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Communications, Rants

Writing fashions to be wary of

boredI notice that writers look for short-cuts for when they’re crafting their internal communications, especially for our intranet. People see what others have written, and consciously or not, copy the style and tone.

Front page news articles lose their impact if their headlines are all constructed the same way, or if their opening paragraphs / teasers all start with “we are pleased to announce…” – these conventions add nothing to the article and take away a great deal of value, vim and vigour.

This is why I believe it’s so important for the comms editor or the intranet editor to take an active role in editing the articles, and not just act as a passive publisher of web pages.

Fashionable communication conventions to avoid

The ellipsis

A beautiful creature, the ellipsis is not three full stops! Oh no; the ellipsis is an independent punctuation mark and has a couple of appropriate uses, such as when part of a quote is missing, or when a sentence ‘tails off’ like in conversation when one implies something.

But there is a fashion to use an ellipsis as if it is a drum roll: “New System Launched… Log On Now” the headline screams from your intranet home page, as if you care.

Reduce reliance up on the ellipsis;  similarly to the exclamation point, it does not add excitement to your dull business stories.

(Anyone using “And the Winners are…” in a headline will have their Internet access cut off with pinking shears.)

I – in headings

“Where can I find out more?” -the sub-heading asks. Asks who, I wonder. The voice of the article was in the author’s; their name is at the bottom, and they’ve been addressing “you” throughout the article. Then they go mad and all ‘multiple-personality’ on us and drop their own voice and have the presumption to take on the reader’s voice.

‘You’ becomes ‘I’ as if the author believes they can read my mind and anticipate my thoughts. “Yes, yes,” I think to myself, “I was just about to shout at the computer screen ‘But where can I find out more?’ and the author has heard me and kindly laid out my thoughts for me, saving me the trouble of thinking them,” or not.

The article is written in the voice of the author, from the author’s perspective. The author should not flip over into someone else’s voice (especially not the reader’s) without very good reason.

This awful fashion has of course been lifted from marketing material. You can debate among yourselves whether marketing is communications or if communications is marketing, but for me, marketing isn’t transparent like good comms should be.

Questions in headings

Just like above, some authors like to ask “Where can you find out more?” in a heading. Again, this has a voice problem. The author is asking the reader where the reader thinks they can find out more. The reader’s only sane response is “I don’t know, why don’t you tell me, you smug git”.

Don’t ask questions, just give great information. Translate all questions into statements – “Where to find out more”; “Find out more” et cetera.

Ampersands

They don’t even know what the character is called, but authors are keen on using the ampersand instead of the well-known ‘and’ word. Ampersands are indeed useful, and there are some conventions that can guide you in their use, but in general, use ‘and’, unless you really need to keep well known couples ‘together’ – couples like salt & pepper, Laurel & Hardy, and snakes & ladders – but never “email & Internet”.

Use ‘and’.

Hints & tips – Q&As – FAQs

Why not write fantastic clear articles using full prose? Why do so many business people rely on unrelated bullet points? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s all about making it easy for them to write, rather than making it easy for the readers to read / understand / care.

Prosaic articles can still be broken up into relevant sections with sub-headings, like the fantastic article you’re reading this very minute. Oh yes. Next heading…

Paragraphs in bold

Bold text really helps people scan read, and understand the emphasis of a sentence. Like Mr. T and his fetish for gold chains, some authors think that what’s good for one word must be even better for 20, and so they use bold on entire paragraphs.

Their confidence in just how important their article is can be measured in how much bold they use – I have seen entire essays in bold, with certain key words highlighted in red and underlined like some demonic hyperlink.

Use bold sparingly so it can do its job well, and don’t forget italics.

Photos of gorgeous smiling Americans

Yes, they are American, you can tell. They look healthy, and genuinely involved with their work. Their bone structure could win awards, like it’s been forged over generations of hard outdoor work. These beautiful people will look great on your American website, but look insincere and less than authentic on your UK intranet.

Photos need to be slightly relevant, and photos of people need to be real people, your own people.

Starting an article with the sub-heading of ‘Background’

The start of an article should deliver the goods up front. The main heading should be enough. Give the critical information up front and leave telling tales about the background ‘til way down in the article, when it will be appropriate to use the sub-heading of ‘Background’. ‘Background’ is the internationally recognised key word for the reader to stop reading and click elsewhere.

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And an honourable mention must go to excited social media people who say they need a wiki to publish their communications on the intranet. Plain ol’ web pages are yesterday’s tech – give me a wiki like it’s 1999!

I love wikis – they’re great for engaged and involved teams to work and publish with. The trouble is I’ve never yet found an engaged and involved team engaged and involved with technology, communications or publishing.

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You can use any and all of these writing faux pas if you so desire, just please do so consciously, not simply because it’s easy to; don’t be twee just because of laziness.

Wedge

Photo credit: Id-iom

About Wedge

I’m Wedge, and this is my website! I’ve worked within internal communications since 2004, managing intranets and digital comms. Now I’m a freelance comms and intranet specialist - I help organisations plan and improve their intranets. I work with other agencies, and write a lot of blog and magazine articles. I founded the Intranet Now conference. You can catch up with me on Twitter - I’m @Wedge.

5 thoughts on “Writing fashions to be wary of

  • I like to use the ampersand, especially when brevity is key. (Twitter for example)

    On the other hand, I tend to use it a lot less in long form communique’s, relegating it largely to notation formats.

    I think that the main problem with any of those useage issues isn’t so much that they are bad uses, but rather that they are over used.

  • Good points made. I absolutely can not stand it when the author asks the reader why they should even bother with the content to start with. For example, when a headline starts with “Why not…”

    “Why not log on to the intranet today?”

    Answer – I don’t know but let’s start with the fact that it doesn’t… Etc.

    It’s just asking for trouble and sounds like the writer has no idea either!

  • Hi Nathaneal,

    sure, with Twitter, any writing guidance gets thrown out! An intranet (esp. front page) is fairly formal though & it seems odd even to use an ampersand in these comments!

    Hi Mark,

    and yet so many authors rely on questions; it’s so sad that they’ve been brainwashed by marketing messages in other channels, and can’t understand the requirements of the intranet channel, and the expectations of the readers.

    “Why not…” is particularly egregious.

  • Can I add my favourite bugbear in staff newsletters and intranet sites? It’s the use of “commented”, “observed” etc instead of “said” when quoting people. Always a sign of an inexperienced writer.

  • Clare, I so agree!

    I never like it; it’s ripped from Press Releases (as if they are some kind of example of good writing!) and I don’t do it.

    “Just quote people.” Wedge.

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