The first thing I want you to know is that I’m here to help.

We’re not here to discuss the existence of bad business writing, or even the reasons for it. The existence of bad business writing has been well covered; the reasons well lamented.

We are here to recognize bad business writing, and gently apply some principles of good writing to them. These are “teach someone to fish” examples – apply them, and your future writing will be more professional, direct, coherent and useful, no matter what your business tries to accomplish.

But why, you might ask, is a blog aimed at correcting bad business writing titled “Bad Writing Blog, The”?

The answer is Principle #1: We all make mistakes.  We’re not here to nitpick – we’re here to improve.  No piece of writing is perfect; we’ve all made mistakes.  The more we recognize this, the better our writing.

Your readers will thank you.


“Unless you’ve been in a cave or you’ve been grounded from the Internet you have heard something about Twitter’s plan to test a new advertising venture with Google…”

Have I mentioned my extreme dislike for this kind of phrase ?

Not only does it insult the reader…who may very legitimately not have paid one iota of their limited attention span to the latest hoo-ha from Twitter, but it is a clichéd, lazy bit of phrasing that indicates that the writer had  no interest in coming up with a more intriguing introduction.

Or, he is apologizing for writing on a topic that he is sure his readers know in intimate detail, but he’s going to write about it, too, and thus telegraphs that, very likely, there is nothing of interest here, so, go ahead, move along thanks. In which case, why write the piece at all?

But we did promise to be positive and constructive here.  So: when tempted to begin with the dreaded “as everyone knows,” go ahead and write it, but be sure to separate it off into its own paragraph.  Then, once your piece is done, simply delete it.  I have great confidence that no one will miss it.

I’ve developed an extreme dislike for the word “interesting”.  It’s the word that leads off the dullest blog posts, and theInteresting! most auto-pilot link sharing on Twitter.  Everything’s an ‘interesting take…interesting read…interesting article…interesting meeting…interesting link…’ Interesting isn’t it? Not really.

If it were truly of interest, couldn’t we find a better word, like “Intriguing”, “Fascinating”, “Spellbinding”, “Educational”, “Enlightening”, “Hilarious”, “Gut-busting”, “Wrong-headed”, “Spot-on”…need I go on?

Better yet, doesn’t the fact that you posted it presume that you found something of interest in it? That you thought we, your audience, would react to it? If so, could you not  simply describe it, and let your audience decide if it’s interesting?

The good writing principle is “Show, Don’t Tell”. Calling something “interesting” should live in the category of things where, “if you have to say it, it’s probably not.”

I’ve noticed a trend in how I react to certain media habits.  For example:

  • I hated the old Jay Leno Tonight Show bit “Jaywalking”.  Why?  The idea — find ignorant people, ask them questions and make fun of them — was, at its core, simply mean. It’s funny because…why? They are stupid and I am not?
  • Certain NPR programs, particularly On the Media and Marketplace, deliver news and comment with a kind of smug, cringe-worthy, in-the-know condescension.  For an example, try Bob Garfield’s On the Media interview with Barry Levine of the National Enquirer. Listen for yourself. I can’t describe it any better than commenter Thomas Sizgorich on the show page: “The tone taken by Bob Garfield in this interview with Barry Levine was, as one other poster has noted in brief, condescending, arrogant and even by the standards of a graceless profession, rude.”
  • Any use of the phrases “as everyone knows”, “we all know”, or “unless you’ve been living on Jupiter for the past three months, you know…”, or their ilk.   In a media environment that combines micro-communities of interest with search-based accessibility of any post and any article to anyone, there is little that ‘everyone knows’.

    I do not suggest that we write only for the widest audience…quite the opposite.  But as a writer, what are you adding with this tired trope? If I, the reader did “know”, like everyone else, what does it add to tell me that I know? Why not just get on to whatever you’re going to add to the story? And if I, the reader, did not “know”, you’ve made me feel foolish.

Let’s call this Principle #4: Don’t be a snob. Let us use language that treats our audiences as trusted, intelligent confidantes and colleagues.  Let us drop tired, word-wasting habits that insult even our own readers.

Lord knows, I like oatmeal. And I like having breakfast at coffee shops.  So when I heard that local coffee shop chain Caribou announce that they would launch a new line of oatmeal offerings in their shops, I was intrigued, prepped, and ready to warm up my single-digit Minnesota winter mornings.

