Replay, unanswered questions from Writing Without Bullshit webinar

webinar questions
I biked to WriterAccess to deliver the Webinar. This is Byron White and me.

After 400 people attended my Webinar last week and we got dozens of questions. Scroll to the bottom of this post for the recorded replay. Below are my best answers to some fascinating questions about the meaning ratio, tone, reviews, and what causes bullshit. (Questions edited for brevity and grammar.)

  • What is a good meaning ratio target? (Mike DeWees)
  • Does the meaning ratio apply to SEO content, too? What about when you have to incorporate keywords? (Adee Feiner)
  • We should still pay by the word, but use the “Meaning Ratio” as a multiplier to get to the fee. (Blane Erwin)

For the meaning ratio, 80% is an attainable target, 60-80% is fair, 40-60% is annoying, and below 40% is dreadful.

Meaning should come first, keywords second. If keywords drive people to look at your incomprehensible content, that’s not a success, it’s a failure. Once you’ve written your clearest, boldest copy, see if you can sneak a keyword in here and there to help with SEO. If you’re doing things right, you won’t need to change much.

I love the idea of paying writers by the meaningful word, rather than by the word. That would go a long way toward solving the problem of puffed-up prose that abuses readers.

  • Your survey asked “Which of the following time-wasters annoy you most?” 32% of people said “not being able to put your best ideas into words effectively”. Do you have any suggestions? (Seb Rattansen)

Focus on ideas first. Often, writing problems are really idea problems. If you have a good main idea, then focus on structure. Only then should you fill in the structure with words. Remember, spend half your time on preparation before you begin to write.

  • In the sample email shown at the beginning, the suggested rewrite seemed, while clear, colloquial. I can see how this would be effective for communication with someone you know personally, but would you suggest that method for a professional email or letter? (Aysia Law)
  • How about tone? Do people get offended with straight to the point email? (Srin Rangaswamy)
  • How do you write short and bold without sounding condescending in the workplace? (Kayleigh Smith)

Tone is important. But the “formal” tone we often choose doesn’t connect with people. Be direct, clear, and respectful and people will respond, even in a professional setting. “I” and “you” work even if you’re connecting someone in a position well above your own.

  • My challenge is to determine how much clarifying detail to include so as to differentiate what I am saying from potentially similar assertions. How much detail is enough without being too much. (James Pepitone)
  • I always find the worst BS results from trying to jam too many ideas into one sentence or paragraph or article – what are your thoughts on when to go long to cover all the ideas and when to cut some out and focus in? (Anthea Strezze)

Figure out your main point. Include just enough detail to justify it. Cut the rest.

  • Overcollaboration is a killer – when everyone feels they have a voice, how do you establish and maintain control of what is actually produced? (Alex Lee)
  • Any tips for content marketing for a senior audience in a company that’s used to writing by committee? (Cat Parkay)

Writing by committee creates awful prose. Everyone should have a say, which is not the same as everyone having a voice. As the writer, you should addresses the comments with prose that reflect a more complete view of the truth. That brings your reviewers along. The philosophy is this: one smart author, many helpful reviewers.

  • Legal review is where weasel words are born, in my experience. (Pam Spettel)

With lawyers, as with any other reviewers, figure out what their problem is and address it. Do let lawyers save you from jeopardy; don’t let lawyers write copy.

  • When you talk about “front-loading,” is this similar to the inverted pyramid? (Eric Chandler)

Yes. I am a believer in Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle, which is even more important in a world where we all read primarily on screens in a noisy environment.

  • Sounds like a pitfall of this approach is boiling everything down so much that you’re forced into blanket statements like “we’re the greatest.” How can you make a blanket statement on behalf of an average business like that, when there is no way to substantiate that claim? (Jennifer Brooks)

Every business ought to be able to make a statement that differentiates it. “We understand how to make content marketing that works,” for example, or “We’re the most attentive cleaners in town.” These more specific statements work better than weaselly adjectives like “We’re a leading company with deep expertise in analytics,” which means nothing.

  • Is Content Marketing killing the Internet? I’m already looking for a means to escape! (Steve Dale)

Content Marketing is supposed to be about useful content that helps customers. That’s the best of branding on the Internet, not the worst. If you are looking for escape, read a book or go to the new Star Wars movie.

  • Why does writing about social media seem to contain more bullshit that usual? (James Mulvey)

Social media gurus justify themselves with soft metrics. It is hard to measure a lot of the purported value. This results in a high degree of bullshit and a low meaning ratio.

  • There are companies dedicated to producing jargon, weasel words, and passive voice; they’re called brand agencies ;). How do we help these organizations build entire brands without bullshit? (Michael Barber)

Agencies ought to speak boldly and clearly. If your agency is full of bullshit, drop it.

  • Should I say please and thank you, for instance in an email? (Diana Rubino)

Definitely. Directness and politeness can go together. Just make sure you’re not using “please” as a passive-aggressive way to hide your intentions.

Thank you for all your great questions!


For the slide deck, go here.

Here’s the replay:

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