Bad copywriting is bad for business.
Or – don’t be greedy with your apostrophes.
When I was a youngster, I thought most household-name businesses would have a huge marketing department. It would be chock full of experts with an almost supernatural understanding of human psychology. These people knew how to sell, how to advertise and how to communicate, and they would be the most consummate professionals.
I’d look at their products, their packaging and their catalogues and think that these had been produced by people far cleverer than I, so if I didn’t understand it then it must be because I’m a common, uneducated simpleton. After all, these documents were produced by clever people. Very clever people, with big salaries and grand-sounding job titles – and the boss of the company, who knew everything, would have checked to ensure the writing was brilliant before it was released to the public. After all, companies wouldn’t dare circulate a document that might damage their brand or affect profitability, right?
Well paid, clever and professional people wouldn’t do that.
Oh dear. How wrong I was.
Fast forward 20 years and nowadays I earn my living as an interpretive copywriter. My job involves taking big and often complex stories and distilling them down to their concise and compelling essence. With my discerning new perspective I’m often amazed by the awful copywriting circulated by companies of all sizes. Okay, so I can understand (and almost forgive) the green-grocers’ apostrophe, but bigger organisations should know better. Any company that wishes to project a professional, competent and trustworthy image (that’s all of us, then) should pay great regard to the quality of their copy. That means the words in your hard-copy brochures, leaflets and catalogues, and the words in your online presence – your websites, newsletters and social media posts.
And I’m not merely talking about spelling mistakes and typos. Good copy isn’t just well-spelled and grammatically correct. That’s a given.
Good copy has a job to do
It needs to communicate your message clearly and accurately. It needs to appeal to your readers and customers. Good spelling is the most basic first step, but if your copy fails to achieve the things you want it to do then you may as well have no copy at all. The goal is to engage customers, instil trust and convince them that you know your stuff and can be trusted to deliver a product or service. Poor copy is just a bunch of words that failed to achieve this goal. Poor copywriting can discourage people from doing business with your company. Poor copy doesn’t sell anything.
I used to think that all businesses had a crack marketing team with a whizzo copywriter on board, but now I realise that copywriters are rarely employed for the purpose, and when they are, they are often poor. In many cases the copy for a website or a document is created by someone inhouse – usually someone in the marketing department. The marketing bod will usually be good at marketing. They’ll also, usually, but not always, know how to spell and write in proper sentences. Unfortunately, they will rarely be an accomplished copywriter, and it’s blatantly obvious when this is the case.
Almost everyone can write and most people will know where to put a full-stop or a capital letter, but that doesn’t make them a writer any more than knowing how to knock up a decent spag bol makes me a chef. I despair at the clunky, wordy and downright unintelligible copy that comes out of companies that press-gang a non-professional to do a job they’re not qualified to do.
Indeed, some ‘professional’ copywriters are not much better. Many people who call themselves copywriters are only slightly more proficient than the average school leaver. Indeed, good spelling and comprehension are so rare nowadays that it should be considered a superpower, which leads those who can spell to believe they can call themselves a writer. These folk can often blag a role at a small marketing agency as the inhouse copywriter, often doubling up in another role to save a salary. There’s a big difference between someone who knows the mechanics of written language and someone who knows how to write. Good copywriters focus on the words’ purpose and send an accurate message to your reader. Poor copywriting can miss the point entirely.
Should you always employ a professional?
Well, if possible, then you absolutely should. These people know how to do their job, and the job is a very important one. But I realise that this is not always possible or justifiable if the funds are not available. Nevertheless, the copy should be as good as possible. There’s a certain art involved in the process of good copywriting, along with a decent measure of skill and a generous dollop of experience, but a good level of interpretive copywriting can be achieved by following these simple guidelines:
Read it. Read it again. Use your computer’s spell check. Read it out loud. Print it out and read it. Read it backwards. Ask a friend to read it. Read it in MS Word and then read it again when it is flowed into the draft artwork before publication. Only then, after it has gone to print, will you notice that there’s one typo you all missed. At any point before that, though, the copy will have been littered with mistakes. Trust me.
• Use as few words as possible
There’s an old story about a son who wrote his mother a letter, which began ‘Mother – I’m sorry to send you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.’ With non-fiction writing, length is a great barometer of quality. Say what you need to say clearly and concisely, and use as few words as possible.
• Keep sentences short
Sentences that ramble on will soon lose the uncommitted reader. Remember, they’re not invested in reading your catalogue for their enjoyment. It’s probably a chore and they’d like the process to be as simple as possible, thank you very much. Long sentences are boring and, like this sentence, when there is lots of punctuation that makes people have to think about how they’re reading it, it can become clunky and trip up the reader which makes people get pretty narked, and, if you’re not careful, they’ll just go elsewhere for their product; and nobody wants that.
• Don’t repeat anything. I repeat; don’t repeat anything
It’s common to see documents that say the same thing about the same subject several times in the same paragraph. It’s all too easy to ramble on and make the same point in different ways when you’re writing the first draft of a document. That’s ok, but be sure to then edit the copy and remove all but one of the similarities. This helps with brevity, avoids monotony and keeps the copy fresh and readable.
