of more concise language. Do a basic internet search on “overused phrases” and you get a “few” results:
A brief look at the first pages of results reveal more than half of them border on rants.
This tells me that we can’t all agree on which phrases are overused, but we can agree that overused phrases annoy us a heckuva lot. There are some words and phrases that, when I see them in a headline, cause me NOT to read the post. This is the danger of using the successful “formulas” of content marketers who have success: familiarity breeds contempt.
It’s not just that these words make people want to write ranting blog posts about them. They can slow readers down. Strunk & White’s The Elements Of Style (a glorious book) attacks this problem with rule #17: Omit needless words.
Needless words worth omitting are cliches, pet phrases, jargon, and anything bordering on pretentiousness. Why use “leverage” when you can just use “use”? William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well (another glorious book!), was direct about cluttered language:
Stephen King shared a few of his most hated phrases in his book On Writing, and they include phrases like “many believe” and “at the end of the day.” Unbounce has a collection of marketing words that you should definitely leave off of your landing pages. A lot of them are hyphenated, oddly.
Writer Jeff Goins joins the fray by saying that weak words weaken your writing. He’s right, but the problem is that weak words are usually the first words that come to mind. We’re talking lazy writing here, so these are the words that don’t take much effort to locate. Among Goins’ list of weak words?
Many of these words are words that have to do with quantity…such as the word “many” that I just used. Yikes.
Great research can help rid your writing of these words, because research gives you specific quantities and facts; you have to back up your claims. When you don’t know and don’t feel like looking, you turn to “many” and “some.” Lazy words create those blog posts that — and you’ve read them yourself — by the time you’re at the end of the blog post, you have a general sense of not having learned anything specific.
Lazy: “many people prefer the color blue”
Not Lazy: “57% of men prefer the color blue“
Too much hype, not enough information.
Ever found yourself, after reading the copy on a website, still wondering “what do they do?”
In an age of beautiful website designs, I’ve noticed it more than ever. Lots of big fullscreen header images and videos and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what the company even does.
It’s easy to get carried away in hype and lazy, overused phrases at the expense of actually…telling people what you are trying to say. Why does this happen?
Shallow research. Sometimes we chase after keywords and our research doesn’t go deep enough. What that means is that everyone is chasing the same keywords and pretty soon all of the content being created starts to sound the same. For the content itself, not finding research with numbers and facts sends us to use those weak words like “many” and “never.”
Common inspiration. Sometimes we all read the same blogs, and don’t have enough outside input, like books or blogs outside of the “standard” repertoire. That means we perpetuate the same ideas–and even the same words to communicate them–as everyone else. It’s where buzzwords are born. A cool new idea is a cool new idea until the 5,000th use, at which point it’s an inspiration to rants.
Hijacking testimonial words. Blogger Sally Ormond suggests we often use over-hyped words in our copy that would be better left to testimonials. Ever catch yourself saying you’re the best, that your product is an absolute breakthrough? While it may be true, that kind of writing is lazy, and it rings insincere.
Think of the classic writing adage: show, not tell. Testimonial words tell. They don’t show. Instead of saying “We make the best wrench ever” you might write copy that shows how your wrench can be used for just about every project. You might provide statistics or easily digestible facts that prove it.
Big bragging testimonial words only have meaning when they come from another customer or an outsider, not from you.
The same approach doesn’t work every time.
One of the things I learned during my flying lessons is that landing a plane is an art unto itself, and that the techniques I used to get a great landing one time wouldn’t necessarily work the next. Depending on the crosswind, runway surfaces, runway lengths, and other factors, the way I approached the landing had to change.
The same goes for your writing.
We like systems, because they help us write faster and we all want to be able to write faster. We turn to them time after time when we hit on a system that works. But the system shouldn’t be used the exact same way every time. Sometimes you’re writing about a subject that has a “crosswind” and you need to land it differently. (We’ll talk about this more in a bit.)
So what is THE lazy writing technique that is turning your readers away?
You run on default, turn to your writing system every time, don’t dig deep, but just pound away at the keyboard. You let your writing habits reign in both the words you choose, and how you assemble them. You’re the preacher who never veers from the three-point sermon, the one-page thesaurus, the blog-o-matic machine.
It gets search engines to come. It fills out your site. It gives you something to share on social media.
But readers don’t read.
How To Stop Lazy Writing
Lazy writing might not be bad writing. It might be decent, passable. It limps along and eventually crosses the finish line. A few spectators probably stuck around to watch.
Read your writing out loud.
When I work on a painting or drawing and I get to a point where something doesn’t seem right but I can’t quite pinpoint it, I hold it up to the mirror. Instantly I see the problem. An ear that’s slightly low, an angle that’s off, or a shadow that would be impossible. It’s one of the most effective art techniques I use to finish a piece.
Why does it work?
My eyes and brain had gotten used to seeing the art one way, and could not distinguish where the error was. By forcing a fresh look, the problem was immediately apparent. You can do the same with your writing, and kill off lazy writing in the edit stage with one simple technique: Read your writing out loud.
— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) June 8, 2012
Nothing catches overused words, phrases, bad comma use and timing, and gaps in continuity than reading something you’ve only known in the written form in the silence of your mind out loud. Reading it out loud helps you make it sound more like a human, more conversational.
If you’re in an open office and reading out loud would be highly annoying to the rest of the team, ask someone new to read it. An outsider. Give them a red pen to kill your overused phrases. Then, once they’ve read it, have them answer basic questions to see if you communicated what you meant to. See if they have questions that went unanswered after reading.
What do readers need?
Readers have specific things they need from your content.
The answer to their questions.
They want to know you’re not selling them a lie, that they can trust what you’re saying and selling. Respectability. They want to be able to talk to their network about you or what you’re selling with knowledge. They don’t want to be made to look foolish by going all in on what they read.
Does your writing do that? Or does it leave them wondering if most people really do prefer blue, or if you’re just making that up? If you would feel embarrassed reading your copy to your business partner, a friend, or a random stranger, that’s a good sign you’re fudging the words.
Ask: What do readers need from this particular post?
A list post can work great.
Then there’s the how-to post with step-by-step instructions.
Or the classic three-point outline post. That can work.
Which one is your favorite? Which one do you tend to go to? Do you pick the best format for what readers will need from that topic, or do you pick the best format for you?
HubSpot came up with guidelines on which type of blog posts are useful in particular situations.
- How-to posts
- Lists posts
- Curated posts
- Thought-leadership posts
- Fun posts
- “What” posts
- “Why” posts
- Feature story posts
- FAQ posts
- Interview posts
- SlideShare posts
- Infographic posts
- Newsjack posts
That is a lot of post types to choose from. They each have a reason to be used depending on what the reader needs about that topic.
In looking at that list, I can see which types I gravitate to, and realize I’m getting lazy in my writing for not trying some different ways of writing about a topic. How about you?
Writing that isn’t lazy is like poetry (poetry that you can understand, at least). Lazy writing is like the high school kid reading poetry in a sing-song painful way in class. It’s easy and preferable to tune it out.
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
Elements Of Style, Strunk & White
On Writing, Stephen King
“Politics and the English Language“, George Orwell
October 27, 2014