The Worst Writing Job in the World

Yesterday, I wrote about John McNally’s book After the Workshop, in which a writer with an MFA from Iowa has to take a job as a media escort because he can’t finish his novel. Driving far more successful writers than oneself around a city might seem like a pretty crummy job, but if I had to choose, I’d rather play chauffeur to midlist hacks than take what surely must be the worst writing job in the world: crafting the prose for Groupons.

If you aren’t familiar with Groupon, it’s a web site that offers a special deal to people who subscribe to its emailed offers. Most of the Groupons don’t interest me — I’m really not interested in spray tanning or teeth whitening, which seem to make up a hefty percentage of the mailings — but I’m always happy to get 50% off at a restaurant. I recently bought a 2-for-1 coupon at Five in Berkeley, which I’d been wanting to try.

However, every day, I have to keep myself from unsubscribing to the mailings, because they bug me so much. Here is a typical description of a hair-styling establishment: “The earliest salons were informal gatherings where B-list philosophers gibbered away so they couldn’t hear themselves dying of plague. Get an earful of the modern salon’s soothing hair-dryer purrs and scissor chop-chops instead with today’s deal: for $30, you get $100 worth of services at Gary Patrick Salon at its location in Pleasanton.”

In the world of Groupon, hair is described as “frayed head threads,” while spray tanners are “handheld hue-changers” and teeth are “mouth cubes.” I know this is supposed to be clever and attention-grabbing, but the tortured prose leaves me feeling like a “malaise-filled lemur,” to use another Grouponism. I had to find out: who writes this stuff? I pictured one freaky guy, perhaps someone who had watched a few too many episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” sitting at a desk at Groupon headquarters in Chicago with a thesaurus and a flacon of absinthe at his side.

However, apparently there is a whole staff of Grouponistas, and they’re hiring more. According to this help-wanted post, “We regularly hire full-time, in-house writers, who craft write-ups on our featured businesses and express what makes the experience and the merchant compelling… Copywriters inject creative, humorous tangents that are short, well-timed, and within Groupon Voice.”

The Groupon Voice! That’s the official name for what has been driving me crazy for these past few months. Wanting to learn more — or perhaps just a glutton for punishment — I checked out the Groupon style guide, a Google doc which helps the company’s saucy scribes learn the basics of purple prose. (See, it’s contagious.) Take a look at the Groupon thesaurus, which features this chilling list of synonyms for “hands”: “wrist-mitts, finger-docks, arm paddles, cheek slappers, open-faced knuckle sandwiches, Michigan silhouettes (only use in Midwest), turkey tracers/stencils, clapping utensils (good for events), knuckle wagons, 5-pronged pals, knuckle steaks, shake traps, high-five dispensers, nail farms, finger farms.” OK, I will admit that I sort of like “Michigan silhouettes,” and am disappointed that I will never see this description here in California.

The “humor taboos” doc goes into dos and don’ts: for instance, “over-used, unfunny humor crutches” are to be avoided (“Mullets, Snuggies, midgets, ligers” — I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a humorous reference to a liger, so obviously the Groupon folks keep different company than I do), as are too-specific references. “Feel as privileged as Bertie Wooster with the staff as your personal valet” is a no-no (what, Groupon subscribers aren’t Wodehouse fans?), while “Feel as privileged as an onion ring in a box of french fries, as the staff personally pick up and drop off your dry cleaning” is recommended as a substitute.

I see what the Groupon folks are going for, I really do. I recently heard an interview on NPR with Henry E. Scott, author of a new book called Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine. Scott read some excerpts from the mag, which were heavy on alliteration and wordplay. This article about Liberace is a good example of Confidential‘s salacious style: “[T]he pudgy pianist’s many faithful fans would have popped their girdles if they had witnessed their idol in action last year in an offstage production that saw old Kittenish on the Keys play one sour note after another in his clumsy efforts to make beautiful music with a handsome but highly reluctant young publicity man.”

