I despise obviousness.
And guys, it’s everywhere. You can’t get away from it. If you thought COVID was bad …
(No? Too soon? Ok …)
Obviousness: The act of stating something everyone already knows.
Syn.: you don’t say, open-and-shut, self-evident, apparent, thanks Captain Obvious, no sh*t Sherlock!
When I read obvious writing, I find myself muttering “thanks Captain Obvious!” or “no shoot, Sherlock!” (I have a G-rated mind). It’s sneaky stuff. You often don’t recognize it until you finish the article. Then you realize you just wasted 12 minutes of your life.
And it might be killing your blog.
What Exactly Is No-Sh*t-Sherlock Writing?
I’m writing this post after I just hired a batch of new writers on Upwork. And while most of them are doing splendidly, I firmly believe in the advice you should always hire three so you can let one go and still have a team.
There was one writer in particular that had me pulling my hair. Check out this paragraph I received:
How to stay positive while riding a motorcycle in the rain:
The best way to stay positive when it’s raining is to have the right mindset. Remember that rain is just water, and it won’t hurt you. Embrace the rain and think of it as an adventure. Be prepared for the rain by packing the proper gear and clothing so that you can stay dry and comfortable. Focusing on the positive aspects of riding in the rain will make the experience more enjoyable.
…. what duh??
Let’s cut through this paragraph with the scalpel of common sense.
“Rain is just water, and it won’t hurt you.”
Uhh, the rain will hurt you when you’re on a motorcycle. Rain makes your tires slick and your brakes slip. Rain hides you from other drivers. Rain can kill you, actually.
“Embrace the rain.”
This is a motorcycle tour, not a Nicholas Sparks movie! At 70 mph, rain feels like a flock of miniature woodpeckers pecking holes in your face. It’s not very romantic or adventurous.
“Pack the proper gear and clothing.”
No sh*t, Sherlock! A 3-year-old knows the difference between rain shoes and dry shoes.
“Focus on the positive aspects of riding in the rain.”
Which are what, exactly? You haven’t mentioned any. You’ve just gestured offhandedly somewhere in their direction. Am I supposed to pull an Oprah and just think positive, happy thoughts?
Why I Hate Obvious Blog Writing
Joking aside, here’s the problem I have with that paragraph: Anyone could have written it.
Think about it. As long as you are a reasonably intelligent person, you could have written that paragraph, even if you’d never ridden a motorcycle in your life. Doesn’t everyone know a positive mindset is helpful? Doesn’t everyone know to wear rain gear … in the rain?
I hate, hate, loathe entirely that kind of writing.
In fact, I’m pretty sure an AI wrote it. It has all the elements of AI writing: redundant information, no technical advice, and a complete lack of the word “I.” All generic advice, but no personal authority.
(Fun fact: I fired that writer later because I sleuthed out that he’d lied about his personal experiences with motorcycles. So now I’m doubly sure he used an AI tool.)
How Obvious Writing Hurts Your Blog
I read that kind of writing constantly.
And not just from writers I hire (who don’t stick around very long if they suffer from obviousness). It’s omnipresent. You can’t spend more than 10 minutes on the internet without clicking on an article with a clickbait-y headline but no substantive content.
(An aside: Obviousness is NOT the same thing as fluff, which is also omnipresent. Fluff is usually extraneous commentary by an author; obviousness is common knowledge* masquerading as advice.)
*that’s common knowledge relative to your audience!
No-sh*t-Sherlock writing is merely a regurgitation of common knowledge. It’s beige writing: offends nobody, attracts nobody.
As info bloggers, we are teachers. When someone clicks on your article, they expect to learn something. People don’t Google “How to fix a clogged sink drain?” because they already know the answer and they get good feelings from affirmation. They Google their problems because they need an answer – and they needed it five minutes ago!
Easy to Rip Off
Obvious writing, by definition, can be composed by almost anyone. That means there’s nothing unique about your composition or information. You have no patent, no trade secret, no copyright. Anyone else with half a brain and a typewriter can spin similar content – sometimes just by rephrasing yours!
And that kind of soulless composition just can’t survive an onslaught of hungry competitors.
Obvious writing can be tricky to spot. That’s because it’s often masked as advice. It’s usually written directly to the reader, in second-person voice.
That’s fake authority, though. Authority comes from the source, from the author. EAT, as Google would say.
It’s like the old IT joke: What’s the first thing an IT technician always asks you?
“Have you tried turning it off and on?”
You wouldn’t hire an IT guy who could only restart your computer, whack it with his hand, and shout curse words at it – I can already do that myself for free!
You’d hire an IT guy because he knows the dark magic of servers, databases, and directories.
So why would you read a blog post that tells you things you already know?
Lacks Facts and Numbers
Obvious writing usually lacks numbers, quotes, or verifiable facts. It’s overly focused on description rather than solutions.
Numbers prove you know something about what you’re talking about. Numbers are a chance to link to high-domain authority websites. Numbers are the North Star answers to many common problems.
For example: How much RAM does a gaming computer need? What’s a healthy BMI? How should I fry bacon? When should I trim my rose bushes? All questions answered with numbers!
AI Can Write It
In my experience, AI tools are the king of Captain Obvious writing. This is because they are fancy predictive word text editors based on inputs on what everyone else has already written.
But if the bots can do it, the bots will do it. If you specialize in this kind of regurgitation writing, then you’re going to be competing with a robot who works overtime and doesn’t ask for a raise!
Why Is Captain Obvious Everywhere I Look?
So if obvious writing is so bad, why do we see so much of it?
It’s not just because people are lazy, deceptive or unskilled, although all of those things are sometimes true.
Here are some common justifications we make to ourselves for obvious writing:
“I’m just providing background information.”
This is another common problem in blogging. If I Google, “How to install a subwoofer in my car,” and the first half of the post just explains what a subwoofer is, I’m liable to click away. I want answers, and I want them now.
A little bit of context is helpful; a lot is just smothering. Keep background information where it belongs – in the background!
“I’m targeting a beginner audience.”
To quote one of Ann Handley’s professors from the book Everybody Writes: “Assume the reader knows nothing. But don’t assume the reader is stupid.”
There’s nothing wrong with explaining the ABCs to a beginner audience. But don’t keep them there! Get to the NOPs and XYXs as soon as you can!
Obvious writing doesn’t equate to simple writing. It’s a curse that can afflict any academic level. If you’re regurgitating information your Reader already knows and presenting it as helpful advice, you’re guilty.
“Everyone else does it.”
If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?
Are you a human or a lemming?
“Hey, it gets clicks.”
Ah, here’s the heart of the refutation. We all know, instinctively, that better content should equal more Readers. But if you can write 20% crap and still get 80% of the clicks, why bother with the rest?
Look, I’m not an SEO guru. But Google has been adamant that its goal is to return the most relevant and authoritative information possible to the Reader. I’d rather be on Google’s side. (And Bing’s, too. We love you Bing!)
If you want to game the system by checking the boxes but not doing the work, that’s on you. Some people have done it and made millions. Many more have done it and gone broke.
After all, the guy who wrote that motorcycle article probably thought he had it made. I paid him full price for a research post, and he probably spun the content using AI in about 15 minutes. Pretty good return on investment!
But then he lost his gig. And now he has a 1-star scarlet letter.
You don’t want your Reader to end your blog post with a “Well no sh*t, Sherlock!” and the back button, now do you?