Vowel Movement: 5 bullshit words that make me want to hurt you

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

–Mark Twain

I have often been accused of vulgarity for its own sake. I’ve heard, many times, from many people, that “Real writers don’t need to resort to obscenity.”


A real writer appreciates the texture, flavor, and propriety of each word at his or her disposal. The same way there is a difference between “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” between “simple” and “simplistic” or “sense” and “sensibility,” there is a difference between “making love” and “fucking.”

Write business-related copy long enough and one can very easily find oneself falling into the same linguistic patterns. Marketing jargon, like a virus, is insidious: even very intelligent people are susceptible. Why use a small word when you can use a big one? Why bother deviating from established language we all understand? So what if I should have used “thought” instead of “insight”? People know what I meant.

Except this:

You can’t make your audience do 100% of the work and still call yourself a communicator.

Words matter. If you’re going to write copy — for anyone, for any reason — and be taken seriously, you are going to have to do better than regurgitate from Seth Godin’s Guide to Enthusiastic Malapropisms (“Architecture in the acquisition of infrastructure and tools is one of the highest leverage pieces of work a tech company can do”? Is that ENGLISH, Seth? Does your mother keep your best sellers with your Kindergarten macaroni art?).

So let’s start with five common marketing words that make my eyes bleed. Use them if you must — but for god’s sake, don’t use them at all if you can help it.

1. Leverage

My disdain for this word is well-known among my colleagues, friends, and fellow misanthropes. That’s because it represents the worst, most frequent form of abuse in marketing/sales writing: swapping an existing word that works just fine for a bigger, more “professional-sounding” word that is hardly ever apt.

Let’s look at some definitions of this word, courtesy of the fine folks at Merriam-Webster.

leverage. noun. 
1: the action of a lever or the mechanical advantage gained by it
2: power, effectiveness <trying to gain more political leverage>
3: the use of credit to enhance one’s speculative capacity

leverage. verb.
1: to provide (as a corporation) or supplement (as money) with leverage; also: to enhance as if by supplying with financial leverage
2: to use for gain: exploit <shamelessly leverage the system to their advantage>

I am including the verb form only grudgingly. It kind of makes me want to stab my own face.

So. Acceptable synonyms for “leverage”: exploit; parlay; capitalize on; take advantage of. It does NOT simply mean “to use.” I don’t leverage a hairbrush to remove tangles. I don’t leverage a television to watch movies. And no matter how much I want to, I don’t leverage my fist to punish sloppy copywriters.

I am not alone here, by the way. Top Google search results for this subject: “Leverage is NOT a verb!“; “5 Words You Probably Misuse in Business Writing“; and my personal favorite, “Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?” Even Forbes put it to a vote, and “leverage” is a finalist in their Jargon Madness matchup.

Unless you are specifically talking about inertia, stay the fuck away from the word “leverage.” I will find you.

Try these words instead: Use, employ, harness, utilize, apply

2. Architect

Okay, can I just say something here? Marketers? YOU CAN’T JUST TURN NOUNS INTO VERBS BECAUSE YOU WANT TO. I don’t food my lunch. I don’t car to the office.

There are 250,000 words in the English language. 250,000. Depending who you ask, that makes it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. The word you want exists. You don’t have to start mutating perfectly good nouns into diluted, half-assed verbs.

So. Let’s all agree that “architect,” like “leverage,” is a NOUN, and that using it as a verb makes you sound like a pretentious twat.

Try these words instead: Build, make, create, construct, form, manufacture, produce, fabricate, fashion, invent, establish

3. Ideate

My motion graphics editor boyfriend insists this is a perfectly cromulent word used by designers the world over. Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary put its first use somewhere between 1600 and 1610. That’s as it may be. But whatever its origins, “ideate” has been hijacked by the marketeratsi (yeah, I can make words up, too) to describe any situation necessitating thought.

I have some pretty specific feelings about this, but I’m gonna go ahead and let Baratunde Thurston express my disdain for me:

Try these words instead: Brainstorm, think up/think of/think about, conceive, plan, envision

4. Actionable

Unless you’re in the CIA and you need legal authority to move on an internationally wanted criminal mastermind, don’t use this word where I can hear you. I don’t have any good reasons. I just goddamn hate it. It’s a stupid word.

Try these words instead: Useful, practical, usable, meaningful, workable

5. Content

This word has come to describe something so vague, you might as well just go ahead and use “stuff” or “things” or “crap.”

Usually when we see this word, it’s in a sentence like, “Are you making the most of your business content?” or “Compelling content will improve your users’ experience,” or “Architect actionable content to leverage your best ideations.” I just saw a tweet that went, “The best content isn’t contingent on time & place. Shelf life matters.”

I have no idea what any of this means.

“Content” can be damn near anything; there is no way to know what it describes without some kind of context. Is it writing? Design? Both? Is it a takeaway, a call to action? Is it an experience? I can refer to the content of a website as easily as I can the content of one’s character. “Content” just means “that which fills a vacuum.” This can be literal or figurative. Whatever it is, it HAS to have some kind of qualifier.

Otherwise, it comes off sounding like a 7th grade book report on a book you didn’t actually read. “I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time. Its content was very impactful. Especially the part where time wrinkled. I gave this book a B+ because it was very good but some of the content was not as good as the other content.” You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, you little twerp. Saturday detention.

