“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” – Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On the Art of Writing” (1916)
We’re in a pretty good spot with creativity right now.
Brands are relaxed, their messages are warm and friendly—and consumers aren’t interested in stiff formalities and ‘professional’ tones of voice.
That’s all great stuff. But there’s a danger that comes with it:
Some messages are getting a bit too far up themselves.
Here’s how to keep your writing on point:
Trim your fatty headlines
“Top Gun, Top Gear, Top Dog: How the Toxic Masculinity of Corporate CEOs Has Become a Toxic Blight on the Field of Dreams for Female Employees in the Aviation and Automotive Industries”
Sounds powerful, right? A journalistic punch to the gut that can help your blog post go viral and send it straight to the top of the first page of Google.
If you wrote a headline like this, you might be feeling quite pleased with yourself:
- It starts with the power of three—a triple-whammy of ‘tops’.
- You’ve used ‘toxic’ in two separate contexts—that’s probably something clever.
- You’ve linked ‘blight’ to ‘field’ and linked that to the ‘dreams’ of employees—it’s all connected!
- You’ve matched ‘top gun’ to aviation, ‘top gear’ to automobiles, and ‘top dog’ to CEOs—your readers will love it.
That’s all well and good—and this headline does carry some dramatic weight. But it’s exactly the sort of thing that Quiller-Couch was talking about.
This headline is full of your ‘darlings’. It’s packed with all the things that feel witty and profound when you’re writing them.
But to your readers, it’s a complicated mess. And it’s getting in the way of their understanding.
Headlines are designed to generate interest. Sometimes they’re flamboyant, and sometimes they’re reserved. But whether you’re browsing through BuzzFeed or perusing the Financial Times, every headline always has the same basic purpose:
They’re all designed to let you know what’s inside the article – and quickly.
If your readers have to unpack a literary masterpiece to get the gist of your article, they won’t bother. They’ll flick to the next headline that respects their time and attention.
So how should I snip?
There’s plenty of room for drama in a provocative headline. Just don’t cram it in:
“How the Toxic Masculinity of CEOs Is Poisoning the Automotive Industry”
“Aviation Is a Toxic ‘Top Gun’ Industry– and Its Male CEOs Aren’t Helping”
Keep it simple and take it slow, and try one thing at a time to find the right balance.
Stop clearing your throat
“In recent years, many businesses have found great success in focusing on their digital transformation, with a number of high-profile companies devoting increasing proportions of their budgets to the pursuit of new technologies that support this process.”
Starting a new piece of content is never easy. You’re trying to bridge the gap between you and your reader—trying to pull them away from browsing through headlines and get them invested in the topic you’re writing about.
You might think that setting the scene is a good way to do it. You’re bringing them up to speed on the situation, and laying the groundwork for what’s to come.
In most cases, this is a mistake.
The longer you take to give them something to latch onto, the more likely they are to think you have nothing to say.
You might be painting a vivid image. You might be demonstrating your deep knowledge of the topic. You might be offering your unique opinion on an important situation, and planting the seeds for the Big Idea™ your article is building up to.
But these are all traps. These are your darlings—and they need to be killed.
So how do I clear my throat?
You don’t. Instead of drawing your reader into the topic, you need to launch them. You need the first sentence below your headline to teleport your readers straight to the centre of what’s happening:
“Everyone’s going digital—from John Lewis to HMRC. And if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind.”
“There’s big money in digital transformation. HRMC has invested millions in their new portal, and John Lewis has doubled their online sales.”
Before your readers have decided if they want to keep reading, they’re already reading. They’re in the thick of the discussion from the first few lines—and you’ve got them exactly where you want them.
Find the worthless words
“Writing for a modern, progressive audience can be tough. Clearly, you need to fully understand the tastes of your audience, and then mercilessly and ruthlessly cut any cumbersome, awkward phrases from your content.”
I’m guilty of a lot of the things I complain about. And that makes it awkward to write about a topic like this.
But there’s a difference between this content and yours (maybe).
You’re writing to sell products and services. I’m writing to sell writing—and that means I need to show that I can spice things up a bit when I need to.
For most of my clients, I wouldn’t recommend too much jazz in their content. A hint of flavour and humour is always welcome, and there’s room for both playful and professional to exist in the same space.
But if you’re blasting your readers with a list of lively adverbs and adjectives at every opportunity, you’re feeding a garden of darlings—and it’s time to turn off the hose.
So where’s the tap?
There’s a handy rule for adverbs and adjectives—a rule I just made up right now:
One at most, and often less.
Instead of layering on a series of descriptors to triangulate yourself closer to what you’re really trying to say, spend a few moments to choose the right word for the right purpose. Limit yourself to one adjective or adverb, and make sure there are plenty of times when you don’t use any at all.
“Writing for a modern audience can be tough. You need to understand the tastes of your audience, and then ruthlessly cut any awkward phrases from your content.”
Remember who you’re writing for
A passion for your brand and the way you communicate is always a positive thing.
But if you let that passion run rampant—adding flowers and vines to every message your customers read—there comes a point when it’s not about your audience any more.
Your content becomes flashy. But it’s not doing its job.
You need to be merciless with your darlings. You need to trim and shape those beautiful petals until you’re left with pollen and seeds—the essential vehicles that carry your ideas and plant your message in the minds of your customers.
And if you just can’t bring yourself to kill your content darlings?
It might be time to hire a hitman who can.