In helping clients with their writing, one of the most common misconceptions I have to fight against is the idea that good writing means a lot of writing.
I blame our schooling.
Grade school, high school, college and even grad school teachers in the US assign papers with a minimum page count requirement.
In some cases, that makes sense.
If the assignment’s on ‘The history of California’, it’s perfectly logical to have a minimum page count. That’s such an open-ended topic, and there’s a lot to cover. A minimum page count gives students some structure. (A maximum would probably be good too.)
But if the topic is ‘Why California should (or shouldn’t) be divided into two states’, that’s a different thing entirely. For that topic, the paper should be only as long as it takes to make the argument.
In that case, asking students to meet a minimum page count is begging them to pad whatever compelling points they have with fluff. It’s implicitly sending the message that quantity is as important as quality.
After writing dozens of papers over the course of a decade or so, it can be hard to shake that mentality. And before you know it, you’re writing a business brief or a bit of copy and instead of thinking, ‘The substance will determine the length of this thing,’ you’re thinking, ‘If this doesn’t reach a certain length, it can’t possibly be good.’ Which is counter-productive, to put it mildly.
I think most people are better writers than they realise. But then ingrained habits like minimum word counts enter their brains, practically forcing them into bad writing. It’s a shame.
So ask yourself: have I said everything my reader needs to hear? If the answer’s yes, then put your pen down.
There’s a new bit of jargon that seems to be having its 15 minutes of fame at the moment. It’s the word ‘land’:
‘That idea really landed well.’
‘We need to make sure our project lands.’
‘This initiative just isn’t landing.’
Superficially, what’s not to like? It’s a fine Old English word (which conjures up synonyms like ‘ground’, ‘earth’, ‘homeland’ and other down-to-earth expressions like ‘being safe on dry land’ and whatnot). There’s also an implicit sense of some kind of journey: your project ‘takes off’, then it ‘cruises along’, and finally it’ll need to ‘land’. And everybody likes a journey metaphor, don’t they?
But like most bits of corporate jargon, while it sounds precise and solid, it’s actually rather slippery. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s because it’s a word that lends itself to deflecting responsibility: ‘the idea hasn’t landed’ or ‘the initiative didn’t land’. Both of which help give the impression that the success or not of the ‘landing’ was probably something to do with the initiative itself, or was perhaps in the lap of the gods. Compare that to the word ‘embed’ – which has similar connotations of making something ‘stick’ or ‘take hold’. If you use embed like this you get ‘the idea hasn’t embedded’ or ‘the initiative didn’t embed’. Now it might be just me, but in those contexts the word ‘embed’ draws attention to itself, instantly making you think: ‘Yeah – but embedding doesn’t just happen by itself. Who was responsible for that, eh?’ (Grammarians might say it’s something to do with how ‘land’ works well in the context of passive sentence structures, and as an intransitive verb.)
And I’ve been in two meetings this month where clients have talked about their ‘ideas not landing’. Initial discussions about the big reasons behind this failure to land eventually got round to the truth – which was more like ‘we didn’t explain our ideas in a way that people could understand’, or even ‘people just didn’t “get” what we were saying’.
In both cases, the problem was a language one: the ideas needed explaining in a simpler way, or in language appropriate to the audience. Or they needed bringing to life with stories or examples.
So, next time you hear something hasn’t landed, check: is it really that there’s some complicated process problem — or is it just that something needs explaining better?
I got my daughter’s school report the other day. I was expecting the same old, same old: ‘well-behaved’, ‘hard-working’, ‘conscientious’ blah. (Sorry, I should warn you, she’s one of those kids... and there’ll be some more not-very-subtle parental showing off before we’re done.)
Anyway. Instead of the usual ‘pleasure to teach’ clichés, her form teacher had written:
‘I wonder how many people excel in both mathematics and dance, and indeed pretty much everything else?’
That’s different. I want to read more.
‘She’s great to have in 11R and a cracking young woman. Everybody says so.’
Now, that could have been written by a writer at The Writer. But it was written by Mr Hunter, chemistry teacher.
He’d done the things good writers do to connect with their audience: writing like you speak, using some surprising vocabulary, and a well-placed full stop before a really short sentence. (When someone else might have used a comma. Or not bothered with that last point at all.)
So at parents’ evening I mentioned to Mr Hunter how much I’d enjoyed his writing. He told me that lots of Mums and Dads had said the same.
Which got me thinking. The ‘cut and paste’ school report methodology is well-known. For all I know he’d written something more or less identical about all the other kids in 11R – substituting different subjects for maths and dance (and hopefully having the sense to say ‘cracking young man’ not ‘woman’ for the boys).
But even if he did*, it just shows that a standard letter can still bring a smile to your face, if some thought has gone into it. And get your message across. And make people like you.
So as a bit of customer comms it worked really well. Maybe your business could do better.
*I’m sure you didn’t, Mr Hunter
Many moons ago, we blogged about how much we love the Manhattan Mini Storage tone of voice. We loved the boldness, directness and frankly the unrelated-to-their-businessness of their ginormous posters proclaiming: ‘If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.’
The other day, I spotted one of their most recent posters:
‘Gay marriage = gay registry = gay clutter.’
It’s genius. Make a big stand on a big issue, win a few friends, and then a few years later – when the controversy becomes mundane – remind those friends that you can take care of their excess stuff. No idea if they really planned it that way, but they’re smart if they did.
There’s an internet phenomenon called tl;dr that I absolutely love.
If you’ve haven’t ventured onto Reddit or a forum recently, tl;dr (pronounced ‘teal deer’) is short for ‘too long; didn’t read’. It started off life as an insult to chuck at anyone who posted walls of text, but it’s eventually evolved into something far more useful. Now, if you notice a post you’re writing has rambled a tad, you just write tl;dr at the end and add a really short summary.
Basically, it’s anticipating all the comments from people moaning about the length of your post and writing a mini version for them. The only problem is that it’s at the wrong end of people’s writing – it should be up front, so readers don’t have to trawl to find it.
It’s nothing new
Journalists do this all the time. It’s called a nutgraph. It’s meant to sum up your whole article in one paragraph – but it goes at the top, not the bottom.
It’s a great way to start off a document, because you’re telling people what to expect from the rest, and saving them from wasting their time reading if it doesn’t interest them. (And it means they can skimread the first bits and pretend to have read everything in the news when they’re down the pub.)
So the next time you’re writing something – a long email say, or a report – try it out. Write a summary paragraph for the person who otherwise wouldn’t bother reading the whole thing. And bung it at the top.