Voices

10 Bad Writing Habits Everyone’s Guilty Of (Especially Us)

By Kieran Dahl February 16th, 2017

For more than two years, I read every single article on The Content Strategist. This loyalty was not borne out of rampant TCS fandom, though I did and still do love the publication, but out of a sense of duty. A self-proclaimed grammar nerd, I was Contently’s copy editor, a defender of proper grammar and style, and a bulwark against bad jargon and clichés.

Scouring every article for errors was part of the job, and if you read hundreds of anything, be it Gawker articles or tweets from Weird Twitter or works by Isaac Asimov, you begin to notice writing habits. I sure did. Mistakes I’d have to keep fixing every time we published a piece. Overused phrases that I’d add to a list. Idiosyncratic antics I’d know to look for from specific writers. (Some of these are not necessarily errors.) What follows are the 10 most common copy problems I’ve found on The Content Strategist.

1. Overusing “ultimately” to tidily wrap up an article

Once, in a fit of frustrated curiosity sparked by removing five instances of the word “ultimately” in one post, I did a Google search to see how many times we’d used the word on TCS. There were hundreds of results. Today, there are over 300 posts that use the word.

The word often begins the last paragraph of a TCS piece, as it does here, here, and here. It’s been used four times in one article, and two “ultimately’s” have appeared within six words of each other. I’ll concede that “ultimately” sounds more sophisticated than “basically” and more appropriate than “when all is said and done.” Ultimately, though, TCS writers could cut back on this habit.

2. Using “in-depth” so much it loses meaning

A standard-length interview with a marketing leader is in-depth. A 35,000-word Mother Jones “investigative report” is in-depth. A study we conducted is in-depth. (Isn’t the whole point of a study to go in deep on something?) “Longform content” is in-depth. A checklist, by very definition something itemized and broken down, is in-depth. When everything is in-depth, nothing is.

3. Using “in fact” in reference to non-facts

We live in a “post-truth” world of “alternative facts,” so I understand the need to ground our writing in indisputable information. Yet we occasionally fall prey to using “in fact” when referring to things that are, well, not facts.

We write that playing it safe with content strategy “feels like the prudent move, but, in fact, you’re dooming yourself.” That’s not a fact, that’s a prediction. “In fact, brands are creating some of the most innovative and engaging content on the web.” Contently is in the business of promoting brands’ quality content, but the quality of anything is a matter of opinion. “In fact, with a more widespread and nuanced view on an industry like financial services, a freelancer could arguably bring”—I’ll stop there. If you say “could arguably” in the same breath as “in fact,” well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

4. Transforming nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns

A plague in the corporate world, changing nouns into verbs (verbification) and verbs into nouns (nominalization) is especially egregious on a site that’s proud to hold the top search results for “content marketing buzzwords.” Adding -ize or -ise to a noun (“incentivize”), or tacking the standard -ed, -ing, -s verb inflections (“siloed”) to a noun, makes your writing seem more like a bad corporate memo. So, too, does making an “ask,” needing a “solve,” or requesting a “build.” These words commoditize (ugh) and corporatize (ugh!) human actions. They should be banished.

5. Using “luckily” when there’s no luck involved

“Luckily” is such a common transitional word that people overlook its meaning. Is there luck involved in the “plenty of opportunities to turn data into stories“? No, that’s a detail about the world. Is luck responsible for a browser extension that “helps Twitter users get more information about the people they’re following“? No, smart engineers probably are. Is it lucky that “with every problem comes a solution“? No, that’s just called optimism. You get the point.

6. Overusing “in other words”

Content marketing is a complicated topic, so phrasing a thorny thought in a different way can help. But too often, our use of “in other words” is misguided or unnecessary. Like when we employ the phrase twice in three paragraphs to repeat effectively the same thought. Or when the sentence doesn’t need it. Or when it attempts to clarify an already-clear thought. In other words, if you write with enough clarity and logic, “in other words” is almost never needed.

7. Misusing identifier-name commas

No publication, save, perhaps, The New Yorker, is immune to this syntactical error, known as an “identifier-name” problem. You’ve seen it before: a stray comma before something like a movie or book title, or someone’s name. “This, essentially, is the argument Ben Thompson makes in his insightful article, ‘The Sports Lynchpin,'” we write. If the name (“The Sports Lynchpin”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“his insightful article”), use a comma before the name. But here, the comma implies that this story is Thompson’s only insightful article—it’s not, so there should be no comma.

If we write, “Stephen King’s novel, It, was very good,” the commas around It suggest that It is his only novel—but he’s written 55. If there’s more than one of the thing being described, it gets no commas. A correct sentence would be “Stephen King’s novel It is very good, and so is his novel The Shining, and so is his most recent novel, End of Watch.” Because there can be only one “most recent novel,” End of Watch is set off by a comma.

8. Using “etc.” when you’ve run out of things to say

Using “etc.” at the end of a succession of things is one of those writerly crutches that makes one look lazy when it’s overused. Its biggest offense is popping up at the end of lists that leave you wanting more—more detail, more explanation, more connections between the things listed. Here, for example, we mention “a set of clearly defined brand guidelines: colors, fonts, preferred terminology, etc.” How’d we get from colors to preferred terminology? By using “etc.” instead of completing the list, we leave readers wondering what, exactly, brand guidelines involve.

Here, we say employees should contribute through “blog posts, webinars, etc.” But with blog posts and webinars being so different in format, what are the other items? “Etc.” leaves knowledge gaps that we should fill in with substantive words.

9. Putting em dashes in too many places

I love the em dash—the dash on either side of these words that looks like two hyphens connected—for its versatility. It’s less awkward and more attention-drawing than parentheses, less stodgy and more emphatic than a colon. It lets you introduce an additional thought to a sentence while craftily breaking from it. Yet on TCS, we’re guilty of using it to keep a sentence rolling when a period and a new sentence would do. We frequently add them in place of commas for information like job titles, which don’t need the choppy, stop-and-go rhythm that em dashes create.

10. Starting sentences with “For example”

There’s something inelegant about beginning too many sentences with a transitional phrase like “For example” or “In addition.” It reminds me of essays I wrote in middle school, when I struggled to make logical writing transitions without using these phrases foisted on me by teachers who knew my pitfalls. Read publications known for their stellar writing and you’ll notice that transitional phrases almost always never begin sentences.

In conclusion, as TCS tries to improve the way marketers use language, the editorial staff can further the cause by fixing some of its own writing habits.

Image by Dimitris K / Getty
Tags: , , ,