Stop Writing Things That People Don’t Read
February 3 2016 · Mark Mann
I make words for the Internet, because the Internet needs words. There are many like me, copywriters and content creators, all of us paid to pack keywords into blog posts and white papers to placate the Google algorithm, whatever it may be. We all make the same promise: to craft language that is fresh, original, and search-engine optimized. By our cunning literary powers, companies become Thought Leaders, lowly executives are made into Influencers, and web-surfers don’t have to click so much.
It’s not a bad gig. We word-mercenaries love finding memorable metaphors to enliven our articles, and often the random subjects we write about turn out to be more interesting than we expected. But there’s a problem—we tend to be overworked and underpaid. And so, lacking time to coax out any truly cogent language from under the rubble of our endlessly distracted minds, we do the next best thing. We rewrite each other’s sentences.
The Internet is called an echo chamber for a reason. Namely, because people keep using the term “echo chamber” to describe it. What the hell is an echo chamber? Let me save you a trip to Wikipedia: it’s a special room that recording engineers use to trick people. An echo chamber creates an “aural illusion” that a sound is occurring in a much bigger space than it really is. It’s a cubby that sounds like a concert hall.
To put it differently, an echo chamber grows noises. It inflates them, makes them more grand and exciting. And that’s what seems to happen when we use each other’s words over and over again. The more we repeat a particularly “impactful” phrase—something that’s going to “drive” readers to take “actionable steps” that will produce “maximum results”—the more we feel that we are participating in something larger than ourselves. Those echo-chamber words aren’t any better than other words, but they sound as big as a million people shouting in unison.
Except they don’t work. Quite the opposite. Just like yelling makes people stop listening, echo-chamber words make readers stop reading. Those words that seem so important and authoritative, they’re really just fast-forward buttons. They’re like signposts that say, “Start skimming now.”
I’m not talking about pompous terms like “interface” or “operationalize,” which just make people tired and angry. I’m not talking about cliches either, like “game-changer” or “sacred cow,” though those are brain-deadening in their own way. And I’m not talking about stupid neologisms like “imagineer” or “marketecture,” which are only fun for the people who invent them. I’m talking about jargon that’s so ubiquitous, it doesn’t even know it’s jargon.
Only you know which are the words in your world that everyone has read too many times. The self-serious words, whose only real power is to short-circuit the mind and make brains go blank. They’re like tazers that you can’t feel. In my world, people want things to “resonate,” perhaps “strategically,” for extra “leverage.” They want to check the “alignment” and offer “insights.” And they want it all to happen in “real-time.”
Individually, all those words can be useful and even precise. But all too often, they serve a purpose that is the opposite of precision. They turn writing into warm soup: reassuring, easy to swallow, and totally bland.
The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote an excellent book about writing called The Sense of Style. In it, he says that in order to write, you need some sort of pretense. Since we aren’t standing directly in front of our readers, and so can’t use gestures and intonations to clarify our meaning, we have to pretend that we share some type of mutual understanding. To make-believe a common ground. The pretense of writing might actually be pretentious—“Only special kinds of people are capable of reading this”—or it might simply be that the writer sees something clearly and wants to show the reader, like in the pretense that Pinker calls classic prose.
Classic prose depends on a simple idea, that writing is a window onto the world. It works like this: I point, you look, we both nod knowingly. “Classic prose is a pleasant illusion, like losing yourself in a play,” Pinker writes. “The writer must work to keep up the impression that his prose is a window on the scene rather than just a mess of words. Like an actor with a wooden delivery, a writer who relies on canned verbal formulas will break the spell.”
On the surface, the idea of writing as a window onto the world sounds rather dull (unless you’re a cat). Why not a pretense where writing is a captivating magic show of value-added buzzwords that are guaranteed to produce buy-in, enable best practices, and inspire sustainable innovation? Because those jargon-y phrases are an end in themselves and don’t actually point to anything. They’re attention-seeking, rather than attention-getting.
People are curious. Show them something! Readers want to see the world—a facet of their business that feels complex, an opportunity they haven’t yet understood, a tool they don’t know how to use—more clearly than they ever have before. If the ostentatious displays of insider trade-speak haven’t yet satisfied the demand for a good point-of-view and a clean line-of-sight, they aren’t likely to.
Jargon makes writers feel smart, but it makes readers feel dumb. When writers add more mirrors and blow more smoke, the reader draws one of two conclusions: either there’s nothing to see, or they’re incapable of seeing it. In both cases, they look away.
Classic prose is a lot harder to write than jargon. It’s also a lot more valuable. Because when readers see something clearly, they want to show other people. There’s no secret to writing clean, lucid copy that’s interesting and useful, except slowing down and interrogating each word. Great writing is expensive to produce, but people will actually read it. And that’s worth more than any piece of jargon, no matter how big it sounds.