However, the Groupon prose is just too yucky. A brunch cruise of San Francisco Bay is described thusly: “While delicious edibles invade your largest head-hole, gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay will captivate your dual orbital openings…” That gruesome head-hole imagery doesn’t inspire me to want to sip champagne and nibble on French toast, though it sort of makes me want to listen to some Nine Inch Nails. This excerpt from an offer for Buttercup Grill & Bar is even worse: “The selection of beer, wine, and frozen non-alcoholic drinks make excellent candidates to chauffer the tasty bites down the body’s food chute, and eventually into the gastronomic ball pit at the bottom.” Food chute? Ball pit? Are you trying to make me hungry or nauseous?

Here’s some food prose that did inspire me to action, from the Rivoli Restaurant newsletter: “Sweet corn is SO sweet and delicious right now, so Wendy’s making her spoonbread soufflé with it, surrounded by a fresh summer succotash and paired with the perfect saltiness of Iowa’s La Quercia prosciutto… We’re offering a Moroccan summer vegetable plate, highlighted by an artichoke b’steeya (that awesome filo pie we sometimes do with duck), house-made yogurt and gypsy peppers stuffed with couscous and pinenuts…” We went last night, and for the record, both the soufflé and the vegetable plate were indeed tasty.

Anyone care to try to translate that into Grouponese? I’ll start: “For thousands of years, maize mazes have thwarted would-be corn-eaters from putting ears down their pie-holes. Capture a cob without getting lost in a labyrinth at Rivoli…” Ugh, I feel dirty now. I think I’d rather make my living writing those fake letters to Penthouse.

57 thoughts on “The Worst Writing Job in the World”

  1. Oh.My.God. I’m imagining you’ve read Douglas Adams, right? And so you may remember Vogon poetry?

    This is worse.

    What is wrong with actual human beings (apparently) that they would think this is “funny”?

    I am quite pleased this…this *thing* called “Groupons” does not exist here, or at least I’m not aware of it.

    You know me – I’m the sort of person who’s not about to go to a new Thai restaurant in town because it’s named (shudder alert) “Thai-namite.”

    Not enough ick in the world…

  2. Ha ha – Vogon poetry! Talk about your negative comparisons. But Groupon does exist in Milwaukee — heck, it even exists in Grand Rapids. One of their recent Milwaukee deals is for Karl Ratzsch’s: “The German eatery has been hammering out its classic, soul-nourishing recipes for more than a century of feeding Milwaukee’s strudel-holes.” Yes, strudel-holes.

  3. I kind of like the Groupon wordplay.

    For me, it shows a talent for twisting the language, somehow reminding me of Forties noir dialogue.

    Sickly sweet? Yes, but still drew my attention to the beauty of the written word, even if it’s overly snarky.

  4. Clearly you don’t understand the concept of writing to a specific audience.

    Not everyone knows what artichoke b’steeya or couscous and pinenuts are.

    But most people can figure out the off-beat, humorous similes of the Groupon voice.

  5. Articles like this always annoy me. I am very familiar with Groupon and actually enjoy the humor. I’ll admit, I didn’t like the two “bad” examples you included. The problem, though, is that you chose the worst Groupons you could find and used them to represent them standard, which is entirely misleading. At the end of the day, Groupons are written for a certain group of people who are attracted to this humor. If you’re not one of those people, then don’t use Groupon.com. However, in no way does this article justify the title. It seems like the kind of job that lets you exercise your humorous side for 8 hours a day and not feel worthless and worn out when you go home. Maybe you should apply for a job.

  6. Just to prove that I didn’t cherry-pick “the worst Groupons [I] could find,” I went into my inbox archive and picked one I got just a couple days ago. “Like a pet rock, the human body must be regularly caressed and pampered, or it’ll cease to be useful for anything but being swallowed by dinosaurs to help with digestion. Put bone boxes to good use with today’s Groupon: for $40, you get a one-hour massage… A foot-reflexology massage transforms stiff soles into loose and limber shoe-fillers, similar to squirrels snoozing in a pair of fermented pumpkins.” I will leave it to others to decide whether the humor is enjoyable or not. In any case, I’m sure the people who invented Groupon are richer than I can ever dream of being, so obviously the formula works. Plus I just bought one yesterday (for a local card shop), so there you go.

