Every piece of content we produce as marketers makes an implicit promise to our audience. From beginning to end, each asset that is researched, created and published should be interesting, relevant, help solve a current pain point. The content will be informative, easy to read and provide value.
We must honor that promise to hold the reader’s attention and provide them with useful information. As Copyblogger founder Brian Clark says, “A great headline mixed with a lame opening is like inviting someone into your house, only to slam the door in their face as they approach.” Once you slam the door in a reader’s face, they’re not going to accept future invitations.
Our goal should be to create content that holds the door open, invites the reader in, and serves them tea and cakes. They should be better off because of the time they entrusted to us. We must be ever vigilant against bland, empty, awkward or confusing writing. Avoiding the following clichés can help your content make good on its promise to be worth the reader’s time.
#1 – The 30,000 Foot Introduction
In high school, well-meaning teachers told us introductions should start wide and then narrow down to our topic. So we went all the way up to 30,000 feet to get the big, really big picture. We wrote, “Waste disposal has historically been a huge problem in the world, and it continues to this day.” Or, “Most scientists agree that electricity is important.” Sometimes, years later, it can be difficult to shake the urge to start with a bird’s-eye view.
Why It’s Less Effective: 30,000 Foot introductions are so broad that they fail to introduce the reader to your specific topic. They also tend to be full of information the reader already knows, which is less likely to inspire them to keep reading.
What to Do Instead: When you realize you’ve written 30,000 foot introductions, start by writing a second paragraph to actually introduce the article. Many times, you can just delete the original paragraph and go with the more detailed introduction.
If you’re having trouble introducing a topic without going up to 30,000 feet, create specificity and 3rd party credibility by adding a statistic or quote.
#2 – We All Know That…
The “we all know” or “as [members of a group], we all know” construction usually pops up when a writer is trying to empathize with the readers. While the intention may be good, execution can read a little clumsy.
Why It’s Less Effective: If we all know it, then the reader knows it, too. If the reader knows it, they may feel like we’re wasting their time. When you need to state the obvious in a post, it’s better to find an angle that adds something extra to what “we all know.”
What to Do Instead: As with the 30,000 Feet Introduction, use a quote or a statistic. Instead of, “we all know that content marketing is important,” go for, “as Michael Brenner says, ‘Content is the atomic particle of all marketing across paid, owned, and earned channels.’” Now you’ve made your point, given new information, and added credibility to your piece.
Or, you can just eliminate the “We All Know” and make your statement to sound more authoritative: “Content marketing is a vital piece of any marketing mix.”
#3 – In This Article, I Will…
Here’s another holdover from our five-paragraph-essay days. It’s a hard habit to break, because it seems like the easiest way to transition into the body of your content. It previews the structure of the article and moves you to your first subheading.
Why It’s Less Effective: A good introduction casts a spell on the reader, compelling them to keep reading. “In this article, I will…” is an awkward transition that breaks the spell. Even worse, it puts the focus on you, the author, instead of the reader.
What to Do Instead: Ask the reader to do what you want them to do: Read on. “Read on to learn X, Y, and Z.” Or make it inspirational: “You can do x, y, and z. Here’s how.” Or, “doing [these/the following] five things can help you accomplish X.” Show the reader what’s in it for them and they’ll be more likely to keep reading.
#4 – Rhetorical Questions
Who doesn’t love rhetorical questions? They seem like a great tool for getting your reader to ponder the topic you’re discussing. But should you avoid them? And how can you? (Sorry, last one, I promise).
Why They’re Less Effective: When I write a rhetorical question, I imagine my reader leaning forward, eyes wide in childlike wonderment, saying, “Golly gee, mister, how CAN I write better content?” I’m trying to create drama, but really I’m underestimating the reader’s intelligence.
People who take the time to read a blog post are smart (take you, for example. You’re reading this post, and I have no doubt you’re startlingly intelligent). Rhetorical questions invite your audience to come up with a different answer than the one you’re leading to, which can derail the point you’re trying to make.
What to Do Instead: The antidote for this one is easy: Turn your questions into statements. Instead of, “How can you avoid clichéd writing?” say “It’s important to avoid clichéd writing. You can ditch clichés by…” As a general rule, unless you’re inviting readers to actually respond to your question, make it a statement.
#5 – Alphabet Soup
My wife is a middle-school teacher. We have a game where we string together as many acronyms from our respective professions as we can. So I’ll say, “With a little CRO, you can tweak your CTA to increase the CTR of your PPC, getting a better ROI on your CPC.” And she’ll say, “The kid with the IEP clearly had ODD, but his FSP didn’t modify his CBA.” And we laugh. Oh, how we laugh. But the alphabet soup is less funny when you’re trying to glean information from an article.
Why It’s Less Effective: Acronyms aren’t universal. The same three or four letters can mean something radically different—or nothing at all—to a reader, depending on their background. Take the two alphabet-soup sentences above: some readers will get one and not the other, and many won’t understand either sentence.
What to Do Instead: First, keep your audience in mind. If they’re not marketers, avoid marketing jargon and acronyms entirely. Then make sure to spell out the first instance of an acronym, like “with a little conversion rate optimization (CRO)…”
It can’t hurt to spell out even the most obvious acronyms. Most readers know that ROI means return on investment, but you may have a French reader who thinks you’re shouting about a king (you see, in French “Le Roi” is the King, and…never mind). If you find you’re introducing three acronyms in a single sentence and spelling them all out is getting awkward, that’s a good indication you should break the sentence up.
Read Critically for Better Writing
Writing engaging content is a learned skill, like playing the violin or juggling live turtles. Or doing both at the same time, if you’re an overachiever. Avoiding these five clichés will help you write content your audience will enjoy reading. But these five are just the tip of the iceberg (which is also a cliché, if you’re counting). So continue honing your skills by writing, of course, but also by reading with a critical eye. When you go through your daily blog and news site crawl, look for overused phrases, convoluted sentences, and anything else that seems out-of-place.
What clichés do you struggle with in your writing? How do you keep your content fresh and relevant? Let me know in the comments.