Writing for the Web

There’s a wonderful article over on Digital Web called "Resurrect Your Writing, Redeem Your Soul". It’s all about how to write well, especially on the Web, and it’s the very antithesis of Nielsen’s checklist approach.

The article was written by Digital Web’s own Copy Chief, which helps explain the high standard of writing on that website. Here’s a choice quote I’d like to echo:

"You know you’re on the Information Superhighway to Hell if crap like enhance, leverage, implement, context, driver, focus, core, actionable, outcome and stakeholder crops up in your copy."

Amen to that.

But you know what’s even worse? If you find yourself using language like that in real life. Now I’m going to publicly name and shame Pete Barr-Watson.

A bunch of us were sitting in an Indian restaurant just the other evening, shooting the breeze with Thomas Vander Wal, who was in town for the evening. With a complete lack of irony, Pete dropped the word "synergy" into the middle of a sentence.

For shame, Pete, for shame!*

While I’m on my high horse, here are some words that will be first against the wall when I am king:

Unless you are a dentist talking about molars, don’t use the word "impacted". The practice of arbitrarily taking nouns and turning them into verbs must stop. Now.

Next time you feel the urge to say "leverage", try saying "use" instead. It’s not hard. I know you can do it.

What does "enterprise" mean in the context of "enterprise level solution"? Really. I have absolutely no idea. What distinguishes this "solution" from others of lesser levels? How many levels are there? Leaving aside the whole notion of levels, just remember that "enterprise" is not an adjective.

The problem with buzzwords like "impact", "leverage", and "enterprise" is that they only make sense if everyone got the memo explaining what the hell they’re supposed to stand for.

Lest I sound like some old fuddy-duddy mouthing off about how things aren’t as good as they used to be, let me just point out that the practice of obscuring meaning with buzzwords isn’t new. Writing in 1946, George Orwell took this passage from Ecclesiastes:

"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."

He then translated it into the bad writing that he found all too prevalent at the time:

"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."

Finally, while we’re on the subject of writing, I’d just like to remind everyone that "definite" is spelled d.e.f.i.n.I.t.e, not d.e.f.i.n.A.t.e. It’s not that hard to remember. And don’t think you can rely on your spell-checker either - it will just fill your text with "defiantly"s. Right, Andy?*

Now that I have insulted my friends* and berated my readers* (who will no doubt get in touch to point out my own grammatical faults), I’ll finish with one last short quote from the article that inspired this rant:

"Give people some credit - doling out an information fix doesn’t have to preclude thoughtful writing."

* no offence intended.

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