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What Does "Sexy" Really Mean?

“Make it sexy,” an editor told me the other day, after reading an article I’d submitted for publication.

“Hmm…’sexy,'” I thought. Are we talking “sexy” as in burlesque dancers or maybe Lady Gaga? And if so, how can I make my writing wear skintight clothes and show its cleavage?

But seriously, her comment made me think hard about what it means to make writing “sexy.” After some consideration I came up with several possible definitions.

1. “Make it Sexy” Means:

The ideas behind the writing are too “been there, done that.” You need to find an idea that is fresh or new.

The Unsexy Truth:

There are very few new ideas. So if you’re working with an old idea what it really means is you need to figure out some twist to make it appear new. Not an easy task to do. Unless, of course, you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Margaret Atwood. Then you really should get busy writing the next bestseller.

2. “Make it Sexy” Means:

Spice up the language; use more contemporary words and turns of phrases in the writing.

The Unsexy Truth:

Sometimes we fall into long-time habits in our writing and depend on the same comfortable approach we’ve used successfully in the past. From time to time it’s smart to take a step back and see if your writing style can use some sprucing up. On the other hand, beware of “overwriting” in your effort to make writing “sexy.” There’s a fine line between writing that sparkles and writing that’s simply “purple prose.”

3. “Make It Sexy” Means:

Make sure the writing responds to current needs and desires. Make sure you’re engaging contemporary readers’ interests.

The Unsexy Truth:

You should always consider the audience when you write anything. So if someone you respect suggests you need to give greater thought to how you’re engaging your audience through your writing, take their suggestion seriously.

When my editor told me to “make it sexy” it turned out she really was talking about the third definition of “sexy,” above. And it was good advice for the next draft of my article.

Of course in business writing you want to tread cautiously when it comes to “making it sexy.” Yes, you absolutely want to appeal to your audience, whether it’s a client, or your boss, or consumers of your products. You want to get their attention.

But the temptation to use a phrase that is “sexy” to hook them in may not always be appropriate. Often a “sexy” turn of phrase is a joke, or has references or jargon that not everyone may understand.

Your attempts to make your business communications “sexy” may backfire if not everyone shares your sense of humour, or your frame of reference. That’s why perhaps, when it comes to making business writing sexy, you should think more in terms of Taylor Swift than Lady Gaga?

If someone told you to make something you’ve written “sexy,” what would that mean to you?