A List Apart


proofer's tools: pencils, pens, a bloody axe.

Attack of the Zombie Copy

You’ve seen them around the web, these zombie sentences. They’re not hard to recognize: syntax slack and drooling, clauses empty of everything but a terrible hunger for human brains:

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Leveraging world class infrastructure strengths, mature quality processes and industry benchmarked people management practices…

Findings are recorded in a carefully architected summary that crystallizes the intent of the nation to increase its innovation capacity in a variety of modern economic scenarios…

Indigenous and proven career management tools coupled with a comprehensive series of integrated initiatives have been evolved, to ensure that employees continue to sustain a high performance culture, while recruitment and selection is based on necessary competencies…

It’s a partnering-with-partners strategy…

Taken from life

These reports, incredible as they may seem, are not the results of mass hysteria. Every one of the preceding examples was taken from a live, public website. Tragically, the corruption has spread even beyond the vasty deep of the internet: the back of the milk carton in my refrigerator reads: “Few beverages can beat milk in terms of a total nutrition package.”

As you can see, the scourge is upon us, and we must, every one of us, be prepared to fight. Prominent undead expert Dr. Herbert West, of Miskatonic University, suggests the following course of action if you’re attacked by zombie content:

  1. Kill the modifiers. This is machete work, so wrap a bandanna around your face and grab some shop goggles. No reader is going to believe that your process is innovative or your product is world-class just because you say so, so kill those adjectives. Don’t feel sorry for them. They have no feelings.
  2. Determine what manner of monster you’re dealing with. Once you’ve cleared the modifiers away, you’ll be able to get a better idea of the real shape of what’s underneath. If you can paraphrase the revealed sentence in a simpler way, the paraphrase can guide you to a new, clearer version.
  3. Hit ’em in the head, right between the eyes. Once the sentences’ underlying form has been revealed, you’ll be able to start looking at the overall health of paragraphs and pages. You may find that whacking the modifiers and simplifying the sentences will reveal a mushy glop of circular logic and nonsense; if so, it’s time to deliver a merciful death. If, on the other hand, your copy is only mostly dead, you can revive it by excising meaningless or redundant passages and then patching up the remainder with transitions and clarifications.

Let’s apply this process to Patient #226, currently strapped to a gurney in the hall and snapping at the nurses. (Anonymity shall of course be preserved to maintain patient confidentiality. Even zombies have rights.)

Incorporating our corporate culture into our business processes and customer needs, we continue to leverage our exceptional and effective work practices, improve operational effectiveness to meet business objectives and create win-win situations for our employees and shareholders.

Clear the airways

First, time to strip out those modifiers to see what we’re trying to say. When we can’t eliminate them, we’ll flip them around to clarify meaning. Thus, “operational effectiveness” becomes, “the effectiveness of our operations.” We can also replace the worst buzzwords with meaningful terms.

Incorporating the culture of our business into our processes and the needs of our customers, we continue to use our effective work practices, improve the effectiveness of our operations to meet objectives and create mutually satisfying situations for our employees and shareholders.

Expose the brain

And now it’s time for the heavy work—paraphrasing in conversational English, one idea at a time. Note: the company behind this copy isn’t a consultancy, so we can assume they’re speaking only of their own practices, culture, etc.

  1. Our culture influences our business processes. (Vague, but intelligible.)
  2. Our culture influences the needs of our customers. (Bizarre and nonsensical.)
  3. We work in effective ways. (So vague as to be useless.)
  4. We get better at what we do in order to meet our goals. (Inane.)
  5. We create mutually satisfying situations for our employees and shareholders. (So euphemistic it sounds like a massage parlor ad.)

And there you have it. Don’t expect it to tango; it has a broken back. Time to destroy it and start over.

Oh my God! They’re using adverbs!

Let’s try again with a more docile patient—also, unfortunately, drawn from an actual website.

Every executive knows that constantly delivering superior customer value is an imperative to veritably creating shareholder value.


In this sad case, we find prolapsed adverbs, suppurating adjectives, and a nasty case of the fluff. This one’s short, so we can do the trim and paraphrase in one pass, but our job is made trickier by the fact that this example uses the extremely vague term “value” not once, but twice. We don’t have time for niceties—there’s a strange shuffling sound coming from the hall—so we’ll make do with our best guess about what they mean.

If you want to make lots of money, you have to please your customers more than the other guy does.

Well land sakes; I do believe there’s a real idea under all that dirt. Send this one off to the recovery room; it’s not particularly original, but it might yet pull through.

There, pretty as a picture

Even good writers can produce zombie copy under the pressure of impossible deadlines—and sometimes you arrive in a town only after it’s been taken over by the living dead. In other cases, the zombification progresses so gradually that you don’t realize it’s happening until your “About Us” page begins to smell bad and tries to bite your face.

Nevertheless, prevention is always easier than cure, especially when the cure involves a hand grenade. You can keep copy from turning zombie by starting with a clear idea of exactly what you want to say. It’s tempting to just start writing, but this approach can leave your pages vulnerable to zombification, because it’s easier to sound like you’re making sense than to actually make sense. Outlines can serve as an effective vaccine against living death.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go deal with my zombie milk.

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