Who was it that said the only true sin was to be boring? I think they were right, but there’s an awful lot of ways to be uninteresting. And when it comes to writing, a whole lot of lesser sins contribute to such cardinal boredom. And no matter what your website looks like—no matter how slick your web design or intuitive your UI—boring content will send visitors running like you were a leper offering a lollipop. You can’t get visitors to stay on the page without something of substance to keep them there.
Every writer knows the sins of bad writing because at some point in our writing careers we have committed them. But most of us get better, repent of our foolish ways and learn to leave these literary vices behind. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for a lot of people to get religion about writing. If you’re one of them, settle in for a bit of fire and brimstone preaching. If you’re not, you can just envision the many writers out there, like an army of demonic monkeys hammering away at their cursed keyboards as they churn out blog post after blog post filled with the following sins:
Sin #1: Writing In The Passive Voice
This is a hard one for non-grammar-geeks to grasp sometimes. Basically, passive writing takes the doer of an action out of the sentence, making the receiver of action the subject. Passive sentences are wishy-washy and weak, and often the same thought could be expressed with fewer words. Politicians talk this way when they’re trying to give a kind of non-apology (e.g., “Mistakes were made.” instead of “I made a mistake.”) without even apologizing. In the case of politicians, passive voice is a result of being dishonest, but in the case of bad outsourced writing, it’s just an effect of not revising sentences to be more active.
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, in a statement to the US House Finance Committee during the aftermath of the financial meltdown, “Finally, it must be said that today's economic crisis is the result of a lot of mistakes made by a lot of people.” The way he phrases it, “economic crisis” is the subject of the sentence. The people actually responsible for those “mistakes” are hidden away in a prepositional phrase, “by a lot of people.” This type of phrasing helps draw attention away from the idea you want to avoid; in this case, it’s the fact that Dimon and other executives were largely responsible for the financial moves that lead to the implosion of our economy. The magic of passive voice helps him sleep better at night, I guess.
This grammatical hocus pocus is not bad all the time; passive voice can be used to elegant effect. Mark Twain famously used the passive voice in a telegram from Europe when the press was circulating reports that he had died. He wrote, “REPORTS OF MY DEATH HAVE BEEN GREATLY EXAGERATED.” A bit better than simply “I’m not dead,” don’t you think? But more often than not, passive voice just the result of a writer not knowing what he wants to say before she starts typing the sentence out. They fall into passive when they don’t know how to express an idea or are just trying to hit word-count on a piece (the outsourced writer’s prime directive) and don’t want to think of something interesting to say. This kind of writing tends to be keyword-stuffed (if it contains rich keywords at all) and painful to read:
“Both the bride and the groom will be liking some place in common and conducting the wedding in this place would enable them to cherish the happy moments for several years to come.”
Yep! That was their final draft. I think I’ve made my point several times over: Don’t put up with passive writing; it’s driving away your site visitors.
Sin #2: Writing Without Fact-Checking
You’ve probably felt the horrendous effects of this sin while reading a blog post or news story. The writer references something (a study, a fact, an outlandish claim) that you’d like to fact-check or learn more about, but he doesn’t back it up with a link or a follow-up sentence or anything. You’re left hanging because the writer didn’t back up his writing with other sources. (This is what your high school English teacher was griping about!)
Sadly, this happens often because of lack of communication between writers and those who requested a custom piece, being too narrow with blog publishing guidelines. (Like most good sins, it takes two to tango.) Often, writers learn to avoid saying anything of substance just to avoid this kind of conflict with provided guidelines when they write content. They avoid any points that do require citation because they’re not going to be able to include any links other than those they were told to. This leads to link-anemic content that misses opportunities to be authentic and natural, which is your entire goal with SEO content to begin with. You reap what you sow, I guess.
Sin #3: Swimming In The Shallow End
Here is where the sin of writing sloth rears its ugly head most often. You can recognize shallow writing because you keep reading, but you’re not getting anywhere; the whole thing is ankle-deep from start to finish.
Concise, information-dense writing is a pleasure to read because you feel like you’re getting somewhere when you read it; you’re provided with information to consume instead of the shallow content bait and switch. A writer who doesn’t do any research can’t provide their readers with that type of traction on a topic. And for expert audiences, the author’s lack of industry knowledge is clear within the first few sentences. Not only are you building up a nauseating bounce-rate by not delivering on what your content titles promise, you’re developing a reputation for shallowness which is hard to overcome.The writer isn’t taking you deeper into the subject, and only superficial, vague statements are made about the topic, usually because the writer has no knowledge of it. Reading content like this is like pulling teeth without the novacane. Readers get frustrated reading the thing and leave your site in a hurry.
Sin #4: “Repurposing” And Flat Out Plagiarism
“Repurposing” is really just a euphemism for stealing someone else’s ideas without actually plagiarizing the material. This happens a lot because the easiest way to write an article on a topic is to just rehash someone else’s; that’s why so many “Top 5” and Top “10” lists sound so boringly alike.
They’re just saying the same stuff over and over, and that’s no way to stand out and attract people to your site. It certainly won’t make you seem unique and relevant enough to rise in search rankings.
Plagiarism is still a huge deal, too. Not only are you at risk for getting a DMCA takedown, you’re at risk of being penalized by Google for duplicate content at best or stripped from the SERPs at worst. Unscrupulous writers either simply cut-and-paste article sections into a different order or they reword each sentence sufficiently to fool a simple Copyscape or Google screening. I’d say this is one of the few unforgivable sins a writer can commit. If you catch someone doing it, wash your hands of them. I’d never let a writer who’d plagiarized once write for me again. There’s no purgatory for someone who steals someone else’s work in my book.
Exorcizing the Sinful Content Demons
So, how can you avoid the immoral taint of subpar, shallow and even plagiarized content? (Well, for one: don’t plagiarize!) Avoiding these four deadly writing sins is only the bare minimum. The life of a righteous writer is one of discipline and constant self-improvement.
If you’re a writer, it’s time to start getting technical about the way you research and write. Start reading more, and really study good writers whom you want to emulate; get to know their structure and style from the inside out. If you’re an editor managing a content marketing campaign and screening writing from a team, formalize your editorial process. Set some clear blogging guidelines for content and quality to help guide the writing. By further defining your process, you can help keep yourself and other content creators on the straight and narrow path of relevant, readable and sharable content.