Conventional wisdom says that you should write clearly and concisely to educate and entertain your readers.
However, given the poor quality of a lot of writing today, I think many writers bore, confuse and otherwise alienate their readers.
I’ve studied lots of poorly written material and believe their writers follow these 10 rules.
Rule #1: Be vague.
If you’re clear on what you want to say, you might say it. To write confusing materials it helps to be confused, so don’t write about anything you understand or can explain clearly.
Rule #2: Ramble.
Do not get to the point. Why discuss how to get from “A” to “B” when you can discuss everything from “A” to “Z”? It’s much more fun to go off on tangents.
Rule #3: Use long and vague words.
Include as many syllables as you can in each word. Use “approximately” instead of “about,” “enables” instead of “lets,” and “expostulated” instead of “said.”
Rule #4: Use vague words.
My college English teacher railed against vague words, which she referred to as “glittering generalities.” Words like “good” and “solution” say almost nothing (which may be why they are used so much). If you’re in the technology industry, you have a decided advantage because your work is full of pompous words like “next-generation,” “best-of-breed” and “cutting-edge.”
Rule #5: Use lots of words.
The more words the better. Use two, three or four words when one would do. For example, use “despite the fact that” instead of “even though,” “past history” instead of “history,” and “in the event that” instead of “if.”
Rule #6: Smother your nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs.
Include two or three adjectives and adverbs with every noun and verb, so that your readers will struggle.
Rule #7: Make most of your sentences at least 20 words long.
Write long, convoluted sentences like this one I recently saw (and I’m not making this up): “When your software applications can complement with computer vision we are not just adding one human sense to it but making it more human with additional intelligence.” So glad that’s been clarified.
Rule #8: Write negative sentences.
People understand positive statements faster than negative ones. It is more difficult for people to understand that “the street is not dangerous” than to grasp that “the street is safe.” So, by all means, make things hard for your readers.
Rule #9: Use passive voice.
Passive voice means that the subject is “acted upon” by the verb. (e.g., “The ball was hit by Bill” instead of “Bill hit the ball.”) Passive voice is weaker than active voice, and usually takes more words.
Rule #10: Ignore grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Spellchecker and other writing software programs identify grammatical and spelling mistakes. But why bother? How many people will notice? Few writers (and readers) seem to care whether a plural subject has a plural verb. Apparently fewer still know that “it’s” is different from “its.” And it seems that people prefer to misplace their modifiers, rather than to find them.
So these are my rules for bad writing. What would you add?
A version of this article appeared on August 22, 2017.