The dangers of writing for mass appeal

Back in my fledgling days of writing blogs, I made a faux pas of giving a client’s (rather technical) article an overhaul into language that was light, readable and accessible by everyone.

Rows of people dressed in identical yellow t-shirtsWhat was once a very niche topic could now be enjoyed by all. I was very politely told that no, they preferred the original version, to suit what people in the industry expect. The original, in all fairness, was not bad – it wasn’t unclear, or inaccurate, it just wasn’t something that could be read easily by all.

I’d allowed myself to get so bogged down in the swamp of content sharing, awash with this style gets more readers, snappy headlines get clicks and the immortal keep it simple, that I’d forgotten that not all audiences are the same – and not everyone had to read this article, only the right people.

There’s a time and a place for simple, totally accessible writing. There’s many times and places for it – it suits an abundant audience and works, I dare say, the vast majority of the time. But there are also times and places for being highly technical, dry, emotionless and even complicated. Naturally as the writer, as the professional, the temptation is always to feel that we know best, and that good writing is clear writing or some such simple maxim. Good writing, though, is not always writing that suits the masses.

How writing for the masses can be harmful

You’re writing a blog for a bridge engineer, and you’re presented with the task of informing your audience about the specifics of truss techniques (for example). You proudly produce a simple, punchy piece, in a list format with a catchy headline, that has millennials chortling and social media stars sharing, bringing in tens of thousands of readers.

Dozens of students subscribe to your mailing list so they can be ready to share the next potential “What the Truss?!” piece. The client’s website climbs the search rankings for lists of truss techniques. A year passes and the site gets views every day as young bridge engineers look up your list for some topical entertainment. And that’s that.

Suspension bridgeSomewhere, unheard, unsung, a potential customer for your client doesn’t get in touch. A potential employer sees the article and takes the light, generic material to mean this person is more interested in populist fluff than the technicalities of bridge building.

The friendly, accessible approach demonstrates ignorance of the finer details of these truss techniques. This article, read by thousands, gets the engineer a reputation – that chap who thinks it’s all so simple, what we do. A light and accessible style that actually damages the client’s reputation, costs them sales.

That’s if the article ever gets seen by the right people: without the right language, discussed in the right way, it might only get seen by guffawing list compilers and slacking computer jockeys, never to cross the retinas of anyone seriously involved in the industry.

A better way…

You write a dry, technical analysis of truss techniques with a technical title, answering a very niche concern that very few people care about, in language that most people without prior knowledge of the issue won’t understand. It doesn’t get spewed around social media walls and it doesn’t double the client’s mailing list. It gets a few interested clicks on LinkedIn and a couple of tweets from people with an unhealthy obsession with equations.

Maybe the article helps the site climb the search rankings for a very specific problem involving the specifics of analysing redundant members in a truss, though. Or it gets shared by right people and read by a few dozen who really care. And someone reads that article and immediately thinks, here’s an engineer who’s talking my language. Which translates to trust: here’s someone who knows his stuff. Which translates to sales.

The temptation is always there to go for the masses. To write something immortal and accessible, something clear and consumable – something that everyone will see and like. But that’s not necessarily what your client needs. The greatest good for the greatest number is useless if the potential customer is in the minority.

Yes, writing should still be clear, it should be accurate and have flow. But clarity, accuracy and flow are all subjective. What is clear to a bridge engineer may not be clear to someone working in sales. What is clear to someone in sales may not be accurate through the eyes of an engineer. Writing can be inaccessible for the right reasons, and it’s important to always be aware of that. Sometimes it must be inaccessible to the masses to do its job; as long as the right reader will like it.

A lot of the time that might mean toeing the line of populist content marketing tips. But if the right reader is someone who craves technical detail, dry language and straightforward headlines, then the style of social media darlings will get you nowhere.

This article first appeared on the Copywrite Now blog.


27th November 2015

Charlote Fleming

A very good point. Reader numbers aren’t the only (or even necessarily the most useful) measure to gauge the effectiveness of a blog or article.

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