5 writing myths that are dead wrong

Reports of the demise of the written word are premature. Adjusting the way we go about producing it is not a terrible idea, though.

With the proliferation of technology, some people assume that writing proficiency would be increasing and not diminishing. That isn’t the case.

One recent study shows that despite having higher than average educational attainment, adults in the United States are below average in basic literacy.

How low? The United States ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, with one in six adults scoring below level 2 (illiterate) on the literacy scale. Perhaps more troubling, college graduates demonstrate comparatively miserable scores. This means that degrees are beginning to create a meaningless expectation that graduates possess basic skill sets.

“Moreover, the relationship between parents’ education and skills proficiency varies across generations,” the study says. “In Korea and the United States, for example, the relationship between socio-economic background and skills proficiency is much weaker among younger adults than among older adults.”

Though some might not be surprised to see the study cite a decline in literacy, education is not at fault exclusively. Despite employers’ wanting employees with strong written and verbal communication skills, more and more professionals promote content tips that reinforce the idea that writing is less important now than in previous decades.

Here are five myths that demonstrate it:

1. Everything is trending toward fewer words, so write less. Although tight writing is an important objective for all writers, writing “less” is always superseded by the idea that content should be as long as it takes to communicate a point. More can be memorable.

Never mind what big brands do. Copywriters have long known that big brands have the advantage of product familiarity. It’s easy for Coca-Cola to show a big picture of a polar bear and a can of Coke and have people understand it. Coca-Cola literally leverages a lifetime of marketing about Coke, its taste, and its product distinction. They don’t write “less.” They have written “more” in a very, very big way.

If you tried to launch a brand of soda the same way, it would probably fail. New voices in social media and content marketing face the same challenge. Well-known names writing about social media can say something in a few sentences. Newcomers and less-familiar voices have to provide proof.

2. Adding exciting words to marketing copy will jazz it up. The biggest division between advertising copywriters and less experienced marketing content writers is seen in their word choices. Many marketers think that people respond to superlatives: “greatest,” “most exciting,” and “best ever.” They don’t.

People respond best to facts because they convey memorable bits of information, whereas empty claims lack conviction. You can write that a car has “zoom” and possibly attract attention (even if it is cliché), but if you don’t back it up with facts (that it goes from 0-50 mph in 4.3 seconds, for example) people will draw their own conclusions.

The truth is that empty claims are as boring as clichés. They are also harder to remember, because they melt like other generalities. A restaurant that sells “delicious” chicken is much more forgettable than a restaurant that sells “crispy fried chicken,” “oven-roasted chicken,” or “free-range chicken.” Though all of them could be subjectively “delicious,” objective details help people make purchasing decisions.

3. Writing catchy copy takes almost no time at all. Real writers know that packing conviction into a few short graphs or a headline demands discipline. It requires editing skills, proofreading skills, cutting, rewriting, and then more cutting and more rewriting. Tight writing requires more time, not less.

The best automotive marketers tell different parts of a big story across several media. TV commercials and some print advertisements are often nothing more than invitations to the rest of the message. The bulk of the marketing message comes later, perhaps in a brochure or on a website, where it makes sense to provide details for people who are actively buying a car.

The point? Looks can be deceiving. One ad with a three- to five-word headline has an entire novel of strategy, psychology, and content behind it. Very few good writers just jot down whatever comes to mind. For most, even if some spark did originate in the shower, the hard work happens before and after the fact.

4. Persuasion and believability come from good writing alone. There is some truth to it, but not really. Even when writing is beautifully conceived and perfectly written, it still needs help. This is especially true for advertising copy and marketing content, because consumers realize that the source is biased.

When facts alone are not enough, content writers can employ several dozen approaches to elevate content credibility. These can include any number of customer testimonials, third-party endorsements or research studies, independent case studies, organization success stories, performance tests, key performance indicators, objective measurements, and even guarantees (provided they aren’t clichéd).

Even marketing content writers can boost their credibility by providing links to other stories and sources. It demonstrates that the opinions, thoughts, and conclusions weren’t generated in a closet but within an informed context. Let readers know you’ve done your homework.

5. One medium will rule them all and in the darkness bind them. There is increasing chatter that visual communication is outpacing written communication online. It’s true and untrue at the same time. Images can boost both attraction and retention, but the notion that images beat words is fiction.

Good copywriters (and perhaps all writers) have always known not to think in terms of words alone. Most are taught or teach themselves to think about communication as mixed media and in multiple dimensions. Pictures, symbols, shapes, layouts, and different components such as audio and video can all contribute to conveying the message.

The idea is to think visually, no matter what role writing plays as part of the communication. Ask good educators. They know it, too. Teaching that includes audio, visual, and written communication creates powerful connections and increased retention. So don’t expect writing to lose its luster anytime soon. It will only become more important.

The solution for a better educated workforce is to stop making excuses.

The current education system isn’t exclusively to blame. All five of these “tips” indirectly contribute to the greater myth that the written word is an inferior form of communication. It’s not. The written word is one of the most accurate and flexible means of communication ever conceived, and we’re living in an era when we can access more of it than ever before.

As communication professionals, we ought to do everything we can to support the written word rather than dumbing down marketing communication to cover for the abundance of bad writing produced daily. Needlessly terse content, marketing fluff, rushed content, unsupported claims, and pretty pictures aren’t a solution to combat illiteracy but rather a contribution to it.

A version of this article first appeared on Richard Becker’s blog.

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