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Ad Astra Traffic Team: For those who'd like to get writing gigs with Ad Astra.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Conversational vs. lazy... Formal vs. phony... The art of tone vs. the destruction of language...

"...Sloppy language makes for sloppy thinking and leads to totalitarianism."

That's a line from an article I read about twenty years ago in The Atlantic (I had weird reading habits as a teenager). I can't say that I agree with the sentiments in a literal way, but I do tend to think that appropriate precision and forethought with respect to language use inspires us to think more clearly and that is a good thing.

I'm not really worried about uniformed personnel taking over the local drive-in and using it as a re-education camp ala Red Dawn if I dangle a few participles here or there, though.

I bring this up because I just finished reading a piece on conversational language use at Creating Passionate Users. The post isn't groundbreaking--you can fine a million and one people advocating an informal or conversational writing style for sales copy and web content--but it is a good read.

The research indicating greater retention among students exposed to "coversational" texts compared to those who worked from more traditional "formal" material is particularly interesting and it helps to reinforce the commercial value of conversationally-written copywriting.

People remember more (and are thus, more likely to be persuaded to take action or to develop a recognition of brand) if the stuff they read "sounds" more conversational.

That's great. The problem, however, is the tendency for some people to use that theory as an excuse to write poorly. There is a distinction between the conversational and the lazy. One can write seemingly friendly, light, easy-to-read content that, upon closer inspection, proves to be useless gibberish.

When called out on the garbage, they defend it by arguing that it's good "web writing" simply on the basis of its tone.

On top of that, some people use the "friendliness movement" to justify completely abhorrent aspects of other "coversational" media. ROTFL, LOL, IMHO, WTF, etc. sneak into written material as if the acronyms are perfect seasoning for content stew instead of mere conveniences spawned from the desires of chat room and forum participants to express emotion with minimal effort. It's lazy.

Good writing should let you know that I am "ROFL" without ever having to say it via an acronym or in full text.

Meanwhile, there is a tendency for people to disregard more formal writing and its potential value in certain situations for the very same reason. If a piece of text isn't punchy and filled with a series of "clever" in-jokes, it's discounted as a phony attempt to sound smart.

I love the idea of creating conversational content that communicates messages clearly. Unless my clients specifically dictate otherwise, that's what I try to do every time I take on a project. I can't speak for every other web-based writer, but here's what that means to me...

Good conversational writing is...

  • ...friendly and direct.
  • ...grammatically sound and communicative.
  • ...easy to read.
  • ...engaging and inviting.

Good conversational writing is not...

  • ...an excuse to ramble.
  • ...a way to avoid saying something meaningful.
  • ...a justification for unclear expression.
  • ...oversimplified to the point of being insulting.

Good formal writing is...

  • ...still necessary in some situations.
  • ...a way to clearly outline complex/detailed matters.
  • ...readable and engaging.
  • ...written to the audience.

Good formal writing is not...

  • ...phony bloviation for the sake of making an impression.
  • ...excessively complicated.
  • ...condescending.
  • ...necessary in most situations.

Most of that can be compressed into a single, if somewhat tautological, belief: Good writing is good writing.

It's about understanding the difference between conversation and rambling, friendliness and laziness, accuracy and phoniness. It's also about understanding the audience, what it likes and what kind of expectations its members have.

I don't plan to usher in a new age of totalitarianism by encouraging sloppy thinking by writing crap for my clients. I also won't write sales copy for a Christmas gift as if the work was going to appear in a refereed academic journal.

Oh, and I won't be editing my blog posts as if they were commissioned by a Content Done Better client (see: "Why blogging is unfair to writers...").