It's Bonfire Night tonight. For our confused readers outside the UK, Bonfire Night is a centuries-old celebration where us Brits wrap up warm, watch fireworks and make big fires.
The celebratory mood has got me thinking. If I could make an imaginary bonfire, capable of burning concepts, as well as wood, which copywriting bad habits would I throw into the embers?
One of the most enduring myths of sales copy is that your job is simply to make a product, service or business 'sound good'.
We're not in the business of making things 'good'. Instead, a copywriter should let people know why it's good for them.
This is why meaningless, inflated adjectives need to be thrown on the fire. And we need to enjoy watching them burn.
Does your service offer a 'fantastic solution for savvy business owners'? Is your product 'great for household cleaning tasks'?
These statements mean nothing without context. We need to go deeper – to pick the product apart and make it relevant to consumers' needs, wants and problems.
My personal rule is to never let a 'powerful' adjective stand alone, without this added value. Nine times out of ten, you'll find this extra context does the job that the adjective was aiming for, and it does it much more effectively.
So nine times out of ten, you don't need these adjectives anyway. Besides, it's just lazy – and most customers are sharp enough to see through these smokescreens.
By 'waffle', I mean copy that goes on and on and on, without seeming to say much of anything.
This kind of writing isn't worth anything to anyone, and its shortcomings are obvious to all. You may as well preface your copy with the sentence: “I had a deadline and a word count to hit, and they collided to produce this mess.”
But even if you do have something to say, it can be easy to slip into waffle-y habits. When it comes to web copy, writing without purpose or structure is just about as bad as writing pure waffle. Online audiences want quick access to the information they're seeking, and if they have to wade through 500 words of unstructured prose to find it, they're unlikely to stick around.
Here's a tip. Make sure your readers can gather all the information they absolutely need within the first few sentences of a piece. If they're still interested (and they should be, thanks to your dazzlingly persuasive way with words), they'll read on.
Here's another. If you find your copy descending into pure waffle, think not about what you can say about the product, but what the product can do for the customer.
Dictionary.com defines tautology in the following terms:
The use of words that merely repeat elements of the meaning already conveyed, as in the sentence: 'Will these supplies be adequate enough?' in place of 'Will these supplies be adequate?'”
Other examples include 'widow woman', 'free gift' and 'forward planning'. And as you read that, countless late newspaper editors are turning in their graves.
Let's be clear here. I'm not one of those people who sticks to archaic grammar rules like a baby to a bottle. Sometimes, when you're writing colloquially, certain common tautologies are necessary to get across the informal tone you're going for.
However, what really gets my goat are lazy tautologies. The kinds of tautology that seem to suggest the writer has lost track of their sentence halfway through. Kinds like this:
“Also, the new, improved formula tackles curry stains as well.”
These need to be thrown to the flames. They bloat copy and strip it of its zest, confidence and power – and it will impact on readers, whether they're aware of the tautology or not.
This is a common habit amongst those who are heavily invested in a product, service or business. When you've invested years of sweat and tears in a proposition, it's easy to focus on its good points without telling the reader why they should be interested in it.
The most obvious symptom of this is an over-abundance of 'we', instead of 'you'. Flipping that pronoun around solves half the problem, because it makes you write for the customer, rather than your boss.
But there are deeper symptoms too. Like focussing on industry awards that mean nothing to your audience. Or writing about technically impressive aspects of your product that have little direct impact on the end user.
Chop this stuff out. It's much better to be 'impressively useful' than simply 'impressive'.
As the web-at-large gets more customer and conversion-savvy, this habit crops up less and less. But it still has a stronghold in certain sectors.
A golden rule of web copywriting is: “You are writing for an audience of everyone.” Just about anyone with an Internet connection can access your website, so you should write in a way they understand – even if its to make it clear your service isn't right for them.
But there are still firms that use jargon and corporate nonsense to 'cherrypick' their customers, with the assumption being that those who don't understand the copy won't need the product in the first place.
There are numerous problems with this approach, chief amongst them being:
a) You risk alienating portions of your audience who would benefit from the product, but they're at a stage in their research where they don't yet understand the jargon you're throwing at them.
b) You risk making your business appear exclusive, old-fashioned and chokingly corporate.
Here's an easy way round this problem. If your product or service is only suitable for a select audience, tell them.
I don't need to tell anyone that spelling and grammar mistakes are bad copywriting habits. So let's focus on one of the problems behind the problem - trusting automated spelling and grammar checks.
Automated checks like these are a good way to pick up on spelling and grammar mistakes that you might have missed in your read-through, but they are not a substitute for proper proofreading.
The golden rules of spellcheck:
I find few things more depressing than a copywriter who's stopped being a writer.
There are innumerable 'rules' and recommendations that govern copywriting best practice. Becoming a great copywriter means absorbing and using these in your day-to-day work, because for the most part, they are useful pieces of advice.
But 'advice' is the operative word. To repeat the cliché, rules are there to be broken. And the best examples of copywriting are almost always striking, interesting and enjoyable because they break one or more of these rules.
They take risks.
Great creative writers don't let rules get in the way of creating awesome work. Being a copywriter means being a great creative writer. They're one and the same.
Boring, bland, faceless copy. For me, that's the worst copywriting habit around - and it's destined for the hottest spot on my imaginary bonfire.