proofer's tools: pencils, pens, a bloody axe.
Issue № 206

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:

Article Continues Below

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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!#section5

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.

Veritably!

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#section6

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.

39 Reader Comments

  1. This article espouses leading edge principles of value-added benefit driven prose. May you continue to produce such visionary articles which enable the fulfilment of greater synergies in the b2c space.

  2. This article was a world class piece of published hypertext, delievered ingeniously. Few articles on the subject can match its ingenuity.

    In other words, good aticle.

  3. You do not know how much I appreciate this article being written. Absolutely dead-on, no way I could have said it better myself.

    I’m sending this article to every wannabe CEO-type and professional bullshitter I know.

  4. A well-stated article on technical writing for broad audiences. However, your “zombified” quotes exemplify how to “speak while saying nothing” — which is useful for advertisement.

  5. Those “zombies” reminded me of my short career as translator … just like that five lines paragraph whithout a verb in some EU sugar beet production regulation that made me mend my ways and start doing something else for a living.

    The “zombies” in the article were actually nice … much nastier zombies lurk in texts written in legalese, and in “IT for paying dummies … well … CEOs” texts.

    It might be usefull for advertisement, but those zombies are absolutely untranslatable (since they say nothing), and are the scourge of translators everywere, since the management scans for the key words such as “productivity”, “revenue” etc. and thinks, why pay some local dork to write something new since there is a perfectly suitable text from HQ that just needs a cheaper local dork to translate it …

  6. An excellent article, some of the examples could have come straight from the Dilbert mission-statement generator.

  7. Can’t beleive you used that Herbert West reference. I was reading that last night!

    Great article. I need to show it to my manager, because he thinks writing this sort of stuff makes him sound more intelligent, not less intelligible.

  8. …to quote from Get Fuzzy’s creator Darby Conley. This article is brilliant, but it produced flashbacks that were painful almost past speech. I’m sure I’d been blocking the memories of those waltzes with the undead, but now I can remember myself reading out prose even worse than the examples cited here and asking the person in charge (with a touch of hysteria), “What exactly are you trying to say?” It was a question my colleagues and I asked many, many times.

  9. Please help us by writing an article like this one every month… month in… month out… forever. I’ll pay for content like this. Heck, I just shelled out six bucks because Cameron mentioned an article at the Harvard Business Review in his own ALA article on Realigning. Very good article by the way.

    So, set up a Paypal account, start writing and sign me up. I’m ready.

  10. Great article. A lot of people seem to think that using lots of long words to express simple concepts makes you appear really intelligent. Well, if it doesn’t work for George Bush, it’s not gonna work for you!

    Another thing to consider once you’ve hacked back the excess verbiage is whether it’s a “no sh*t, Sherlock” kind of statement. Is it useful to say “We make quality products to help our customers”? So you don’t make lousy products that hinder your customers. Great. That’s good to know.

  11. If you take away the Zombie Copy, they might actually have to learn something about the products they sell instead of dropping multiple buzzwords in their presentations.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Actually, I have been going through our superfluous website copy for the last week or so and slicing and dicing at will. some of the pages are much more pleasant to read.

    Thanks for an article that supports my decision.

  13. I’m impressed by people who have the will to survive that’s required to combat the zombie text plague. The stuff just makes my head spin and crushes my spirit. I couldn’t possibly fight on without your help. Thank you.

    Also, I appreciate the Princess Bride references that have been popping up in recent articles here. I hope that I’m not just imagining them.

  14. I use norwegian as my mothertongue so excuse my bad english. (the web is spreading badly written international english but that could be another topic)

    Great article! I want more.
    I had a experince. A company wanted my opionion on a kind of mission statement. The chairman wanted my opinion “of record”. He had a bad feeling about the final text. But he couldent get through because of alle the pros. Communication platform girls, copy-boys, marketing guys etc. And he was just a lawyer.

    Most of the time the pros wants a more descriptive, pedagogikal text, but many coporate comunication experts are realy messing things up. And it gets worse.

    A salsman. I mean a real one that can sell your dad a new DVD recorder. They face the custumer and have communicate very clear. Maybe try to end the process (<- !) with the famous «take it or leave it». Tony Sopranos would probably communicate his mission statement different than Case Manhattan. But they do the same - in the same way from time to time :/ Getting money.

  15. Good article. Perhaps you could discuss the role that active verbs (and attribution) play in writing clear copy.

    I need additional clout when editing my clients’ obfuscation. If I could point them to A List Apart, they might accept my redlines more readily.

