Technical Writing Humor: From the Sidelines on Marketing Writing

Editor’s Note: The following humor piece by Lisa Higgins is part of our collection of “classics”–technical writing articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.  Lisa wrote the “From the Sidelines” column back at the turn of the century, and her humorous take on all things technical writing rings true more than a decade later.

Marketing Writing: Not Just Cheesy Ads Full of Lies and Starbursts

My name is Lisa, and I am a marketing writer. I write direct mail campaigns, Web copy, ad copy, “advertorials” and “edutorials,” press releases, brochures, and whatever else comes along.

I worked as a technical writer for over ten years, and I did well at it. I was a good technical writer, and I still am. It’s just that I got bored. I was sick of working on projects that never seemed to end; I was sick of waiting for busy and sometimes snotty engineers to answer my questions about products that did not yet exist; I was sick of writing what seemed sometimes to be the same thing over and over and over again; and I was really sick of having to “prove” myself to every person I came in contact with at work. Some people don’t have this problem, but I do. I’m a girl, and I’m a spaz. I am fairly introverted; I dress a little funny; and people tend to think I’m younger than I am. Mostly because of the spaz thing, though, rather than any appearance factors. (Nonetheless, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that I was carded recently. Sitting in a Mexican restaurant with my fourteen-year-old, baritone-voiced, five o’ clock shadowed son, a waiter forced me to cough up proof that I was, indeed, at least twenty-one.)

Anyway, I guess my point is that I was burned out, a little. I don’t hate straight technical writing, and I’m sure I’ll be doing more of it in the future. I just needed to branch out a little. That’s a great thing about tech writing, actually. The job descriptions are usually amorphous enough and coworkers uninformed enough that technical writers can often expand their job responsibilities in all kinds of directions. Information architecture, testing, tech support, systems analysis, and yes, for those of us willing to scrape the bottom of that big barrel of ethics we tech writers lug around with us, even marketing.

Unfortunately, and much to my chagrin, marketing isn’t quite as diabolical as I’d been led to believe. So far, I’ve not been asked to lie or commit any serious actionable offenses in my line of duty.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that most of the people alive and filling out purchase orders today were raised as consumers. They’re cynical and jaded, and they’ve been bitten before by flashy promises and celebrity endorsements. And, while they may be happy to fritter away their pocket change on whatnot, falderal, and random shiny things, they’re probably not going to trust Michael Jordan to sell them a multiplexer. Besides, my boss says we can’t afford him.

Where early TV commercials used to show a product with someone standing next to it telling you to buy it, they now make vague lifestyle associations and tenuous connections between unrelated things, selling an image rather than a product. And now that immunities to that approach are starting to show up, we’re entering the age of the postmodern advertisement, self-consciously poking fun at the medium and the lifestyle approach. (See Sprite commercials, Spike Jonez’ C|Net spots, the Discovery channel commercials, the scary Jack in the Box ads a few years ago, etc.)

I’ll admit to an unhealthy fascination with postmodernism and self-referential irony and all that, but as much as I cherish the image of the bitter and hostile clown-head guy, I never had any inclination to go to Jack in the Box because of it.

And even if that worked, what might convince you to buy a 59 cent taco will not necessarily convince you to spend thousands, even millions, of dollars of your employer’s money on a telecommunications system.

Every time you judge marketing writing based on some cheesy ad full of lies and starbursts, remember the last time someone judged you based on the hackneyed instruction sheet they got with their VCR or barbecue grill.

Having seen this from both sides of the issue, I am here to tell you that technical writers think marketing writers have it easy, and marketing writers think technical writers have it easy, and they are both dead wrong. There are more similarities than differences between the two fields, as a matter of fact. The scope is different, the schedules are different, and the focus is different, but the goal is the same, ultimately.

In technology industries, ideally, marketing material is just technical material slanted toward a “fit.” That is to say, I don’t write copy trying to sell things nobody needs. I write copy to get the attention of my audience and explain the benefits of my product. Fortunately, I don’t have to sell the Boogie Bass or snack foods or anything like that. I sell tools that people need, and my job is to let them know that those tools exist and point them toward that option. I don’t lie. If I were to lie, trust me, people would complain. Some people might complain if their yo-yo doesn’t work, but pretty much everyone will complain if their mission-critical service terminal doesn’t.

No, I don’t use bug logs as a primary source for my marketing copy, but what I write is not fluff, either. It’s broad, big picture, market-centered stuff. I take technical information and pick out the parts of it that specific audiences want to see. I never use exclamation points. I never tell lies. I never market products to people who don’t need them. Gullible teenagers are not spending their hard-earned babysitting money purchasing large enterprise telecommunications solutions as a result of my masterful marketing copy. I’m not that good yet.

Lisa Higgins is a technical writer, turned marcom manager, turned Information Architect with a wicked sense of humor. Before disappearing into the ether of new career goals, she authored some great, timeless humor material for TechWhirl. If you're her, or you know her, tell her to drop by to catch up on old times.

Read more articles from Lisa Higgins