Writing is not writing

Truman Capote (pictured) used to say “I’m not a writer, I’m a rewriter”. We should bear that in mind, whatever we’re writing. It’s not the first draft that matters – it’s the last one.

But I’ve noticed something else when writing for brands and businesses. Yes, writing is rewriting. But fundamentally, especially in business, writing is de-writing.

So far, so smart-arse paradox. But stay with me. I’ll explain.

People are very sophisticated. We can mimic each other – flawlessly, in the blink of an eye. For example, when we meet someone new, we hide our true natures by mirroring speech and manners. It makes everyone feel more comfortable.

Business is no different. The more we try and ingratiate ourselves, the more we obscure our meaning. Quickly we descend into jargon, bullshit and flummery. When writing something that sells, we can sound like we’re selling – and the consumer is too smart to react well to that. 

Here’s a piece of writing:

Chill in Chile? Go Wild in Borneo? Lux in Luxor?

Here at Best Holidays, our Grand Prize Draw will give away the holiday of a lifetime to every one hundredth customer. So if you’re looking for the best value holiday, come to us. It could be free! We specialize in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the USA – and we’ve got some of the most exciting and relaxing holidays on offer. Our experts are waiting to create a tailored itinerary for you – whether you’re a seasoned traveler or you just want to get away for a bit of peace and quiet.

With Best Holidays, you’re good to go.

This is dreadful. So much is obvious. It’s trashy, hysterical, repetitive, contradictory, off-putting, and too interested in its own process. It also sounds like a bunch of lies, even though it might be factually true. It’s just untrustworthy because it’s not real. But it’s not an unrealistic example of the genre – there are plenty of adverts and home pages like this. Someone certainly wrote their heart out. But it could be so much better with some de-writing. 

Let’s look at what Best Holidays are trying to say:

There’s an offer. 1% of holidays will be free.

They can book you an exciting holiday, or a relaxing one.

It’s a bespoke service.

They go everywhere (except Australia and the poles, perhaps).

The company seems very proud of what they do, and they want to get people excited.

So, keeping all that strategy and intent present, the copy might be rewritten a bit like this:

Thrill or chill

Whether you’re looking for excitement or relaxation, Best Holidays experts are waiting to create a tailored itinerary for you. Wherever in the world you want to go, we have an expert. One in a hundred travelers will get their holiday for free.

Best Holidays. Bespoke, worldwide.

That’s adequate, and it has the benefit of being short. It’s got all the elements the company thinks it needs from the copy, but it’s still not very remarkable. 

For the next draft, I need to go that extra mile. It needs to be de-written. In the back of my mind I can have the elements that the company thinks it needs. But now I must connect directly with an actual person – not a customer. I want it to be real. I need to stop selling, or using the company’s nomenclature (words like “bespoke”, “itinerary”, and “traveler”), and just be a human. Maybe a bit like this:

What is a holiday? 

It can be the most exciting thing you’ve ever done. And it can be the only chance you get all year to do absolutely nothing.

Whatever, and wherever, your holiday should be about you.

(By the way, this year we’re giving away ten holidays.)

Best Holidays. Best holiday.

Saying what you mean in a simple and direct way isn’t easy – especially when you’re selling something. You need to strip away nonsense and blather, and be a person not a business. 

Lies come in tissues and webs – they seem light. But it requires heavy discipline, intellect, and self-awareness to remove them. We have to de-write.

Writing is not writing.


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