  16. There is a fantastic book written by Don Watson which describes the misuse of the English language and shows examples such as these where words are arranged as sentences, but they don’t ever really carry any meaning. There is a website to support the book with a fairly active community. Check it out – “Weasel Words Website”:http://www.weaselwords.com.au/index3.htm

  17. The sentence appears to me to be correct. You just have to track the parallel structure properly and supply the understood element: “?…the zombification progresses so gradually that you don’t realize it’s happening until your “˜About Us’ page begins to smell bad and [begins to] try to bite your face.”?

    I suspect that you were thinking it should read so: “?…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.”? That would have sounded nice, too.

  18. For those of you begging for more about this, and maybe some clout to take to your bosses, read William Zinnser’s _On Writing Well_. It’s up there with Strunk and White’s _Elements of Style_.

  19. I agree totally about good succinct writing, but not all websites are for selling or even communicating. I only reviewed the first example, no contract or sale would ever come or be expected to come from the site. It is for some kind of big contracting firm that would discover, lobby and win bids via the old boy handshake network. The last thing that management wants is any real information on the site that could be used by a competitor. The site is excellent. Excellent for the purpose of being essentially a tombstone (as in financial industry).

    Now one can argue whether such a companies business model is good, or even the moral/ethical issues for the existence of companies of such ilk. Does opaque prose serve the goals of the company? If so it may be a fully successful site: for the needs of that company. Organize a march up the mall against the military industrial complex, but for the workerbee sometimes obfuscation is a requirement.

  20. I would agree with Sam. The nuance that is missing in Erin’s response is that sites that use obscured content still communicate. The communication is not the content of the words, but the way that words are used. ‘Win-win’, ‘vertical market’, ‘qango’, ‘dime piece’ and ’23 skidoo’ all convey the user’s comfort and familiarity with the private, shared speech of closed groups. The source of these phrases’ power is their arbitrary quality, so once a closed group realizes that those outside their circle have picked up on the term, they always lose power. That may be when they need to be excised. But don’t be surprised if clients insist on what seems murky text. This is based on work I’ve done with international aid organizations, banks, ministries and the music industry over the past decade.

    incidentally, this is closely related to ideas about why jokes work: they also always presuppose knowledge of a situation or characteristic of a thing, and if you don’t have that knowledge, the joke doesn’t work. Simplifying a joke by explaining the context robs it of its power, too.


  21. “…the zombification progresses so gradually that you don’t realize it’s happening until your “About Us” page begins to smell bad and try to bite your face.”

    Shouldn’t “try” be “tries”?

    Excellent article. I’ve worked on academic sites where the text could easily have been produced by the Postmodernism Generator
    [http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern/]; I’ve attacked more than my fair share of zombies. Thanks for both a laugh and an acknowledgement of zombie copy.

  22. Reminds me of “another article”:http://www.alistapart.com/articles/hammers/

    “And when everything was set … they had someone find a writer to fill in the blank spaces with words.”

    Only it wasn’t a writer, was it? It was Larry, from marketing, with the candlestick in the board room.

    Please don’t consider the writing articles on A List Apart just for the web. Zombies have been around since before truth-in-advertising laws, when the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eyes. For best results, apply anti-fluff to all written media.

  23. I just got done with a discussion about using “Value Added Services” in our site’s main nav. I was given this link to a definition of VAS (http://www.mobilein.com/what_is_a_VAS.htm) and the first item that describes Value Added Services reads:

    “Not a form of basic service but rather adds value total service offering”

    I just had to laugh and grab my ax…

  24. Can you imagine having to *translate* some of this copy?
    As an English > Italian translator I am faced with text like this day after day after day, written by some copywriter who tried to hide the paucity of real substance with trendy-sounding words and expressions.
    Translating helps to get to the substance of text. The real meaning hidden behind the screen, the plaster under the gilding.

  25. Great article, I think this says it all: “You can keep copy from turning zombie by starting with a clear idea of exactly what you want to say”, yes, keep it simple, something so basic that people often forget.

    Gosh, I hate these zombies.

  26. Much of the web is like this due to SEO Copywriters. I always work with a decent copywriter. Despite English being my first language I can never get sentences to flow. It’s broken English I guess. I think it is something I work on.

  27. Curious, I ventured off in search of Patient #226 and found his evil twin, or _Frankenstein_. It appears one corporate entity shotgunned the other’s marketingbabble on top of their product. It was bad enough the first time, but the second site’s version is so badly sewn together, it obviously came later.

  28. A world-class article, whose author should be incentivized for her conceptualization of the synergistic dynamic generated by the win-win, value-added benefits of refusing not to think outside of the box in any way, shape or form.

  29. Any extemporaneous attempts to be magniloquent when in reality you are merely obfuscating the most seminal points of your intended meaning represents literary disaster. Clarity, brevity and unambiguous offerings, however, are the very soul of fine writing and should be employed in perpetuum.

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