“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
George Orwell – Politics and the English Language
(Opening a blog post with an Orwell quote? Pretentious, moi?! Well, I suppose, perhaps, but stick with me, there’s some swearing coming up.)
I’m not a great writer. I understand that. The vast majority of people writing blogs are not great writers, and that’s perfectly fine. But what really irks me are those blog writers who, rather than attempt to write clearly, deliberately write in that buzzword-heavy, cliche-ridden, business speak that is so prevalent on corporate blogs.
And especially on social media blogs.
In the essay quoted above, Orwell rewrites a well know verse from Ecclesiastes in modern English, so that:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
The point being that bad writing is not only uglier, but also more vague.
If Steve Rubel writes in AdAge that people “engage with a unit of media” he hasn’t done anything to help clarify what he is trying to say. It has a ring of scientific evaluation, but in fact it divorces the meaning from the words in order to suggest that there is a Great Big Idea hidden behind them. But he actually just means “read a book or watch a movie”.
Language like this doesn’t express new ideas. It can’t. The use of stock-phrases keeps us locked into patterns of thinking like a train unable to move from its tracks. I had someone DM me on Twitter that they were following me “because they found my content compelling”. That wasn’t a phrase they conjured up themselves, it was a phrase they had learned. A bad habit. A cliche designed to suggest a more rigourous thought than simply saying “I like what you say”. The irony* is, it has the opposite effect.
Nothing makes your content less compelling than using words like ‘compelling content’.
(*that is irony, right? Since I learned that Alanis Morissette was all wrong about what irony is I get so confused)
Now I understand that this isn’t a new thought either, but it has been on my mind lately. And then I came across this site yesterday - What the F#&* is My Social Media “Strategy”? (See? I told you there was going to be swearing).
Inspired by ‘What the F#&* Should I Make for Dinner?‘, WTFIMSMS parodies the social media world’s art of saying nothing in as complicated a way as possible, by giving you a random nonsense sentence to sum up your goals. For instance, I just clicked and got:
Activate audience by giving them compelling social experiences, encouraging advocacy
Great stuff! So I thought we could play a wee game here. Which of the following are from WTFIMSMS, and which are from actual Social Media/Marketing professionals. Ready?
“Humanise the brand by driving the audience conversations”
“(Help) to humanize the interaction with our community while maintaining brand identity and growing a centralized community.”
“Convert every one of your store associates into well-informed product experts by providing an interactive, course-based social platform/community that educates, engages, and rewards them, while showing them how they stack up against their co-workers.”
“(create) user-centric approach to social media design, implementation, and strategy that accounts for how different kinds of users engage with social media, and how sites and application design and execution lead to emergent social practices.”
OK, you get the idea. Obviously (?) the first is from WTFIMSMS, while the others are real. You get the point.
I’m sure there is plenty of hypocricy in me writing this. I’m sure there have been times when I’ve been as guilty as the worst offender. I honestly don’t mean to attack anyone in particular here. I just think it’s about time that we all slowed down a little and thought about what we are really trying to say, and how we can best do that.
And if that means quoting Orwell and getting all pretentious up in here, well, then that’s just what I’ll have to do.