The Anti-Dan Brown Primer: How Not to Write Like the Popular Author

The reviews are in for Inferno, the new thriller from The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, and everyone pretty much agrees that it’s a terribly written book, which is nevertheless a page-turner and will make bucketloads of cash. Rest assured that if you borrow ideas from Dan Brown’s writing for your own communications and marketing projects, however, you will not create a number-one best seller on Amazon—you will probably get fired.

(Full disclosure: I’m making fun of Brown, but he’s still getting my money. I’ve downloaded Inferno onto my Kindle and am saving it for some long flights I’ve got coming up. And I thought The Da Vinci Code was a lot of fun.)

Maybe you’re not a Dan Brown fan, but you want to learn more about (and avoid) his style of wordsmithing. If so, you don’t need to suffer through one of his hero Robert Langdon’s adventures—you can read, “Don’t make fun of renowned Dan Brown,” a perfectly executed mimicry of the Dan Brown style by the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. And check out our list of writing “don’ts” inspired by the author:

Echoes: When Brown latches onto a word he likes, he beats it to death. As the Telegraph points out, everyone in Brownland is “renowned.” And they “grin” and “wince,” wear “Harris Tweed,” and do things “gingerly.” In your own writing, you probably know the words you re-use frequently (we all do it—my list includes “transform” and “challenge”). Search for these words when you’re done with a document so you can eliminate the echoes. Or rely on a colleague, as we do at the Content Bureau, to surface the repetitive language that you may rely on too heavily.

Jargon: Brown likes to impress his readers with weird words. In the first pages of Inferno, I found a reference to a “machicolated battlement,” which, says Wikipedia, is “a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones, or other objects, could be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall.” I suppose that obscure words are fun in an historical novel, but getting cutesy with overly technical or pretentious language in marketing documents is a no-no. Don’t force your audience to run to a dictionary.

Blather: Why use one adjective or adverb when five or six will do? Brown ladles on the descriptors, as in this snippet from Inferno: “… a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BMW motorcycle and advanced with the intensity of a panther stalking its prey.” I know it’s a novel, but really, I get tired just reading all the extra words in Brown’s books. In your own writing, be a ruthless editor. Every word should serve a purpose, and if you can make an argument to cut, then do it. Tight copy encourages your audience to actually read what you wrote.

Now that you’ve learned your anti-Dan Brown lessons, you deserve a treat: The “Dan Vinci’s Nunferno” Twitter feed was a hilarious send-up of Brown’s style, like this made-up line: “Langdon frowned as he stared at the painting. There was something wrong, but what? Wait, of course—dogs can’t play poker!” The Twitter account, alas, is no more —but you can read some of the best tweets here.

By Chris Kent