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Communications | Jun 10, 2010 | 1 Comment

[bad writing]

[style versus substance]

“Bad writing” means different things to different people. This blog is just my opinion. If you disagree, please comment so we can all read your views.

White papers are my least favorite type of project. I rarely consent to do them but I foolishly took on TWO of them last month. Then I ran out of time and had to give one back to the client. (Note to self: never do that again.)

Fortunately, the client found another writer to work on that paper. Unfortunately, it came back with some serious flaws. So the client called me again and asked me to “fix” the paper that I had cast off. Serves me right.

Most people think of “bad writing” as awkward, wrong, offensive, or just plain bad-sounding prose. In business writing, though, you more often come across nice-sounding stuff that is ruined by poor organization and support. I could examine almost any piece of business writing that doesn’t hit the mark and find errors in logic, thoughts that don’t flow together well, and a lack of information and examples to back up claims or conclusions.

I don’t even care that we are talking about marketing here. I don’t care that the purpose is to sell something. If you’re going to write more than a few paragraphs, you have to pay just as much attention to structure as you do to style.

In the first draft of the paper, the writing sounded very professional and compelling at first. But after careful consideration, I realized that much of the text didn’t actually make sense. The paper was for people who purchase expensive software solutions, and it’s harder to imagine a busier or more astute group of readers. I knew that if everything was not well-organized and well-supported, I would be wasting my time writing for them.

A white paper is a slow march  toward a clear conclusion that no one could possibly deny. (Think term paper. Ugh.) It helps to spend time crafting a solid outline, of course. Then once you’ve written wonderful prose, you have to go back and examine every paragraph in relation to the one before it and the one after it. Same for every sentence. Then, even though you are SO ready to be done with the project, you have to look at each phrase within each sentence. If you’re being really critical, you won’t fail to notice the gaps between ideas.

So a good writer needs to be creative and skeptical. Even if it sounds great, if you don’t have enough of the right information, you have a lot more work to do. Of course, there’s a catch. Many times we writers don’t get paid enough for our time. (There, I said it.) So if you aren’t getting paid to fill in the blanks, can anyone blame you if you decide to punt?

Anyway, even after my first editing attempt, the paper was kicked back again by the client for yet another revision. This time I actually changed the format of each page and moved elements around to create a more consistent structure. I think we finally have a readable and compelling piece. And it only took about a month! For 12 pages!

I guess every writer is guilty of bad writing at some point. It happens for a lot for reasons, including an occasional mismatch between the writer and the project. Not every type of writing is for everybody. It’s OK to specialize. Do you like writing white papers? If so, I need your number for referrals.

Just curious: what’s bad writing to you? How do you develop a structure and stay organized in your writing?

Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.

One Comment

Wow! Great Post!!!

I’d rather visit the dentist than write a lot of White Papers! Your points are spot on. Structure is the often overlooked, crucial element in quality writing.

Blog posts are more visceral, more freeform, but any kind of serious writing has to have a lot more going on than good looks and personality. I always approach papers like that as if I’m writing a legal argument. It had better be straightforward and hold water!

When you find your White Paper buddy, wanna send me her number too? 😉

Meanwhile, well done on getting it written and out the door!!!


Lori Randall


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