September 25, 2019 8:43 pm
As a content marketer, what’s your job?
Everyone in the field will likely have their own unique
answer to that question. But, to distill it down to the essentials, ‘content
marketing’ involves conveying the value of your business to others – current
customers, prospective customers, partners and others – through information
that’s useful, entertaining or thought-provoking for them.
Boil that definition down to even simpler terms, and you get
this: ‘Content marketing’ means telling others interesting stories on behalf of
In other words, it means using words well. It means writing
Every writer I know has a writing guide of some kind they
turn to again and again for inspiration, for a reminder of what exactly makes
for good writing. For some, it’s Strunk & White’s ‘The Elements of Style’.
Others prefer Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ or Ann
Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’.
For me, it’s George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English
First published in the London-based literary magazine
Horizon in 1946, ‘Politics and the English Language’ is very much a product of
a unique time in history, written right after the end of World War II’s horrors
and right at the beginning of the Cold War. But its insights into good writing
and bad writing hold true in any era.
Thought can corrupt language, Orwell wrote, but “language
can also corrupt thought”. Bad writing habits, he said, “spread by imitation”.
But, he adds, those habits “can be avoided if one is willing to take the
Orwell shows us how to take that trouble by describing the
flaws common in bad writing. The use of dying metaphors – ‘axes to grind’, ‘Achilles’
heels’, ‘swan songs’, etc. – that are “merely used because they save people the
trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”. “Verbal false limbs” that add
dull and mostly meaningless bulk to sentences: ‘give rise to’, ‘serve the
purpose of’, and so on. Pretentious language – ‘categorical’, ‘ameliorate’, ‘deregionalise’
– used to impress rather than to communicate. And the use of some words not for
what they mean, which can be open to many interpretations, but for what we
would today call “virtue signaling”: ‘democracy’, ‘patriot’, ‘freedom’.
Orwell then shows how all of these bad habits can turn an
elegant passage of writing into a word salad, robbing the original of any
ability to inform or inspire. Starting with a verse 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 produces this monstrosity:
“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.”
Orwell’s example takes bad writing to ludicrous lengths but
we’ve all no doubt encountered similar versions in the real-life content
- The tendency to believe longer, wordier content
is better than short and punchy writing.
- The use of words with vague or hard-to-pin-down
meanings – ‘solutions’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘implement’, ‘deploy’ — when writing
about complex technical subjects.
- Writing in ‘business-speak’ rather than in plain
What to do
The problem is, sometimes we know we’re committing these
‘sins’ but do so anyway, because that’s what the client wants. And, yes, when
you’re working for a business, you do have an obligation to meet the
expectations of those who are assigning the work and signing the cheques. But
we also have an obligation to the craft of writing – that’s our specialty,
after all. So that means we need to push back, gently maybe but also firmly,
when a client shows preferences for vague language, filler words, pretentious
expressions and so on. Because they should care as much as we do about the
essential function of the words we produce: to tell interesting stories on
behalf of the business, to use words well, to write well.
If we don’t do that – if the words we write don’t
communicate the right message to our audience, if they’re not clear and
interesting and respectful of our audience’s time and needs – we aren’t doing
A scrupulous writer, Orwell, noted, will ask at least four
questions while working: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an
He also offered rules for good writing – avoid overused
figures of speech, don’t use long words when short ones will do, cut out
unnecessary words, use active over passive language and always look for the
simplest, “everyday English” way to phrase things – with the final one being, “Break
any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”.
Fighting barbarism doesn’t typically come up in the average content marketer’s job description. But it’s an essential part of what we do… or, at least, should do. We’re wordsmiths. And that means we need to respect the words we use as well as recognise the meanings we convey when we use them.