Fighting ‘barbarism’ in content marketing

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 your business.

In other words, it means using words well. It means writing well.

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 Language’.

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 necessary trouble”.

Common flaws

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 marketing world:

  • 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 English.

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 our job.

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 effect?”

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.

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