The Seven Deadly Sins of Writing

With writing, it’s remarkably easy to discover what actually works.

To get why certain written pieces are effective, it’s helpful to look at what doesn’t work. Below are the seven most common ways that writers sabotage their messages with readers. Included are some samples of the sins and how to rewrite them away:

Sin #1: F-Orientation

Self-interest is universal, so ignore this principle at your peril.

Effective writers know their audience and always emphasize benefits (b) over features (f). To better understand this distinction, let’s consider readers of a financial newsletter devoted to retirement strategies.

A feature-oriented article states the facts. On the surface, such an orientation doesn’t seem problematic – until you start considering some startling statistics. A survey conducted by Empower Retirement found that 66% of respondents didn’t understand the meaning of “rebalancing investments” and 69% were unclear on the meaning of “asset allocation.”

When people become confused, they lose interest.

This unfamiliarity with financial terminology underscores a truth across all industries – people don’t care for the details. Excluding subject-matter experts, what people want to know is how your product or service helps them.

A common way to shift away from an f-orientation is to address readers by using “you” – the second person. Let’s continue this example by reading some copy that has an f-orientation and a b-orientation:

  • F-orientation: MoneyGrow is a leader in the financial management application space because its proprietary algorithms consistently minimize capital risk. This novel system, backed by over half a billion dollars in venture funding, optimizes asset allocations, rebalances portfolios, and completely automates complex investment decisions that ordinarily is handled by trained experts.

  • B-orientation: MoneyGrow is a new mobile application that helps you save and invest your money. It’s easy to use – and it effortlessly takes care of the details so that you can spend your time on things that make you happy! Our system minimizes risk and maximizes returns. You supply the funds and we make it grow!

Note that stark contrast between the two samples. The F-orientation also sins in other ways, which leads to the second item on our list.

Sin #2: Jargon

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon”

- David Ogilvy, American business and advertising magnate

As a rule, the simplest way to state something is often the most elegant. While complexity is tough to avoid in some contexts, abundant jargon reliably alienates readers.

Jargon is particularly prevalent in technical and scientific communications, both of which are notorious for being inaccessible to the wider public. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that this sin may, in part, dissuade people from entering these fields entirely. Just look at this excerpt from a biomedical abstract:

“Finish this section”

Sin #3: Length

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”

- Blaise Pascal, French mathematician

Writing concisely benefits the reader.

Rhetorical flourishes and fancy words are fun to show off as a writer, but they’re usually not appreciated when being read. At best, they’re unnecessary; at worst, extra language is redundant and can make authors look foolish. Consider the following passage:

NeoFreon can be considered to be the most unique cooling agent currently known to man, as it is unlike anything else available on the market at the moment.

This garbled mess clocks in at twenty-eight words, which isn’t unreasonable – the only problem is that the same idea can be better conveyed in only seven words:

NeoFreon is a uniquely potent cooling agent.

Phrases like “can be considered to be” can be removed entirely in favor of simpler, active verbs. The adjective “unique” implies novelty, so there isn’t a need to say “it’s unlike anything else available on the market.” Also, why close with “at the moment” when “currently” is used earlier in the sentence?

While these examples are extreme, extraneous language is common and always obscures your message. More importantly, it takes up room that can be devoted to information that matters to your audience.

Periodically, you will want and even need longer sentences for clarity and variety. Just don’t write more when less will suffice. The time and attention of readers is limited, and you have a brief window to win them over.

Sin #4: Disorganization

Form follows function.

Stated simply, the shape an object takes often tells you what it does. For example, cups have a handle so they can be held, along with an area that can reliably hold fluid.

Similarly, good writers organize information with the incentives of their audience in mind. A text that’s poorly organized often prioritizes less interesting material by placing it in areas of greater importance, like the headline:

KJ Graphics uses latest software to complete incoming design projects

Going back to our analogy, this headline is the equivalent of putting the handle over the top of the cup - it’s bad design. This information is valuable to some extent, but readers are probably only interested in learning about this feature after knowing about benefits. The best headlines are highlights that impress in isolation. That way, even if someone only reads your headline, they still know something valuable:

“KJ Graphics becomes market leader through unparalleled customer service”

People usually want what’s best for them, so they’re likely to read on and see how KJ Graphics became so successful. As they read, they can see that KJ Graphics uses the best tools to get jobs done quickly to please their clients.

The body of your text will vary vastly depending upon the objective, but it’s best to close with a point almost as strong as the opening hook. Then, while you’ve captivated the reader anew, capitalize. Have them do something concrete that advances your goal as a writer (e.g. subscriptions, call, sale):

Now that you’ve heard about us, we want to hear from you! Give KJ Graphics a call today for your free consultation on how our agency can elevate your brand!

While including this bit seems self-explanatory, it’s astonishing how often marketing materials neglect the fundamentals. Disorganized writing also tends to have gaps, so be sure that you include the basics like contact information in any marketing or promotional materials written for a public audience.

Sin #5: Irrelevance

It follows from the first sin that people won’t care about something if it doesn’t help them. That said, irrelevance can also manifest in the form of incongruity – that is, using language that doesn’t suit what’s being discussed. Consider the following advertisement:

Sunny’s Solar Panels are sexy, sleek, and for the savvy eco-friendly homeowner

Let’s start with something that I hope is true for everyone – there isn’t anything remotely “sexy” about solar panels. Quite truthfully, they’re sometimes an eyesore and people don’t exclusively buy them for their aesthetic. Do you know why most people buy solar panels?

They buy because they want to save money and help the environment in the process. With the end in mind, a better alternative may be:

Sunny’s Solar Panels help you save money – and help the Earth when you buy

With even more time, it’s likely that an even more compelling headline could be crafted. That said, these two samples nicely show how irrelevance can quickly derail your objective.

Don’t be needlessly sensational or overly creative. Something written with the audience, benefits, and end in mind will ultimately prevail.

Sin #6: Vagueness

While this piece has repeatedly emphasized the importance of benefits, it doesn’t mean that features or facts are wholly irrelevant. Effective copy and content alike is rife with well-stated facts that establish credibility and build trust in the minds of readers. When you’re short on facts, it’s easy to fall back on vacuous expressions.

Unsurprisingly, empty content won’t connect with people. It simply won’t resonate. Consider this simple sentence:

The iPhone is one of the most popular smartphones in the United States.

Objectively, it’s not bad. But what does popular exactly mean? A little specificity can spiff this line up:

Over ninety million Americans use the iPhone – that’s four in ten of all smartphone owners.

When writing content or copy, it’s invaluable to have all of the facts at your fingertips. Isolate and select information that lends itself to an artful expression – an expression that is crisp, memorable, and relevant to the audience.

Sin #7: Deceit

The psychology behind lying is a fascinating topic that is sadly beyond the scope of this post. That said, it’s fair to state that most people resent being on the receiving end of a lie. Internet clickbait tends to rely on hyperbole and half-truths to entice readers into viewing articles.

Then, after clicking, readers are sad to see the article fails to deliver on the promise listed in the headline. Or worse, it talks about something entirely different and wastes the reader’s time.

In the long term, having a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering will obviously hamper your ability to grow or sustain your operation. Don’t do it.

It’s a simple tip to follow, but you should strive to be honest when you’re writing. This honesty extends to academic integrity - don’t recycle or appropriate content that isn’t your own. Beyond offending the original content creator, you’ll look bad in the eyes of those who discover your theft.