Try these words instead: Theme, message, subject matter, essence, significance, text, meaning, purpose, intention

Crackwhores and Call Girls

I am only going to say this once, so pay attention.

Copywriters and social media writers are not the same thing.

One doesn’t really come to appreciate this distinction unless one is an out-of-work copywriter looking for a job in advertising. Obviously, I don’t know any of those people, and if you do, you should throw rocks and rusted cans and old glass at them. Do it. Do it until they cry. Out-of-work copywriters are literally the worst people alive.

But let’s say I knew one, or, God forbid – we’re just pretending, all right, this is a purely hypothetical scenario – I was one. I imagine a typical period of joblessness might go like this:

Me: Well, shit. Really thought I’d make it to five weeks that time. Oh well. Anyone need a writer?
Well-Meaning Friend: Oh! Oh! We do!
Me: O RLY?
WMF: Yeah! We just placed an ad for a Content Strategist!
Me: …oh.
WMF: What?
Me: Nothing, nothing. Tell me some more about the job.
WMF: Well, a Content Strategist collaborates with the marketing and branding team to leverage data mines culled from social media in an effort to facilitate more meaningful customer outreach and retention. AND – this is the best part – you’d be creating original content to evangelize the brand’s potential as a strategic solution that helps meet client goals! ISN’T THAT EXCITING? That’s EXACTLY what you do, right?
Me: I pretty much just arrange threesomes between nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
WMF: But content strategists also have to use words! And you use words! You have so much in common! —what are you doing?
Me: Oh, it’s just the potassium chloride tastes better with bourbon. I call it a “Sweet Release.”

Repeat ad infinitum.

Traditional creative ad agencies – yes, they still exist – will often utilize a mix of copywriters, art designers, and strategists. Writers create the copy of a piece, designers make it shiny, and strategists find ways to promote it/get more work to do. There is a bit of overlap: writers and designers are useless if they create for themselves rather than for their audience; strategists must have the creative vocabulary to understand why a piece, a brand, or a strategy is successful. Typically, however, these are separate but equal roles. I write the commercial, those guys film the commercial, and that chick uses our commercial to find us more commercials to make. What a well-oiled machine.

Thus, the core of a copywriter’s duty lies in coming up with words; any research or collaboration he or she does is in support of this work. As it should be.

Marketing and social media agencies are a different kettle of fish. They’re the kettle of fish where all of the fish are different, but they’re expected to know what each of the other fish do, and must be able to swap jobs with any other fish at any given time. They do a little bit of writing, a little bit of design, a little bit of prestidigitation. Essentially, a social media writer – or a content strategist, or a web content strategist, or an Metabrand Verbalization Ideator, or whatever the hell they’re called – bears a lot of resemblance to what was once thought of as a salesperson: they do not merely create on behalf of a brand, but actively advocate for it as well. They should know the brand. Be the brand. Make sweet, sweet love to the brand.

To put it another way: writers are all whores. But where advertising copywriters are sullen, vulgar streetwalkers who’ll accept drugs in exchange for a handie, social media writers are high-paid escorts who’ll look great on your arm, laugh at your jokes, and cuddle you after anal. Copywriters will do that thing your girlfriend won’t, but we absolutely do not kiss on the mouth. Just give us our meth money and we’ll be on our way.

Ooops! Tina dropped her typewriter! Tee-hee! (That'll be $200, perverts.)

But the crossover between roles that were traditionally distinct – “writer” over here and “salesperson” over there – is increasingly ubiquitous in a world where companies don’t merely sell to customers, they engage with customers. Being articulate, convincing, and relatable are assets to both copywriters and social media strategists. So it follows that if more marketers are expected to behave like writers, writers will be expected to act like marketers.

Except a lot of writers don’t want to be marketers. We do not relish the act of closing a sale. We do not subscribe to the Infographic of the Day. Our degrees are in English, journalism, or Traditional Chinese Theatre, not business administration. In the year 2012, admitting this fact can be the difference between getting a job and borrowing rent money from your parents.

As a result, a lot of very good writers are working miserable jobs in companies to whom they believe they’ve sold their souls – after all, what other choice do they have? By the same token, a lot of sub-par writers – and, let’s be honest, a lot of sub-par thinkers – are entrusted with representing projects, brands, or entire agencies. (But that’s another post.)

I am forced to admit that being “old school” is now the exception more than the rule. Many very talented, driven writers are working fulfilling jobs in social media and/or strategic development (and I can feel their resentful eyes on me and my generalizations). As traditional media and digital media intertwine, I suspect that this will become the standard path for many new college grads seeking careers in advertising. But should we all have to? Is it really so bad to love the craft of writing for its own intrinsic value? Can one legitimately argue that writing only becomes “great,” only becomes “effective,” if it is part of some greater strategy or scheme? What happened to the simple elegance of ethos, logos, and pathos?

It may be that, at the ripe old age of 28, I subscribe to an outdated ideology due for its timely exctinction. Perhaps I should be more adaptable. Perhaps creative writers can only be happy if they’re wildly famous novelists or not-as-famous-but-still-pretty-successful TV sitcom writers, in which case I don’t know why I’m not sitting on huge bags of money right now. But for all my skepticism, I hold out a little hope that there will always be a place for words – just words, and the love of them and all they have the power to do – in advertising.

If so, I will find that job, and I will own the everloving shit out of it.

If not, I’m looking forward to my bright, safe, sterile future behind the glass of a museum display case.


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