Here’s the best writing I read all week. It’s 170 words tucked into a belly of a 7,000-word article.
And yes… it’s about stink bugs.
Stay with me. Because those of us writers who write about B2B “solutions” or other boring or complex things can learn a lot from the vivid description of these gross little guys.
First, I need to have you read it, too. And then let’s break it down, okay?
(via When Twenty-Six Thousand Stink Bugs Invade Your Home)
Making Boring Writing Fun Again
Those of us who write about the unremarkable B2B products, mundane “solutions,” or complicated, boring anythings can learn a lot from this passage.
Let’s break it down:
“Its head is unusually small, even for an insect, which gives it an appropriately thuggish look. Its six legs prop its shield-shaped body up in the air, as if they were pallbearers at the funeral of a Knight Templar.”
A stink bug as a thug is a great image. Can’t you just imagine it in a tiny leather jacket?
The “pallbearers” comparison continues the dark imagery. And anthropomorphizing only its legs, hoisting the decorated body? Genius.
“Its eyes, should you get close enough to gaze into them, are the vivid red of an alarm clock at night.”
Again, the dark and alarming imagery (literally, this time). More genius over the imagined idea of going nose-to-nose with an insect and gazing into its eyes.
But the most relevant for B2B writers are the last two sentences:
“The ‘marmorated’ in its name means ‘marbled,’ but ‘mottled’ is closer to the truth. Entomologists, who have a color palette as elaborate as Benjamin Moore’s, describe the underside of its body as ‘distinctly pale luteous’ and the topside as ‘generally brownish cinereous, but also greyish ochraceous, ochraceous, testaceous, or castaneous.’ To everyone else, it looks as dull brown as its own frass, the technical term for insect excrement.”
The Ben Moore line is solid.
But what I really want to point out is how writer Kathryn Schulz brings in the scientist’s description while also translating it in vivid prose for the rest of us.
Kathryn is not a scientist. But she translates science terms in a simple, direct, forthright manner that elevates the reader’s knowledge… without making them feel stupid. Or stuck in jargon.
In doing so, she becomes the best advocate for the audience.
Over to You
If part of what you do is rely on your own subject-matter experts for content, look at how Kathryn beautifully interprets for the audience without making herself the center of the story.
This passage is especially relevant if part of your job is to translate subject-matter expert-speak into language the rest of us can understand… and also get excited about!
She says “to everyone else…” not “to me….”
She paints a picture with imagery and metaphor.
It could use a paragraph break, if you ask me.
But otherwise, it’s damn-near perfect. The full piece is over at the New Yorker.
Donna Kaluzniak says
Great post, Ann! I’m a B2B writer for the water industry, and some of our topics can be pretty darn boring, or even kind of gross if you get into sludge management. And many of the subject matter experts that are “writing” the articles are hell-bent on making them sound more like dissertations. It’s sometimes hard to convince them that their article will be put on a shelf or in the trash if it’s written that way. I’ll keep Ms. Schulz’s article in the back of my mind during my next project.
Karen A Dix says
Thank you for addressing the elephant in the room, or in other words, the sow’s ear we are asked to make into the silk purse! Dull subject matter is par for the course (and a very important course it is) for the content writer. At times bringing a fresh take on a tired subject seems impossible but this post shows why it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks for the inspiration.
Hi Ann Handley,
Great post and amazing tips to make boring writing into fun & interesting writing. I like the points that you have mentioned. very helpful tips to make boring writing into a fun & amazing writing and will helps many people to turn boring writing into a fun writing.
Very helpful article and thanks for a sharing.
Erin Scullion says
Brilliant. I’m going to share this post with my federal government friends. Watch for a big spike in clicks from Ottawa, Canada.
Karen Angelo says
Ann, I love examples like this so thanks for sharing. I would have liked some of your examples of turning boring technical or academic language into something like this (that gets approved by your clients). Thank you.