Bad Advice From A Marketing Guru

In a recent post, marketing guru and prolific blogger Seth Godin wrote:

Don’t let the words get in the way. If you’re writing online, forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class. You’re just trying to be real, to make a point, to write something worth reading. So just say it.”

My take: This is terrible advice. Extremely terrible advice.

If you’re blogging or commenting on blogs (which I assume Godin is referring to when he says “writing online”), then you are not “just trying to be real, to make a point, to write something worth reading.”

There are many verbs that describe what you might be trying to do: Inform, educate, entertain, motivate, influence, persuade, etc. Your blog post might simply tell people about something you saw or read. That’s inform. Personally, I’m very aware that about 80% of my blog posts fall in the influence/persuade camp, while 20% or so fall in the entertain bucket.

But here’s the important point: For you to to achieve your writing objective, you must be understood. And if you don’t choose your words carefully, and arrange them in the best way, then you might not be understood.

The English language is challenging. Ask anybody who learns English as a second language, and they’ll tell you how hard it is to pick up, because of all the double meanings, homonyms, slang terms, etc.

When you write (online or offline), you can’t convey through facial and tonal cues the nuances you’re trying to convey (which is why I will often explicitly mention that I’m joking about something, so no one will get the wrong idea).

Not only should you not forget what you learned in HS English class (or whatever language you took in HS), you should go back and read through a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which you may very well have covered in your HS English class. It is, by far, the best guide on how to write.

Bottom line: For your sake and the sake of your readers, when writing, DO let the words get in the way. Read through it through the eyes of your audience (to the best you can), and ask yourself, will they really understand what I’m trying to get across? Am I using any words that might be misconstrued? Is there a simpler and more concise way to say what I just said?

Mark Twain once wrote in a letter, “sorry for the length of this letter, if I had more time, I could have made it shorter.” Or something like that.

In other words, DON’T just say it. Think about it.

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21 thoughts on “Bad Advice From A Marketing Guru

  1. Ron: this is especially true in light of your post a few months ago — the CU Trade press regularly monitors blogs, and anything we say is subject to being used. Most other bloggers don’t have to worry about that as much (although your post here is equally instructive).

  2. Ron – I concur!

    My two pieces of advice for bloggers – be concise! Write then cut out a bunch of words before you post.

    Second, if you are going to make a comment on a controversial post and you don’t want to come off looking like an arse, have someone read your comment before you post it. DON’T read it to them (you will fill it with tone that the reader will not hear).

  3. If I have to read someone’s raw, unfiltered and poorly written opinion every time I open my laptop, I’ll poke my eyes out. I would prefer to read a well-thought-out perspective supported by examples and interesting analogies.

    There’s a reason “blogs” like Ron’s and Jim Bruene’s have high Technorati rankings, and both clearly adhere to commonly-accepted writing standards.

  4. Thanks for calling Seth and all of of out on this. In the last two weeks, I have posted too quickly and commented without thinking things through just so I could keep up with the conversation.

    I have reread a few things I put out there in my posts and my comments and wish I could pull them back to edit them or even rethink them. Shari’s advice is perfect.

    A wise blogger stated this in his year in review post. “I will focus on writing good stuff. In 2008, every post I publish will meet one criteria: Add value to the conversation.” โ€“ R. Shevlin

  5. One other point and Tim touched on it. What we write is as close to permanent as it can be. Once posted you can never get it back so you better be sure it is right the first time.

  6. Guys, please!

    I think “something worth reading” certainly encompasses writing clearly and well.

    My point was that you don’t need five paragraphs and a quote from Mark Twain to make your point if you can make your point in three sentences.

    Smart communicators are very good in person. Some of them freeze in front of the keyboard. I wasn’t proposing sloppiness, I was proposing clarity.

  7. Brevity is an art.

    Typically, the people that follow Seth’s blog have read his books or have attended his speaking engagements. These give context to his posts, especially the shorter ones.

    Having said that…

    Ron, from reading your blog, I know that, compared to you, I am a mental midget. I appreciate your ability to challenge your peers, even the well-respected ones because I believe that no great idea has been born without contention and debate.

  8. I thought Seth was saying we should write as we speak, which seems to be what most writing experts consider the “way to go”. I didn’t take it that he meant “be sloppy” and I think you can see that he isn’t sloppy in what he writes.

    I wonder sometimes if I’m not too long-winded. However I get positive feedback – sadly mosty by e-mail rather than comments on the blog itself – so I don’t question it too much, just try to refine slowly over time.

    I like some of Seth’s stuff, but I do feel that a lot of his posts are too short and in trying to maintain the balance that we all struggle with, between regularity and quality, some of his stuff comes out as a bit “so what?”. However, that opinion and the fact that I would say so much in a comment just reveals my preference for thought-provoking blogging.

  9. Oh, the irony.

    Perhaps if Seth had “let the words get in the way” and didn’t “just say it”, then perhaps he wouldn’t had to have commented here and say “my point was that…” or have Phil give his interpretation.

    And that’s MY point. We CAN’T just write as we speak, because the spoken word contains inflection, nuances, and, if face to face, facial expressions to help convey the intended meaning.

  10. This is something I try to go over with the blog authors at our company. Though it’s important to be clear, concise and competent, you’ve also got to make sure your posts don’t end up reading like a lecture. The blogging world is very different from other forms of communication.

    I think it is ok to be more conversational when blogging, but like Jeff is saying, it’s also necessary to watch what you say because there are a lot more eyes reading these posts than we might think.

