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The "H" word

It’s a dangerous word.

We can argue that it shouldn’t be said at all.

Professional athletes don’t say “choke” and professional writers don’t say “hack.”

It’s because we’re afraid of it—we’re all afraid of it—of writing so much glib, facile, shallow prose that we can never become sincere again.

I often repeat the old line, “I’m faster than the writers who are better than me, and better than the writers who are faster than me.”

I laugh, to hide my fear.

But what is a hack, exactly? I recently told readers of my personal blog that a hack is … someone who with a straight face calls the new corporate podcast “slightly irreverent,” the new employee video “kind of fun” and the CEO’s blog “a bit edgy” … someone who declares in print or in person that he or she is “passionate about branding” … someone who talks incessantly about how the purpose of his or her flaccid prose is to create “behavior change.”

My readers added that “hacks talk about adding ‘the wow factor,’” and “hacks describe their writing as ‘working their magic.’”

All of which let us feel superior for a day, and safe.

But those aren’t the real signs you’re becoming a hack.

The real signs are:

  • Everything you write turns into a quick introduction and then a series of bullet points.
  • It pains you to see really good work by other writers, and you make excuses for why you can’t write stuff like that.
  • You’re so used to writing fast, you can’t slow down when it comes time to write something thoughtful. Secretly, perhaps, you fear that stopping to think will invite writer’s block—the amateur poet’s luxury, your terminal disease.
  • When was the last time you stood up for a single passage or idea in a speech? You can’t remember.
  • Your real fears—all your real feelings—are becoming secrets to you because it’s impossible to be simultaneously sad that your writing career has come to this, and passionate about branding.
  • Pleasing your speaker is all that matters.
  • You find yourself asking, “What would a sincere person write?”
  • You really don’t care whether it’s “lightning” or “lightning bug.”
  • And saying, “Aw, nobody’s gonna read this anyway.” The honest writer’s deepest fear, the hack’s only comfort.

But if we have corporate clients, we do have to write an awful lot of tripe that—we’re right—nobody’s gonna read anyway (or, in the case of the speech, listen to).

How can we possibly avoid becoming hacks?

For starters, we read magazine articles and books written by non-hacks.

We must also write about subjects other than branding for audiences far away from the corporate world—people who don’t even pretend to know the meaning of “world class.”

In our corporate writing, we insist (as E.E. Cummings’ reluctant soldier Olaf did almost ceaselessly repeat) “there is some shit I will not eat.” Perhaps we refuse to pair the words “challenges” and “opportunities” in any one sentence. Or maybe we quietly draw the line on this side of using “impact” as a verb. Or maybe we refuse to write, even in an informal speech text, “Hopefully.” The point is, we maintain some standards—and in doing so hold onto ourselves.

And we worry—we worry about becoming a hack, and as long as we’re worrying we know we are not there yet.

Aren’t you relieved?

Well, I should hope not.

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