Recognise the 12 signs of bad writing

It is hard to explain to people all the things that makes writing into bad writing. We mostly focus on spelling and grammar as the primary faults in writing. But, as important as they are, they are not the only things that make writing difficult to read and to understand. There is plenty of perfectly grammatical writing that sends us to sleep or refuses to yield its meaning after multiple reading. The best sort of writing should follow principles of plain writing. Here I identify the twelve signs of bad writing which might help you improve the way you write:

1. Bad spelling

Bad spelling is less common than it used to be because of electronic spell-checkers. However, it still happens because the wrong form of the word is used, for example: he is dependant on his license? which should read, he is dependent on his licence! The spell-checker doesn’t know!

2. Bad grammar

Bad grammar, punctuation and syntax are still very common. Although perfect grammar may evade us all, very poor grammar is a problem when the meaning of text is made unclear: for example the man carried a cat whistling blues tunes (is he a cool cat?).

3. Poor structure

Poor structure is usually obvious when there are too many long sentences and too few paragraphs. If the ideas are not structured well the readers find it difficult to follow what the writer is intending to say.

4. Discriminatory language

Discriminatory language that is racist or sexist is still common. The worst examples are when managers are described using the pronoun “he” and junior staff using “she”.  Non-gender-specific writing may need a bit of extra thinking to avoid the pitfalls of English but always describing the singular person as “he” is lazy and insensitive to half the population.

5. Gobbledegook

Some work is so poorly written that it is meaningless and not understandable. It usually happens because of a lack of time to proof-read before publishing.

6. Passive voice

The passive voice is when a writer makes the object of a sentence the subject, for example: the business was successful compared to having an action by a subject: she created a successful business. A passive style makes the writing impersonal and bureaucratic and  doesn’t engage the reader.

7. Not writing for your audience

If you don’t understand what you are reading it might not have been written for you. A lot of material by professional services organisations contains jargon that the writer understands but is not clear to the reader. Write so your audience can understand.

8. No purpose

Writing must have a purpose. Writing seeks to persuade, inform or entertain. Advertising copy must have a call to action.

9. Weazel words

Beware of weazel words and clichés. These may seem to have strong meanings but really mean nothing, for example how often have you heard politicians say, “I have a commitment to infrastructure investment”.

10. Verb concatenations

This is me using jargon (sorry) but a verb concatenation is when a string of verbs is used instead of one verb to make a simple action seem to be a more significant one, for example: she had commenced undertaking planning of the preliminary investigations for the project, rather than: she had started the project.

11. Bland

Bland and boring language is recognised when you see the reader’s head hit the table. Bang! There has always been the accusation that a lot of government material is deliberately written to make reading it difficult but I don’t believe it.

12. Exaggerated or untruthful

There is no point in saying you are the best in the business if you don’t provide proof that you are the best. Many readers suspect this sort of  language and won’t believe it. Comparisons with familiar things are more honest and authentic, e.g., it is easier than cooking at home or simply giving your own performance targets, e.g. next day delivery guaranteed.

13. Inconsistency

A lot of business writing contains inconsistencies between facts and figures within the same document (did you notice this is the 13th point in the twelve signs of bad writing). When facts and figures are used in a document they should be the same everywhere. Obvious errors in fact make the reader suspicious of the writer and the document they are reading.

There are lots of ways to be a bad writer and in my view spelling and grammar are not the worst of them but they are the easiest to notice.