But as the offering insinuated itself into my inbox, I experienced an unwelcome turn of the stomach. Here is the email:

is it made from wood? or other found objects?
Caribou’s Handcrafted Oatmeal

“Handcrafted” Oatmeal? Of what will it be crafted? Wood? Found objects? How does one handcraft oats, anyway? Does a handcrafted object taste good?  Do people who craft things by hand typically have clean hands? Are they dipping their calloused, sawdust-coated fingers — so appreciated when applied to, say, woodcraft — into my oatmeal? Does a ‘handcrafted’ oatmeal truly offer something that a ‘machine-cooked’ (or even ‘pot boiled’) oatmeal does not? (the answer, apparently, is “steamed milk”)

These are  uncomfortable images, and as a writer and a marketer, I feel a certain sympathy for everyone involved.  But, as always, I’m here to help.

Let’s call this “Principle #3: Develop your metaphors organically.”

Of course we want to be creative. Of course we want to use tasty, juicy words in unusual ways.  Of course, we want our copy to stop people…literally, to make them stop  moving and think about what we have written.  But as we deploy the creative arsenal at our disposal, seeking the perfect word or turn of phrase to take aim at your communications challenge…we need to stop and check our metaphors.  Do they say what I want them to say?  Connote what I want them to connote? Create associations in the minds of consumers that drive sales?

The search for the right word begins with the attributes you want to emphasize, and the emotion you want to elicit from the customer.  While “homemade” is as cliche as it is inaccurate, it has the advantage of bringing to mind warm meals made with care. If the key attribute is the fact that the oatmeal is “crafted” in the store, there are many, many words from the world of food and cooking  from which to choose.

Other metaphors might conjure forth images of freshness, a home-away-from-home, breakfast in a Northwoods hunting lodge so deeply a part of  this coffee shop’s brand.

I’d venture that none of these are right for Caribou — these things take time after all.  I’d venture further  that “handcrafted” tested quite well.  But the principle still stands:  the right word or phrase should be grown from a carefully tended garden, not hammered into a place where it does not belong.

But have no fear, Caribou…handcrafted or not, I will try your oatmeal!

Every piece of business communication has two elements – an objective and an audience.  All else – format, media, font size, online, offline – is secondary. Let’s call this “Principle #2: Remember Your Audience…And Objectives.”

My audience, for example, is the professional business communicator. You might have communications in your title, connected to “marketing” or “corporate”.  Or you are an executive who wants to inspire employees, customers or the industry. Or you are an expert – in, say, technology or business processes – who wants to be better understood, to tell a better story, or properly explain how things should be done.

My objective is to make your business writing better…and, not so incidentally, to suggest to you that my services would make your communications more effective.

For everything you write, answer these questions:

1. Who will read this?

2. What do I want them to think or do as a result of reading this?

Here’s an example. Thanks for this goes to the Internet, which helpfully offers employees the ability to send internal memos to reporters at major media outlets (I emphatically recommend that employees not do this, by the way).

In the memo, Yahoo!’s Chief Marketing Officer wants to comfort employees that the outsourcing of Yahoo!’s search business to Microsoft will not lead to major changes, and to inspire them to continue doing great work.  Nicholas Carson at Business Insider summarizes it perfectly:

“It’s basically a lot of nothing about how everyone needs to do a great job and how great things are.”

First, the writing is technically fine and well constructed.  I’ve probably written a few letters like this for clients over the years.  Unfortunately, I’ve received a few as well.

So let us look deeper.  Who was the audience for this memo? The marketing department – though the writer clearly feared the memo’s release to the public, as evidenced by its amusing use of colleges as codes for competitors and partners.  What did the writer want her audience to do?  Mainly, “don’t panic”… but she clearly wants to inspire them to see this historic change in the business as an opportunity.

How would we make it better? First, drop the “day in the life of the marketing department” paragraph – it skims over the wave tops of what she wants to say, which is “every one keep doing the great job you’re doing”.  Replace it with concrete examples of the opportunities presented by this new focus, and a call to arms to, say, raise the bar in marketing or carry out the new strategic plan (which, hopefully, exists).  Finally, the code names are fun, but clearly ineffective and a barrier to clear, grown-up communications.

Now it is your turn:  How do you remember your audience in your business writing?