Good SEO doesn’t excuse bad writing

In the About Us section of the Speed Limit Studios website, someone wrote that the company is “a full-service web design firm.” But then someone wrote this in one of its case studios:

woman unmaskedWebPromote is an ongoing SEO service that involves continuous daily actions on and off your website, to constantly prove to Google, Yahoo!, and Bing that your website is the most relevant source of information for the keywords we are targeting. This isn’t easy. Google, Yahoo!, and Bing go to great lengths to keep their algorithms secret. Their algorithms determine which sites get placed above others. In fact, they constantly change their algorithms to control over-optimization and spam. At Ciplex, we constantly monitor search engines to adapt to the latest changes.

Did you get that?

  • The first sentence has 40 words.
  • “Algorithms” appears three times, as does “constantly.”
  • “Continual” would be more accurate than “continuous,” but I could give them that one; it’s a common error.

And worst of all, nothing about this copy makes me interested in this company.

SEO (search engine optimization) does not negate the need for good writing. In fact, good SEO may make good writing even more important. If you’re going to be effective at luring people to a site, then you owe it to them to make the visit pleasant.


What made me want to visit Alabama

Martin Luther King Jr. / AP file photo

I’ve never wanted to go to Alabama. Until now.

I started reading “A march into history” by Scott Vogel of The Washington Post because of the subhead, believe it or not:

“Alabama women who lived it help give a 21st-century spirit to the civil rights struggle.”

The black-and-white photo showed only males, so I was intrigued by the idea of a story about strong women previously unrecognized by history.

It’s an article about why you should visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum and research center. But in several strokes of pure genius, Vogel treats it like a feature story.

Instead of, “The museum features the desk at which Martin Luther King wrote his plans for the bus boycott,” you read, “She shows King’s office in the basement, then allows me a peek – not part of the public tour – at the blond wood desk on which he planned the Montgomery bus boycott.”

You’re there, taking “a gut-wrenching trip” through history that the writer makes personal.

Think about Vogel’s approach the next time you write a press release or newsletter article.

Here are three links to the same story, in case one doesn’t work:

Indianapolis Star

Seattle Times

Miami Herald

Add a spelling poster to your office décor

When you’re hanging new calendars in the office, add a poster from The Oatmeal: 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

My favorite: The way to remember how to correctly spell “weird” has to do with keeping dolphins from being run over by jet skis.

As a bonus, check out How to Use an Apostrophe and find out why Charles’ cat is always afraid of liftoff.

What’s the most over-used word in organizational copy?

lazy guy on computer

Is the organization you’re writing about “unique”?

Please say no.

Here’s an example of the way too many writers overuse the word:

“Keep Indianapolis Beautiful’s internship program is unique because we are able to match the needs of students with our needs.”

Is Keep Indianapolis Beautiful the only organization that can make this claim? No. Hence, no uniqueness.

But besides lazily relying on an overused word, the writer did this organization a disservice by missing an opportunity.

By interviewing a few interns and finding out just what their experiences were like, the writer could have used testimonials and intriguing copy to draw potential interns in.

The interns, employees and volunteers at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful ensure our city retains its natural beauty. As the Web site says, “Trees make the world a better place.” I wholly agree; my husband and I are still mourning the loss of our beautiful ornamental pear that snapped in a recent windstorm. We lost a friend.

So, KIB, wake up your writer and tell your story.

P.S. Have you planted a tree in your Marion County, Indiana, home or business? Register your deed and help KIB reach its goal of 100,000 new trees by 2017.

Strunk’s “Elements” is easy listening on CD

Every writer needs six books on her shelf:

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White.
The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.
The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists by Arthur Plotnik.
A dictionary (I prefer Merriam-Webster).
A thesaurus.
The Associated Press Style Manual (or the Chicago Manual of Style if your employer demands it).

You don’t generally read these over a cup of coffee on the front porch, so their content is a bit challenging to take in. But thanks to Recorded Books, you can now listen to one of them – The Elements of Style – on CD, narrated by award-winning writer Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes.

McCourt’s Irish accent and thoughtful rendition animate E.B. White’s first-person introduction. White (the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) met Strunk while his student at Cornell University, where the professor used his own textbook, The Elements of Style, for the class. White rediscovered Strunk and his book years later, after he was getting paid to be a writer himself (for The New Yorker). McCourt’s voice reflects the pride White felt in being asked to edit his learned professor’s masterwork.

McCourt’s voice resonates with credibility as he pronounces Strunk’s grammar rules. “Omit needless words!” he intones. “Use the active voice. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.” The essay even made me chuckle a couple of times – a feat few grammar books can boast of.

The reading gets a bit drier once McCourt moves into the chapters and examples, but not by much. The benefit to listening is that you can’t skim through anything, so you don’t miss anything.

After a while, you start to get it.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I borrowed my copy of this wonderful audio book from the library. Get yours and sharpen your own writing skills.


Pulitzer Prize for feature writing well deserved

Gene Weingarten, staff writer for The Washington Post, is this year’s deserving Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing for his story “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

This piece unfolds slowly, drawing you in. The violinist is identified only as “he,” someone who is seemingly playing for money just outside a Washington, D.C., metro station. Pedestrians begin to pass by. We’ve all been there. So Weingarten puts us, the readers, right there, into his story. We become his pedestrians. Do we stop to listen? Do we throw in a couple of bucks to assuage our guilt? Do we pretend not to notice the guy? Without realizing it, we are now part of what’s happening. And to stop reading now is nearly impossible.

Then Weingarten lets you in on the secret. This performance is a setup. He tells you who the musician is – gasp! You sit back and smile. Now you know what’s going to happen next.

Boy, are you going to be surprised – another writing hook to keep your readers intrigued.

And so is the musician. This world-renowned figure ends up sharing his own unexpected feelings about what occurs, giving readers a most rare, honest glimpse into the moments of uncertainty of a genius. For me, this was the hidden gem in the story. Because this was a new experience for the violinist, I got to share his feelings right along with him. Worth the read all by itself.

In the end, there’s a sadness to this story, yet a feeling of triumph, too. There’s controversy – of course no one stopped; they’re on their way to work! But I was left most with a feeling of wonder, that something like this could occur in any of our lives at any moment – and hoping that I would be smart enough not to miss it.

This is feature writing at its best: A story that pulls you in, makes you a part of the events, and stays with you long after you’re done reading. Congratulations, Mr. Weingarten. And thank you.

Read Pearls Before Breakfast


Stopping readers dead

Think about the last time you flipped through a magazine or a newspaper, or you surfed the Web. If an article didn’t grab your attention in a couple of seconds, did you stop to read it? 

Here’s an example from Smithsonian online that stopped me dead and sucked me right into the story before I knew what was happening: 

Cy Twombly’s Scattered Blossoms 

One rainy Friday afternoon in 1964, a 24-year-old Richard Serra, then wrapping up his studies at Yale, hopped a train from New Haven to New York City. Upon arriving, he headed uptown, to an East 77th Street townhouse, where he first encountered the work of Cy Twombly. “They gnawed at me,” Serra has said of the paintings he saw that day at Leo Castelli’s gallery. “I couldn’t forget them.”