• Cut it out
If you’re editing your copy, and you’re not sure whether to cut some of it out, then you should absolutely cut it out. Then cut out some more. Take the Hemmingway approach.
• Don’t make your reader work
Einstein was a very clever chap who said, ‘Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.’ and I wholeheartedly agree. Make sure the copy is easy to understand. Don’t use jargon, unless you are going to explain it or you are sure that your entire readership will know what it means. I can write about proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation if I am writing for a newsletter aimed at professional personal trainers. I wouldn’t use the term in a consumer fitness magazine.
• Don’t make the reader feel stupid
Einstein also said, ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself.’ And that’s so true it hurts. Long sentences, unnecessary big words, jargon and clunky language that is difficult to read should all be avoided like the plague. Unfortunately, the last time most people wrote anything of length, they were writing something academic for university. That style of writing is not appropriate for business marketing.
• Explain jargon and obscure references
Be sure to explain any references you make in the copy. You should never open a door without allowing your reader to walk inside and understand the reference. For example, it’s no good me talking about how important ‘layering’ is here, because I haven’t yet explained what layering is. If I open that door, I need to explain it immediately.
• Layer the information
In museum interpretation writing, layering is the term we use for appealing to different audiences or reader types. Some people skim-read the headings, some read the first paragraph, and others want to read every sentence. For business documents and websites, layering the information is a great way to engage your readers.
Start with a headline and don’t bother with punchlines. As a non-captive reader, I want the information now. I don’t want to read through a load of guff before I get to the info I want. Start with the most important relevant stuff and add more detail later – if necessary. Newspaper journalists are the best at this. Editors, needing to save space, would cut a story one paragraph at a time, starting from the bottom. Take the same approach with your writing and you won’t go far wrong.
• Make headlines relevant
Along the same lines is the advice to make your headlines relevant. The reader will often skim-read the copy to see if there is anything there that is of interest to them – particularly when they first land on your website. Headlines should be like click-bait, but without the disappointing lack of delivery. They should make me want to read on and find out more.
Of course, you need to understand your readers’ needs before you can do this, but even I can see the benefit of a headline that says ‘Save money on your heating bills’ over a headline that says ‘Compliant with energy-efficiency legislation’.
• If possible, use an image instead of words
And, where at all possible, use an image instead of words. My graphic-designer girlfriend calls me a designer-saur. According to her, nobody wants to read my boring old words any more; they’d rather look at her pretty design work, photographs and illustrations. And that’s absolutely true, more so now than ever. An image can avoid the need for lengthy, and difficult to interpret instructions. Just ask Ikea’s clever little caricature.
• Use chunks
A massive cliff-face of text is onerous and oppressive for the non-captive reader. There are several ways to avoid this. You can use sub-headings as I have done in this post. Images are a very effective and useful way to break up long lines of text. Or, you can use tint-boxes and sidebars.
I learned my trade by being too impatient to battle my way through unintelligible documents. I want copy to be easy to read and easy to understand, but still give me the information I need. I’m no different from the vast majority of your potential customers, and this is why good interpretive copy is so important. The definition of good interpretation is ‘the art of explaining the meaning of something’ and that is something all businesses need to do. I don’t just want to know what your product is. I want to know why it is, how it does it, and why it is relevant to me.
My interpretive copywriting skills are often put to work in museums and exhibitions, where visitors want to understand the objects they are looking at but don’t want to spend hours reading technical or lengthy documents. The goal is to distil a big story into just a few words, without losing the essence of the story and without losing the interest of the reader. For visitors, a visit to the museum is their leisure time and they don’t want to have to work too hard in order to enjoy themselves. And that’s fair enough.
Interpretation is just as valuable for businesses marketing documents for exactly the same reasons. Both business marketing and museums need to engage and enthuse a non-captive audience. They need to do it quickly and simply and in a way that resonates with the reader. That’s why I’m increasingly finding my skills being put to use for business marketing documents, reports, proposals, tenders and other documents where messages need to be transmitted, clearly, concisely and compellingly.
Words are important, dammit!
Even though I’m designer-saur and despite the fact that museum visitors and prospective customers don’t want to read long cliff-faces of words, there’s no escaping the fact that words are a vitally important component of both heritage attractions and business marketing.
You need words. Words are the transaction point of your marketing. Words are how you tell your story, explain your product and compel your reader to appreciate what you are trying to say. It’s how your customer understands you and your product. Your copy needs to be interpretive – it should explain the meaning of whatever it is you’re selling. It’s the most important component of your marketing, and I can’t for the life of me, work out why businesses would think that this is something that can be trusted to a non-professional.
I often see beautiful documents and websites that have been brilliantly designed by a professional graphic designer. The website programming was done by a professional programmer, making the website functions well and does the job it is supposed to do. Even the photography is usually beautiful, having been produced by a professional photographer.
So why, when text is such an important part of the document, do businesses farm it out to Bob in marketing. When the meaning of your message is lost by using poorly constructed copy, it really doesn’t matter if your document is beautiful. A well-designed website or brochure is just eye-candy if the words you are using do not do their job. Words are the transaction point, and so getting it right is vitally important.
Trying to save money by using bad copy in a good document is akin to spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. Your business deserves better, no matter how big or small you are.