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Nexcess Blog

Writing Gooder, Part 1

November 12, 2015 2 Comments RSS Feed

As this is my first blog post for Nexcess, an introduction is in order. I am one of the technical writers at Nexcess, though I’ve also been fortunate enough to write for the Web and a few other places.

Writing is easy. Writing well is damned hard. And the Web is full of easy, lazy writing that punishes shoppers and readers alike. But this is eCommerce. People see pretty pictures, click on things, fill a digital shopping cart, and click Buy. Why waste time by criticizing web copy, Mr. Technical Writer?

It is true that strong web copy probably cannot save a confusing or ugly webstore. It is also true that a sleek user interface and good product can often compensate for lackadaisical writing. I bow down to the power of an intuitive interface and glossy images, yet even the most image-driven web store eventually turns to the written word for its product descriptions. The image hooks readers, and unless the price annihilates your competition, the copy reels them into the boat. Bloggers enjoy many more allowances for personal style and conversational tone, but since they only have their writing and knowledge to sell, those elements aren’t good excuses for a sloppy effort. The Internet serves up a mountainous steaming heap of blogs every day, and expertise and pretty pictures aren’t always enough to nurture a following.

Most writers also serve time as their harshest critic. For me, this critic mimics a real one from my youth. When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to study English Composition under one Conrad Vachon (pronounced Va-SHON, rhymes with “it’s on”), who was teetering on the edge of sanity on a good day. He was brilliant as the sun and twice as old.

Vachon would make us read our papers in front of the class, and then pick classmates to comment on our paper. Often, it was to highlight something he liked, but sometimes, it was just to knock the “natural” writers down a peg and to show them they still had room to grow.

One time, after making me read one, Vachon offered his own insight:

VACHON
What grade did I give you?

ME
Ah…you, ah, gave me…an…A.

VACHON
Hm. I don’t know why. That wasn’t all that great, really. Guess you got lucky.

ME
Ah…well,…ah, thank you?

Looking at those words now on my computer screen, it sounds horribly sadistic, but it was effective, especially when combined with his other weapon. This weapon was The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

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We obeyed Vachon and his friends Strunk and White because I believe part of being a good writer boils down to obedience. It’s easy to dismiss them as stodgy, obsolete, useless rules pushed by English teachers and technical writers to justify their meager salaries. Some of them are indeed archaic and silly. Perhaps even many.

But not all.

The book has its critics. Taken too far, it becomes a burden, an avatar of hypercorrection. The secret, as I wrote earlier, is to learn the reasoning behind the rules, develop a healthy respect, and then occasionally wriggle out from underneath their Strunkian thumbs.

#1: Omit needless words

Delete unnecessary words. To paraphrase Strunk and White, if you were making a machine, would you add parts that did nothing? No one likes bloat. Some writers think wordiness gives them credibility. For others, it’s about effort. Tight, vigorous writing demands time and…well, vigor. Lazy, bland writing demands only a keyboard and a pair of hands. Every thought is a good one when you don’t care about quality.

Here’s a list of garden-variety offenders. Each waves the Red Flag of Wordy Wordiness. Kill them with fire.

Ensure

If you can find a way to hate this word with an intensity that borders on irrational, it will only help your writing. Use a more direct alternative.

“Ensure your shopping experience is a good one by…”

becomes

“Treat yourself to a great shopping experience by…”

Able to, be sure to

These phrases are a blight on humanity. They cause cancer in puppies and children. They murder Santa Claus and Cinderella. You get the idea. There’s almost always a cleaner alternative:

“The cat is able to make my life hell.”

becomes

“The cat makes my life hell.”

“Be sure to eat bacon every single day.”

becomes

“Eat bacon every damn day.”

Avoid adverbs

Writers frequently disagree argue on this point, but most adverbs should stay on the shelf. Adverbs are usually lazy attempts to “shore up” weak or boring nouns and adjectives. One strong verb or adjective outperforms a weak adverb-verb pair every time. “Very” tops the Most Unwanted List by far.

“Very tired” becomes “exhausted.” “Very good” becomes “wondrous.” “Very arrogant technical writer” also becomes “wondrous.”

Other abominations

“There is no doubt that” becomes “No doubt” or “Doubtless.”

“The reason why is that” becomes “because.”

“The fact that” becomes…just delete it, actually. Nuke it from orbit and call it a day. “The fact that I had arrived” becomes “My arrival.” “The fact that I was late” becomes “I was late.” The word “that” becomes “ .”

Grammargeddon

Sadly, my introduction, which hopefully succeeded at duping you into reading about grammar, Patron Saint of Hated Topics, took up a fair amount of space. You only get one tip today, but take comfort in knowing it’s the most important. Thank you for reading, and if you’re not drooling into your keyboard, keep your eyes open for the upcoming second installment of Writing Gooder. The buzz is a buzzin’; I’ve hired Michael Bay as the director.


Fight the good fight with Writing Gooder, Part 2.


Posted in: Nexcess
  • Fabio Daniele

    This is great! As a non-native english speaker (or writer?), these are gold advices for me.
    Congratulations, you caught yourself a reader from the country of pizza.

  • Jason T. Dobry

    Glad this can help you, Fabio, and thank you for reading! I am in awe of people like you, who have taken the time and trouble to learn our nit-picky English language.

    PS Thank you for pizza!