Writing Wrongs

Like all writers, I would love to write only what I want and never take on an assignment that isn’t interesting to me personally. Unfortunately, writers who insist on being that selective usually starve to death, which is actually good for the rest of us because it thins out the competition, and also because writers are pretentious and we need fewer of them.

So I’m often called upon to write things I consider boring or stupid but that will pay the bills, similar to the way prostitutes must sometimes engage customers they don’t find attractive. All professions require this kind of compromise, really. A plumber may not like the particular kind of problem you have with your toilet, but he’s obligated to fix it anyway if he wants to get paid. Or a mathematician may have certain numbers he doesn’t care for. 1,482, for example, or 6. Maybe those numbers strike him as inelegant, or maybe they were responsible for the death of a family member. Maybe he considers the loop on the “6” to be obscene. But if his boss puts a series of figures into his inbox and declares, “Johnson! I need these numbers added ASAP!,” the mathematician has no choice but to add them, no matter how many 1,482’s or 6’s they contain.

One recent job I had involved writing copy for a jewelry Web site. Specifically, the owner wanted the bland, just-the-facts descriptions of his engagement rings to be rewritten so they’d be more appealing to potential buyers. There were 90 engagement rings. I only had to write 30-40 words for each one. But it was sheer torture.

The first hindrance to my success in writing advertising copy for 90 different engagement rings is that all engagement rings look exactly the same to me. This was often a problem when I was a student at Brigham Young University, which has more newly engaged women than it has Asians. Every other day some female acquaintance would be showing off her new engagement ring, and I’d have to admire it and remark on its beauty when in fact I thought it looked just like all the other rings I’d seen, including the ones she’d gotten the previous times she was engaged.

The second hindrance in writing about these 90 rings is that there are only so many different ways to say something is pretty and sparkly. The English language is vast, but it only has a few synonyms for “pretty” that can really be applied to rings. You wouldn’t call a ring “hot,” for example, or “doable.”

But I slogged through it, and then had to contend with a final requirement: The client wanted me to come up with NAMES for each of the rings. All these rings that look the same and are appalling wastes of money, they need to have individual names, like “Eternal Promise” or “Precious Memories.” The cheesier, the better. I came up with all the sickening names I could think of, then branched out into less viable monikers:

The Cheek-Gouger
Ostentatious Display
Desperate Measures
The Judge
The Glassy Stare
The B****slapper
Tequila Hangover
The Pawn Shop
Furtive Glances

Then I hit on the idea of geography: “The Morocco,” “The Parisian,” etc. The rings looked nothing like Morocco or Paris, but how could they? Morocco and Paris are huge metropolitan centers with streets, sewer systems, buildings and people. Rings are round and go on your finger. An engagement ring has little in common with Morocco or Paris, though I guess you could say they’re all overpriced.

Then someone suggested using geography combined with nouns, like “Egyptian Sunrise,” or “Hawaiian Beachcomber.” Along those lines, I came up with these entries:

Lebanese Breakfast
Albuquerque Bloodbath
Turkish Prison
New Jersey Turnpike

Personally, I would love to wear a ring called “Albuquerque Bloodbath.” But I’m not a starry-eyed young bride-to-be, am I? (No.)

Probably the worst kind of writing I or anyone else ever has to do is something that is new with the Internet Age. It’s called search engine optimization, or SEO. The way it works is, let’s say you have a Web site that sells knee-length shorts. Your product is aimed at people who want to be modest in the summer months, but who want to look dorky and unfashionable while they do it. There are dozens of Web sites competing with yours to sell these products. How do you get people to come to your site?

The cheapest way is to make it so that when people search for “knee-length shorts” on their favorite search engines, your site is among the first results. And how do you do that? Pay someone to write an “informative” article that uses the phrase “knee-length shorts” a bunch of times, then post it on your site.

It used to be that webmasters would publish a lot of gobbledegook, or occasionally even mumbo-jumbo, with their keywords thrown in. Then the search engines started getting smarter, and the webmasters had to use content that actually made sense.

That’s where SEO comes in. An SEO article might begin like this:

Knee-length shorts are a very popular item in many parts of the country. Many people enjoy wearing knee-length shorts in the summer months. When they are knee-length, shorts are more comfortable than long pants, yet more modest than shorts that are not knee-length shorts. Are knee-length shorts right for you? You can learn more about knee-length shorts on several knee-length shorts-related Web sites. (Also: knee-length shorts.)

As you can see, SEO writing is probably the worst writing anyone could ever do. It’s really, really easy, but it’s also really, really boring. It’s no wonder so many writers are alcoholics, though I do wonder how they can afford it. I can barely keep up with my Pop-Tart habit.

When you're doing crap work like the stuff described in this column, you have to consider yourself less a writer than a hired hand. It's a lot like Van Gogh taking work as a housepainter: It's not the full expression of his creativity, but people don't often pay for creativity. They do pay to have their houses painted, though, and you gots to pay the bills somehow.

Also, on the SEOs: They are published uncredited, so at least I don't have to worry about my name being attached to any of them.

The part about the mathematician and numbers posed two problems for me. First, the Associated Press Stylebook, which I generally follow for all matters of punctuation and usage, says that if a sentence begins with a number, the number should be spelled out -- "One thousand four hundred eighty-two," then, not "1,482." But I really wanted the sentence to start with the number, and spelling it out would have made it unwieldy. So I defied the AP Stylebook and used the numerals.

I defied the book again when I said "no matter how many 1,482's or 6's they contain." AP says that while you use apostrophes for plurals of single letters ("I got two A's and three B's"), you don't use them for plurals of numerals. However, AP freely admits that this runs contrary to Webster's New World Dictionary's guidelines, on which AP usually agrees, yet gives no explanation for why they chose to part ways on this matter. I tried it without the apostrophes, as AP suggests, but I didn't like it. The purpose of punctuation is to avoid ambiguity and confusion, and I think that in this case, the apostrophes make it look smoother. (You are not allowed to use apostrophes in plurals of words, however, like "We took both dog's to the pound," no matter what.)