I spend the majority of my days writing and reading blog posts. Through crafting my own posts and through reading the words of others, I’ve come to realize that while each high-quality written piece is high-quality in its own unique way, mediocre blog posts/articles/news stories often have certain features in common, features that are mildly perturbing and/or slightly agitating and that might even cause me to dismiss the entire piece. (And I know I’m not alone in being detracted by content-related or grammatical mistakes.)
Now, my posts are far from error free, but I’ve compiled a list, replete with examples, of things writers do (either intentionally or unintentionally) that simply don’t work: they irritate and repel readers.
Perhaps I’ve become slightly cynical after seeing mediocre blog posts receive hundreds or thousands of social shares, but I like to think of this as less of a griping, grumbling, whiny grievance and more of a thorough critique of online writing. But nevertheless, I feel as though I’m channeling my inner Walter Matthau or Jack Lemmon— the Grumpy Old Men version, of course. So, here’s “The Grumpy [Young] Blog Writer’s Musings on Writing Faux Pas.”
Reminiscent of Yellow Journalism
One thing that writers do that’s incredibly frustrating is use sensationalist headlines. A good headline is crucial for a blog post: when two million blog posts are written every 24 hours, people have a tremendous amount of content from which to choose. A clever, bold, shocking, and/or intriguing headline compels people to click on a story. It captures their attention, peaks their curiosity, or confounds and perplexes them (cue Walter Matthau’s facial expression).
People might even disbelieve the headline when they read it and click through to the story to get the real truth.
The problem with sensationalist headlines is that they drum up readers’ interest, but they always end in disappointment, because the story is far less interesting and shocking than the headline purports. Compared to the headline, the story is anticlimactic; it’s simply a letdown. And consequently, the headlines are inaccurate.
Take this headline from Forbes.
This article references a study that, in the words of Forbes, “found that spending too long in the office resulted in a 40 to 80 percent greater chance of heart disease compared to an eight hour work day.” Technically, the title is true: people who work long hours have an increased risk of developing heart disease, which does kill people. But the headline makes a pretty bold leap in stringing together the results of the study with the statement “Why Working More Than 8 Hours A Day Can Kill You.”
Another example: this title from Mashable.
According to Mashable,
“Similarly, psychologists see Facebook activity as a reflection of a healthy social life.
“The Internet has become a natural part of life,” psychologist Christopher Moeller told Germany’s Der Taggspiegel. “It’s possible that you get feelings of positive feedback through online friends.” [Translated from German]
In excess, Moeller says, Facebook interactions can reinforce feelings of social anxiety experienced offline.
As the German magazine points out, both suspected Aurora theater gunman James Holmes and the Norwegian massacre shooter Anders Behring Breivik share an absence from Facebook. The publication went as far as to say that Facebook abstainers have reason to be suspected mass murderers.”
Does anyone else question how Mashable culled the term “psychopath” from suggestions that Facebook provides us with positive feedback? This conclusion seems like a reach to me. Also, Mashable uses the term “psychopath” in its headline, but the actual story does not use this word at all.
What’s the result of a shocking headline coupled with a correspondingly less-than-shocking story? Disappointment and also frustration, and maybe even a head shake or a scornful expression (again, cue Walter Matthau).
Spinning and Slanting
In a world filled with slanted news providers, it’s hard to find unbiased news. And slanted headlines, much like sensationalist headlines, are another tactic writers employ that don’t work.
In the court of bad writing techniques, Mashable is guilty again (good thing there’s double jeopardy). I saw a story with this headline a few days ago:
Mashable uses the above statistic as proof that social media is important in branding efforts. The problem is that this statistic can easily be spun the other way: 50% of consumers value a brand’s website more than its Facebook page. I can use this as evidence that social media marketing is over-hyped. It’s extremely easy to poke holes in this headline.
Blog posts and articles offering tips, tricks, and advice abound on the internet. Unfortunately, blog posts and articles that offer overly general and unspecific advice also abound. How helpful can something really be if it speaks only in vague generalizations?
Social Media Examiner (which I think is for the most part an amazingly informative and knowledgeable website, by the way) published a piece entitled “9 Tips for Running Successful Facebook Contests.” The post begins by attempting to answer the question, “do contests really work?” which makes complete sense. However, the writer doesn’t really provide any solid, persuasive, or convincing evidence that contests really do work.
He simply states “They do—but only if you do them the right way.” This doesn’t convert me to the Facebook-contest-running camp. What about a snippet of evidence, such as an example of a successful and well-run Facebook contest? This is a well-written post filled with valuable information, but when it comes to making a case for contests, it falls flat.
Aren’t statements, tips and tricks, and advice merely opinions unless they are grounded in some sort of evidence or fact? Are we willing to just take a writer’s word for things?
Another example: how many times does the phrase “engage social media followers!” or “produce killer content!” appear in blog posts? Too many to count, it seems. Unless these tips are combined with specific examples, their value is limited.
Vagueness and a lack of specificity prompt disappointment and dissatisfaction, causing readers to look like Jack Lemmon in this arms-crossed, frowning-face pose.
Calling All Copy Editors
I’ve published my fair share of posts containing grammatical and/or spelling errors. Usually someone notices; I change it; and then I republish. Sometimes an errant comma escapes my eye, or sometimes I mistakenly spell “Lady Gaga” as “Lady Gage.” However, when a grammatical or spelling error is extremely apparent, or when one appears on a major website, it shakes my faith in a post. I’m much more willing to dismiss the post because of said error.
A blatant error in the headline of a post submitted to a well-known site ensures that I won’t place much stock in the advice that’s being offered:
This may have been an articulate, enlightening piece, but it’s ruined by the glaring misspelling in the title.
It’s a shame, one that elicits an expression of pity and dissatisfaction of Walter Matthauesque proportions:
A Literary Toast
Now that I’ve officially indulged my inner grumpy old man (or woman, rather?), here’s to eschewing sensational, slanted headlines and vague generalizations, and trying extremely hard to avoid grammatical errors (I went through this post with a fine-tooth comb): a toast dedicated to good writing across the blogosphere, if you will.