Why your marketing materials make people go “Huh?”

A friend of mine who does a bit of on-the-side light editing for friends posed this question to me over coffee this morning:

Why do so many people’s marketing materials make me cringe?

She was quite honestly baffled.  Perfectly intelligent people, most of whom managed to get through college with at least a “C” average, would write up descriptions of their products and/or services in a way that made her look at them and go, “Huh?”

She hasn’t really studied writing per se, but she knows enough intuitively to understand that a grammatically-correct sentence isn’t necessarily a well-written one.

“All I do,” she said, puzzled, “is change the passive voice to the active voice and cut out all the extra words, and they react as if I’ve performed some sort of miracle.”

“And then,” she continued,” they come back the next time with the exact same mistakes. Why?”

The answer: They’re using The Official Style.

What’s The Official Style?  According to Professor Richard A. Lanham, it’s that bureaucratic writing style we all got indoctrinated with during our school years, the one that makes us write in a way that sounds nothing like the way we speak, the one (we think) that screams, “Look how articulate I am!”  It’s what makes us write:

The decision was made by the committee in response to input from the community.

Instead of:

The committee reviewed the community’s input and made the decision.

“So, it’s not just me that sees that?” my friend said.

“Nope,” I replied.  “People don’t do that intentionally.  They absorb that style by osmosis during their school years, writing term papers and such, so to them, that’s just how you’re supposed to write.”  Except, it’s bogus.

With a hat tip to Richard Lanham’s “Revising Prose,” a book I highly recommend (even if I didn‘t get a few cents from you clicking the Amazon affiliate link below), here are a few ways you can clean up your own writing:

Switch from passive to active voice. Here’s the fastest way to find an instance of the “passive voice” — look for any form of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, etc.) with a past participle (usually, but not always, a verb ending in “-ed”).  Lanham has an effective (if cheeky) way of teaching students how to switch from the passive to the active voice: “Who’s kicking whom?”

In other words, always place the kicker in front of the verb and the kickee behind it, and make the verb something active and direct.  Using the example above, the committee is the kicker, and the input and the decision are the kickees.  “Reviewed” and “made” are the kicks.

Ditch the prepositions. Usually, where you find the passive voice, a whole string of prepositional phrases (“of x to the y in violation of the z“) follows.  Ditch ’em if at all possible.  Again, in the above example, there are a whopping four prepositional phrases.  I converted some into nouns or active verbs; others I told to “get lost.”

Shorten and vary your sentence lengths. The Official Style also encourages long, hard-to-follow sentences.  The result?  Paragraphs with a sing-song rhythm that lulls readers to sleep.

Try stacking your sentences on top of each other on the page (put a hard return after each sentence in your word processor).  What you want to see should look more like this:


Than this:


Lanham’s Paramedic Method of editing is somewhat more involved than this (and if you’re really interested, do check out the book below via my Amazon Affiliate Link), but if you’ll just do the three things above and read the result to yourself out loud to test, you’ll outclass most of your competition without even breaking a sweat.

Photo credit: CarbonNYC via Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/496721450/)

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  1. I’m on a crusade right now for some punchy plain English at work. But people are so conditioned to trying to sound smart. Ironic that verbosity has the opposite impact.

    1. Amen. If we could just get the educational system to STOP conditioning people this way, this would work itself out in a generation or two.

      You and me … two crusaders … let’s hope lots of others join the ranks!

  2. This reminds of of languages in PR releases- “We are excited by this opportunity to launch a phone that caters to all demographics from preteens to elderly individuals”…ughhh

    I actually lifted this from http://bit.ly/bIHqYe.

    Every time I write I make a conscious effort to keep that official language hound chained up. In the early days it took a visible effort but now with practice I have been able to be a bit more seamless sliding in

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