    Overall, I think the language style depends on the goals and purpose of the blog. If you’re a CU blogging, you need to portray and maintain a much different image than that of a blogger who’s goal is report the latest celebrity gossip.

    Good thoughts from everyone though. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Thanks for commenting, Mike.

    Let’s go back to Seth’s quote: “If youโ€™re writing online, forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class.”

    HS school English class didn’t teach you to write “like a lecture”. It taught you (or TRIED to teach you) to write clearly, concisely, with proper grammar, etc.

    When you understand what you’re trying to achieve with what you’re writing, then you’re in a better position to figure out what style and tone to write in.

    Sweat the details if you want to be better understood.

  12. I’ve observed people — smart people! — being hamstrung in written communication because they feel their writing needs to be extra-erudite. I assume that’s where Seth’s original post came from.

    This is what I learned from a degree in English, and from [mumblety-mumble] years of writing fiction and poetry:

    The first time, just get the damn words on the paper/screen. It will probably suck.

    Then make sure it makes sense.

    Then: “Omit needless words.”

    Then reconsider your audience and medium and make your tone consistent and appropriate to both.

    Walk away for a bit. Rinse & repeat, but not too much. Share it with someone if you can.

    Also, if you’re looking in the thesaurus asking “what’s a good word for [X]?” most of the time, what you really want to use is [X]. ๐Ÿ™‚

    (That last courtesy of editing papers for my husband when he went back to college: a very smart articulate guy, just a little too fond of the 50-cent word.)

  13. I found the point Seth was making pretty clear — and that was write how you would speak — don’t be concerned about if this word sounds smart or if it’s big enough etc.

    He says “forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class”

    Not everything you were TAUGHT in high school English class.

    I admit, it wasn’t *that* long ago I was in high school English class and I used to think I was a terrible writer because I didn’t use words like “plethora” or “innocuous” or whatever, but then when I hit college and took journalistic writing courses, it turned out I had it right all along!

    Obviously writing should be clear, concise and complete, and we should always proofread our work.

    That’s what I got out of it!

  14. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of all this. Ron, I don’t completely agree with your take. If I wrote like I was taught in HS English (granted, I grew up in Kentucky . . . ), then I think I’d be missing out on communicating well on the web.

    The fact is what we were taught in HS English didn’t prepare us for writing online because, for most of us, there was no ‘online’ then. It did not consider the conversational side of writing that the web requires. You wrote a book report, a persuasive piece or a research paper, you turned it in and then you got a grade. Rarely did everyone else get to read what you wrote and then react.

    Not to mention grammar has changed since we were in high school (I’m class of ’95, for the record).

    Not to mention no high school taught AP style, which is what we really should be using now.

    Granted, we shouldn’t forget EVERYTHING we learned in HS English – your point here is well made. The ability to write is probably more important now than it’s ever been. But I don’t think Seth meant it literally. I believe my high school English teacher called his technique “hyperbole.” Which is pretty effective in blogging. As is writing something controversial. As is disagreeing with a recognized guru.

    p.s., Have you got a thing going for Seth right now? Is this the first of three straight posts in which you refer to him, or am I just seeing things?

  15. Brett — When we speak, face to face with one another, we often don’t use complete sentences, use fractured grammatical constructs, and often use words that have multiple meanings.

    Because there are tonal and facial cues, the intended meaning often comes through (although not always).

    For you, Kelly, and even Seth himself, to comment about “what Seth meant” only proves my point that Seth’s advice to “just say it” is poor advice.

    I’m not saying “oh, you should continue to sound all hoity-toity in your writing.” If Seth meant “forget most of what you learned in HS English” he should have said that. Or, he might have been more specific about what exactly it was about HS English he thought we shouldn’t be tortured by.

    But for many bloggers (i.e., those who write online), paying attention to the learnings of HS English would vastly improve the quality and comprehension of what they write.

    If any other influential blogger/author had offered the bad advice that Seth did, I would have called him or her out on it, as well.

  16. @Ron – I definitely agree with you on the lack of writing skills by most bloggers. There’s no doubt that the blogosphere is littered with many a horrible writer. There’s also no doubt that the ability to write is becoming more and more important.

    I tend to agree with Mike in that, especially when blogging, you should really make the language work for you. And while we all do need to be clear, and while it’s very important to be grammatically correct most of the time, we still have to realize that we don’t have complete control of what’s clear because it is ultimately the reader’s own biases and comprehension that determines if the point we wrote is clear or not. Which is quite obvious as you read through the comments posted here – there are at least five basic takes on what Seth’s post means and/or what your point is. And that’s not a bad thing; it means lots of different people looking through lots of different lenses are reading your stuff.

    Great post, and great discussion.

  17. Not ending sentences with a preposition? A silly rule, up with which I shall not put.

    I first heard that one in my high school English class. My English teacher wasn’t big on formality, but she did have one firm guideline: Learn the rules of grammar first. Break the rules when you have a good reason to do so.

    I’m never as articulate in real life as I am when I’ve had the chance to read my own words and edit them. I’m told I write like I speak. Truthfully, I write as I would if I thought carefully before speaking.

    Isn’t Seth’s advice to:

    1. Have something to say.
    2. Say it to be best understood.

  18. @Chuck: Seth’s advice was “just say it.” Your advice — have something to say and say it to be best understood — is much more valuable than Seth’s.

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