Bad Words

By Rob Farmer, Landis Communications, Senior Account Supervisor

News from the written-word world: In the span of a week came the announcement of the winning entries to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, as well as news of the Yahoo! Style Guide debut. These events are at best loosely related. But there is a connection.

In the world of professional communicators, the written word is arguably the most important tool we have. So news in the same week of bad-writing awards and a published style guide for online writing struck me as somewhat fitting. Because where you find writing, you’ll also find bad writing.

Yahoo!, the Internet content giant, released its guide for online writers, which presumably means virtually everybody writing these days. “The Yahoo Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World” is yet another resource for applying a set of standards to the written word. Let’s forgive them the use of “ultimate” in the title (which itself could be chalked up to bad writing), and concentrate on its intended purpose: standards. From standards, we can logically expect quality, correct? While that’s open for discussion, we in the communications business remain beleaguered by poor writing. Whether in the form of a convoluted press release or a meandering pitch, the victim of poorly written communication is usually the client. And nobody’s giving out awards for deliberately bad public relations writing.

Not so with fiction. Last week came the announcement of the 2010 winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which bestows notoriety upon its entrants for particularly bad prose. The recipient of the grand prize took the dubious honor for this little nugget: “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.”

An instant classic. But while deliberately bad prose is funny – often hilarious – it’s no laughing matter when it comes to professional communication. So we should greet the Yahoo style guide as a welcome new arrow in the quiver of the professional communicator. Whether you’re using the AP, Chicago, New York Times, Strunk & White, or Fowler’s, the key is to make sure your writing at the very least passes the scrutiny of standards.

Bad writing takes many forms. From grammar and agreement problems to punctuation and word choice, rare is the writer who’s been able to avoid all stumbling blocks all the time. But with practice and effort and, above all, a keen eye toward editing, most writing problems can be avoided or corrected. It’s worth noting that Yahoo’s guide actually includes a passage about bad writing, indicating that not only do readers dislike it, but so do search engines:

“Bad writing. Search engines are more likely to penalize your website when you stuff your copy with unrelated keywords, strand a list of keywords at the bottom of your page, and rely too much on headlines and links. Your entire page should be relevant: Like a muffin with the right amount of blueberries, it should have juicy keywords distributed evenly throughout, but not so many that they overwhelm the whole.”

That’s actually great information. But do you think the “blueberry muffin” analogy was placed in there with a straight face? For the sake of style guides everywhere, let’s hope so.

I think the annual bad writing contest is great – it inspires laughter and creativity. And I welcome the Yahoo! Style Guide, because we can all use more guidance in our ongoing efforts to become better writers. I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have some painfully funny experiences or examples of bad PR writing to share, by all means share. We’re not giving any awards, but there may be a blueberry muffin for participating! Email your examples (not including this article!) to me at [email protected].

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2 Comments

  1. Jordana Reply

    Rob — well said (and written)!

  2. Sarah Reply

    Rob, great post. My biggest pet peeve is the all to common misspelling of everyday words – their, there, they’re; affect, effect. You get my point. I’m all for more resources to help “clean up” our pages and pitches.