A mini manual for better copywriting, for everyone
My eyes, my poor eyes. Everywhere I look I see once beautiful words misplaced, denied their true destiny to move me. I spy stray commas, lost, confused. I drown in thick soups of polysyllabic lexicology congealed together in one stagnate, powerless mass. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Copywriting is essential in business - proposals, brochures, emails, websites, blogs… We all get involved in writing at some point and being a better writer is a skill that every professional can benefit from. The right words can create magic. You land the contract, build your reputation, lead your team, guide people’s behaviour and change the world. Get it wrong, however, and it’s worse than ineffective; it’s wasting your time and sending people to your competitors.
To ensure you create great copy that makes people think, feel and do something, avoid these Seven Deadly Sins.
Good copy should not be difficult. It should be easy to read, easy to understand and easy to act on. Most of us are not vying for Pulitzers, but for persuasion. And even then most award-winning journos understand the power of keeping things ‘tight and bright’. You have no rights on your reader’s time so cut the flowery filler and keep it snappy.
Make it understandable: use the words people actually use not medieval exhortations ;-)
Use your head: if you have to use an obscure word, explain it. Always err on the side of making it too simple than too complex.
Brevity is beautiful: shorter words keep the reader engaged. Remuneration = pay. Utilisation = use. Sesquipedalian = bad writing.
This applies to sentences and paragraphs: As a guide, sentences should be around 20 words and paragraphs just a few sentences. (But be sure to mix it up a little too.) The job of every sentence is to get you to read the next sentence. And paragraphs are no different - they are both bridges and islands of thought.
Keep it friendly - you must connect with your reader. Don’t confuse formality with authority.
Get to the point: avoid over-intellectualising or philosophising, just make your point and then move on.
Use Acronyms Wisely (UAW): Don’t use them for the sake of it, avoid using too many and always write them in full on first use.
If you can use one word instead of three, do: Bring to a resolution = resolve. Give a response = respond.
Avoid padding: It’s often said that… it’s important to bear in mind that… Interestingly… Surprisingly… Just tell me already!
When I run through this in workshops, I like to pull out some tasty examples of sinning from the client’s copy closet. But you can find a bunch of good before and after examples in the book HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan Garner. Here’s one:
It is to be noted that a considerable amount of savings has been possible by reason of our planful initiation of more efficient and effective purchasing procedures.
We’ve saved considerable sums by streamlining our purchases.
Density not only comes across in the words but also how they are visually presented. If your reader runs into a thick wall of text they’ll be knocked unconscious. You need to provide small clues and signs to guide them along, such as:
Use bold text to highlight especially important words and phrases. But use this sparingly; if you highlight too much text, nothing will stand out.
Use Bulleted and Numbered Lists: It can lift important information, simplify complex ideas and break up long chunks of text.
To cluster thoughts and break up text. But keep them clear, consistent, and informative, not ‘cute’.
Use Hyperlinks Wisely
To connect to other related web pages and to highlight important thoughts. But, if you can summarize the information succinctly without linking elsewhere, do so.
Then, use subtle transitions to guide reader - then, although, still, therefore…
Persuasive writing is lively and a joy to read, so keep it active to keep them interested. And remember that people will only believe and act on what you write if you truly believe it yourself - have conviction and inject some passion into what you write.
One obvious way to keep it active is to avoid the ‘passive zombies’. The passive is used on occasion for emphasis (like that) but we need to cut back. It distances us from the words and their intentions. The way to spot the passive is to ask ‘Can I add ‘by zombies’ after this?’
The product was launched…
The prize has been awarded…
The writer was eaten…
It’s sometimes said that we sell the prospect, not the product. Or in other words - reveal the benefits, not the features. If you are trying to flog drills, you are really selling the holes they make. It’s the same with good copy; it should get across the opportunity for the reader and make them feel powerful. You want to announce you’ve won an award or secured important funding? Tell the world how this will help you to improve their lives.
You can also liven things up with the tone. This should reflect your brand tone of voice (and company values), of course, but it should always be human, relatable and popping with passion. Surprise people, stand out, shake things up. Just please don't be boring.
Sadly, there’s no equivalent for jargon that starts with a ‘D’ so I had to invent a new word with a silent first letter. It might catch on. It might even become... no?
Use jargon and you might as well be speaking an alien / alienating language. Cut the twaddle, the claptrap and the gibberish. Write how people speak, or they will not hear you. And always write like a human, not an institution, if you want to engage your audience.
The two main types of jargon are general business bullshit and specific business bullshit. For the first kind: you want to socialise that thought? Need to circle back on the proposal? That’s fine if it’s to a close colleague who is programmed the same, but not when speaking to the world. And for the second: all those weird and wonderful phrases that are unique to your business, like the ‘D7 protocol’, or the ‘Stones Method’? Keep them there and translate everything into English before it goes wider.
Grammar is essentially the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit. You don’t have to be chief sub at The Times, you just need to know how grammar works and how it helps us communicate effectively. So avoid the dumbass mistakes.
Here are some common mistakes to watch for:
US or British English: your company is likely to use British if in UK but some international companies insist on the wilder American version so mind your colorful spelling.
Oxford commas? The stealthy comma before ‘and’ in a list. Chances are your company has a style guide so consult it and if it doesn’t then pick a side and stick with it.
Avoid ALL caps: it’s like shouting and it’s what people do who can’t express themselves with words.
Cut down the exclamation marks!!! (for the same reason!!!)
Watch for the apostrophes and homophones: It’s, its / they’re, their, there.
Know the difference: Principal, principle; compliment, complement.
Consistency: if you start using % don’t introduce percent.
Companies are not plural (e.g. Facebook is in trouble.)
Highly defective copy misses the target because it is not written with the audience in mind. A useful analogy: you wouldn’t write a letter without knowing who you were writing to and you wouldn’t post it without an address. You must know who your audience is and where they will read the copy before you do anything. Scientists reading an academic review will require different language to teens watching your nicely scripted YouTube vid. Really try and understand the audience. The easy trap is to assume that everyone is like you, knows the same things as you and has the same desires. Sadly, they do not.
Copy can also be defective if it just rambles all over the place and fails to land on an idea. Or if it fails to convince you what the whole point of the copy is. You know the company blogs that start with an innocent, boring headline about a contract being signed and then reveal in the seventeenth paragraph that the meeting involved the Queen doing karaoke. What is the real story? Make this clear and get to it.
So there you have my sins. Share your confessions. Great content is clear but stimulating, interesting but accessible, useful but enjoyable. It moves us. It makes us think and act differently. And the world certainly needs more of that.
P.s. any grammatical errors in this article are naturally intended ironically. Ahem