  7. “It seems like the kind of job that lets you exercise your humorous side for 8 hours a day and not feel worthless and worn out when you go home.”

    You’re wrong, S.S. Groupon has a very specific style that all of its writers must adhere to. And sometimes, even when you think you’re doing that with witty results, an editor will come along and rip your work to shreds, replacing everything you thought was funny with nonsensical jibberish. It can be very frustrating writing in that voice all the time…it’s like walking around in someone else’s skin. As a writer, you get nothing creatively out of it. The only upside is that Groupon pays well, but it’s not really worth the feeling of despair you feel any time you have type terms like “head holes” and “noodle nests.”

  8. Noodle nests!

    I’m responding to the comment above about groupon writing to a specific audience. I noticed their hilarious copy about a week ago because I write myself. But when I asked my friend (an avid groupon buyer) what she thought, she’d admitted she’d never even read it – focusing instead on the deal and small print.

  9. Sometimes they’re funny. Usually I find myself lost in the ridiculous amount of words it takes to get to the point. I find that more annoying than the disturbing imagery they sometimes convey.

  10. THANK YOU for writing this. Every morning, I open my Groupon email at my desk at work and remark to my friend at the next desk, “You know, I’d probably buy more Groupons if I could actually stomach the descriptions enough to finish reading them.” I have noticed recently that they’ve re-formatted their emails to hide most of the blather (until you click on an individual offer to try and figure out what the hell it’s offering, without vomiting). “Progress,” I guess.

  11. What is your advice to a young writer entirely capable of writing (surprise) in Groupon’s style, who needs cash. Is there a better online writing job? Freelancing? etc?

  12. Three words: HIPSTER DOUCHE BAG. I actually wrote for them and it made me want to vomit when I wrote that way. The only way to describe it is hipster douche bag. Gives me chills just to think about it. Y-U-C-K..

  13. I was just telling my boyfriend last night how much I hated the Groupon voice. He found this article today and sent it to me. It’s exactly what I’ve been ranting about to anyone who will listen. I actually close my eyes sometimes when I open the emails and try to just read the bold print offer. It’s honestly taking a toll on my sanity to have to read them day in and day out. And they drive me so crazy I feel like I can’t even breathe sometimes. Thank you for validating what I’ve been feeling every single day for the past 6 months!

  14. This is so true! I’m really glad I’m not the only one who is bemused by the whole “aren’t we so quirky?” style of groupon.
    Vogon poetry sounds about right, or maybe H. P. Lovecraft on happy pills?

  15. I just got another Groupon ad in my email and I just couldn’t take it anymore!!! I stopped what I was doing and had to google, “who writes the Groupon descriptions” to see if anyone else in the world hates them as much as I do. Your blog came up frist, ironically followed second by a link with this headline: “The secret to Groupon’s success? ‘Good writing,’ says CEO…”

    Thanks for the post, it made my morning.

  16. From today: “Like octopi, tattoos contain ink, are typically found among sailors, and can frighten young children in swimming pools. Protect tots from scary tats with today’s Groupon to Hip-Hop Robot Tattoo”.

    I came across your post when searching for who writes these awful descriptions. You’re spot on with your article (and the commenters, too). Contrived quirk. And the sad part of it is, I’ll bet anything they got the idea to inject humor in their descriptions from woot.com, which actually has very good writing.

  17. hahahaha this is spot on, idk about other parts of the countries, but whoever writes for Milwaukee is just awful. Today’s groupon calls my hair a scalp lawn, which encouraged me to find your blog lol.

  18. There are some good points made here, other than the comments coming from angry writing purists, or the Groupon loyalists. I do hope Groupon can sustain their position in what has become a very coompetitive discount arena. They truly must find something to keep people coming back. Unfortunately, for all the good intentions, writing may not be the saving shield that guards them againt the fickle consumer. Greater discounts? Think sustainability.

  19. If no one understands why fine artists refuse hellish occupations like graphic artists and art teachers for elementary school, they would after thinking about the principal of writing in someone else’s voice from a writer’s perspective.
    What’s really hilarious about the non-appealing offers liek the Brunch one above, is that someone thinks it’s funny. It’s a negative connotation to call a mouth a “head hole” and I wouldn’t stand for any negative connotations surrounding my business.

