My freelance writing usually falls into one of two categories: straight journalism and custom publishing. Over the last year, as journalism and independent publishing suffers the extinction of the dead-tree business model and desperately searches for digital models that can replace it, custom publishing has become a much larger part of my business.
Custom publishing – producing articles, newsletters and magazines for a corporation or organization – is a form of marketing. As such, the goal of the writing is usually to get someone to buy something. Even the high-brow, glossy custom magazines that publish in-depth articles aimed at top-level executives are selling something. The goal of these magazines is often “thought leadership,” a vague marketing term that means the company is promoting how smart it is. They are trying to get the reader to buy into the image of the leaders of this corporation as particularly intelligent, insightful and strategic thinkers.
Such phrases have started creeping into my vocabulary as I do more custom work. I’ve always been a stickler with myself, and with others whom I edit, about keeping language simple, clear and concise. While many marketers value good writing, some do not. They – and the executives above them – apparently think imprecise, vague language effectively promotes their product or advances their agenda. Granted, the goal is to sell something, to in some way influence the reader’s behavior, but to do that you need to hook readers – by entertaining them, piquing their curiosity or delivering valuable information. Marketing people often think in terms of what they, and their company, want to say, rather than what the reader – their customer – needs. I try to point out to them that few people will actually read their custom magazine or corporate white paper unless it’s interesting, well-written or useful – and preferably all three. And those that do read it aren’t likely to take action if they get the sense that the article is just promoting the company.
But the marketing folks sign the checks. My job is to write what they want in the way they want it. So I cringe, subvert my hard-earned skills and write how I’m told. I write about challenges, rather than problems. There are no products or services – they are all solutions. Some are even, God forbid, unique solutions. And these solutions are often optimized, a word that runs all too rampant in marketing copy. (To optimize is to “make as effective, perfect or useful as possible.” If you have to optimize a product, that implies it wasn’t very effective or useful to start with.) All the while I imagine my notoriously loud and dictatorial journalism professor, John Bremner, rolling over in his grave and screaming “barbarisms!” (Yes, that word applies to writing. According to Dictionary.com, definition #3: “the use in a language of forms or constructions felt by some to be undesirably alien to the established standards of the language.”)
I know I shouldn’t complain. After all, in a strict business sense, my goal is to please my customer. Still, it gives me a stomach ache to write this way. And that’s not all. Like a fungus in a dark room, these marketing phrases and meaningless executive pronouncements proliferate and sneak into my journalism. It doesn’t help that I often interview marketing people, as well as executives, for my stories, and thus am exposed to these phrases on several fronts.
How to combat this? One of the best antidotes I’ve found is editing work. In college, Bremner seared so many editing commandments into my brain that I somehow channel him when I edit other’s work. My ability to sniff out the inexact phrase or dangling participle becomes keener when I read someone else’s copy. When I don’t have others to edit, I try to bifurcate my personality. I’ll write a draft of something, let it sit for a day, and then come back to it with my merciless Bremner persona, red pen ready to slash.
The other method is to really listen and think when I interview people. Even journalists – who are professional listeners as well as writers – sometimes get lazy as they take in the answers to their questions. I try to remember to ask, at least once during any given interview, some version of the question: “What the hell does that mean?” More diplomatically than that, of course. For example, the other day a CIO was explaining to me a strategic move that his company made. “They were charged to come back with a change in communication initiatives to drive better alignment for not only the IT organization, but also drive better alignment for the enterprise.” I was able to partially translate as: “I asked them to tell me how .. .” but I had no idea what he meant by better alignment. So I asked. His answer got into important details that enabled me to write a much more interesting and useful story for the reader.
Whether the reader is a magazine subscriber or a customer, that should always be the goal.