    However, I do enjoy “Michigan silhouettes” as I am native to the state.

  20. Oh thank God I found this site! I thought I was the only lonely soul out there who hates Groupon’s write-ups. Btw, the writing is just as bad here in Malaysia. Same annoying style!

  21. Spot on – this is perfect. “Jimbo” had it exactly right per his comments in July re “hipster douchebags”. The writing is excruciating, it is beyond painful to wade through the endless nonsense to figure out what they’re talking about. My favorite from today – yammering about the challenges of trans-atlantic travel re a puerto rican restaurant. Did any of the hipster jerkoffs who write this stuff even go to elementary school, or do they think the puerto rico is maybe in spain? OK someone wasn’t paying attention, but the real issue is the “groupon voice” as noted is irritating. What possible audience would enjoy this, besides the “writers” themselves. awful. thank you Sue and all for calling them out.

  22. The disgust I feel when I read Groupon ads is not diminished by the pleasure I get from the rare offer I purchase. It’s not funny, not intelligent and not informative.

  23. I stand on both sides of the fence. That is, I often find the Groupon descriptions clever and funny but I get annoyed slogging through them when all I want to know are the specifics of the deal. If I had to vote one way or the other, I’d ask for simple and clear English, thank you. I don’t need to get my laughs from my daily coupon offer.

  24. its just humour. what you need to do is not take the internet seriously or maybe not try and exact your pretentiousness and and try to impliment it as the voice of millions.

  25. I love the Groupon descriptions. I assumed I would reading the usual drap sales pitches, the first one I read about memory foam pillows makes me chuckle now. You mostly seem to be a collective of less than pleased copulating man docks.

  26. Like one of the posters above, I cannot believe I actually Googled to see who writes this crap for Groupon but I’m glad I did and see many others share the same opinion that I do. I wish I could get back all of the time I wasted reading that Groupon gibberish.

  27. VERY annoying. NOT funny nor clever by any stretch. I did the same as Steve, actually Googled to ask “who writes those awful groupon descriptions”. I avoid reading them entirely, just go directly to the fine print. I work with a diverse group of people and all but one agree that the descriptions are nonsensical and a waste of time. I can find good deals on “Living Social” where the descriptions are short/sweet and they don’t annoy me to death.

  28. Maybe you just don’t have a sense of Hume?
    To that I say “lighten up,Francis!”
    Of course, you probably don’t get the reference and
    if you do, thoughts stripes was a bad film.
    Cheer up friend!

  29. I can’t thank you enough for writing this. Groupon description After Groupon description all I could think was ‘I just don’t get it!!’. Today after reading about people drinking bleach in one of groupings descriptions, I scratched my head and raised my eyebrow and googled: ‘who writes groupon descriptions’. It was then I found your article and was relieved to find a group of people as nauseated by this writing as me. But I’m curious to know who is this writing trying to target? Does it reach these people or they just pray they can get enough info from the image like me. Is this odd and sometimes offensive and sometimes crude writing style really effective? Does groupon need to put the public through this?

  30. I rarely find these descriptions funny, but they do not make me angry, like so many of the posters here. And I’ve certainly never seen a description so witty and sharp that I was compelled to learn more about the deal. Groupon would be better served to hire fewer writers who can write clear, basic prose without having to worry about coming up with another way to refer to one’s body orifices.

  31. Groupon makes me smile (most of the time), if I have time to read their descriptions. I understand why some folks would be annoyed by it. But people’s cynicism is, by far, way more annoying.

  32. Thank you for this post. Yeah, I’m like those above who actually took the time from my morning to Google, “I hate Groupon writing.” I have been an advertising copywriter and marketing professional for years and this stuff just isn’t effective. I never buy Groupons because of the write ups, but in SPITE of the copy. I even try to scan the description page to avoid the gibberish. It really is painful to read. When I get to a paragraph with real information, my whole brain (hose cavern?) sends endorphins (happy nanobots?) through my body (peach colored propulsion mechanism?).

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