Good copywriting is important – here’s why.

Today I want to talk about copywriting, which is what I do for a living. It’s a different kind of challenge to writing fiction – I have to bear in mind clients’ requirements, but creatively it can be just as rewarding.

I work with my husband, a graphic designer, and over the years I’ve often noticed how people see the importance of good design, but sometimes text plays second fiddle. People often think that so long as there aren’t any typos, their copy is probably fine as it is.

Tut, tut! To this I say: never underestimate the power of words, in particular the tone of voice they’re written in, and the effect they can have on the reader.

The right words are key. The right amount. The right tone. The right message.

Good design with poor copy is like eating artisan bread with Happy Shopper marge.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about copywriting over the years, some of which can equally be applied to writing fiction.

1 • Don’t say what you think people want to hear.

Businesses want to sound professional, so they strive to use professional language. But language that sounds too professional and businessy, can often sound soulless and dull.

Thanks to this tendency, there are certain words and phrases today that have become a tad vacuous: ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘highly regarded’ and ‘leaders in our field’ to name but a few.

Would you say to your friend/partner/kids, “Let’s go and visit that world-class museum with the cutting-edge displays that really add value to the unbeatable admission price!”?

Of course not.

Just speak normally. It’s allowed.

2 • Go easy on the war paint.

Vacuous words aside, messages drenched in adjectives don’t sound confident. You just sound like you’re trying to compensate for having a below-average product or service.

For example, ‘So-and-so stars in this side-splitting, laugh-out-loud, smash-hit comedy.’

Is this film going to make us wet ourselves with laughter? Probably not. The copy is trying too hard and we suspect it’s probably a mildly amusing film at best.

You might think your message looks a little bare or weak without a good dressing of adjectives, but don’t be fooled by the fear. Too much make-up never makes anyone look better.

Keep your message simple and honest.

3 • Frankie says relax.

Don’t go spewing all your key selling points into one piece of marketing.

If you’re trying to shoehorn a long list of benefits, accolades, praise and statistics into a paragraph, then take Frankie’s advice and for goodness sake, relax.

Less is more. Hold something back for later. Have a little mystique. Keep ‘em dangling.

After all – those three words ended up going viral for Frankie, decades before ‘viral’ was a thing.

4 • Forget your ‘target audience’.

You may well have worked out exactly who your target audience is, down to the most detailed demographics. But the person you’re really talking to, if the truth be known, is the one who gets it.

The more you try to widen your tone of voice to reach every potential customer, the weaker your message will be.

You’re talking to one person. The person who gets it.

This requires trust.

5 • Be true to yourself.

If you’re true to yourself, you’re much more likely to reach those who’ll get it.

Every time you get lost in a book or film, or laugh at a comedy or advert; every time you’re swallowed whole by a piece of music, or stop to stare at a piece of art – the creator, whoever they might be, was being true to themselves.

They didn’t create it with nothing but sales figures in mind. They wrote it/painted it/produced it for themselves. That’s why it touched you. It was fresh, honest and real – not contrived.

Find your true voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

6 • Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever gone to a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt have heard the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling.

But it’s just as relevant to copywriting as it is to writing fiction. To tell is to state the facts. To show is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind – to help them visualise what it is you’re talking about.

To tell: “That’s a very big shark.”

To show: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

7 • Don’t undervalue the power of humour.

We all notice language that makes us laugh or smile. It brightens our day for a moment.

When companies take themselves a little less seriously, they start to sound less corporate and more human. The more human you sound, the more you’re likely to connect.

Inject some humour into your copy and it will start to sound more friendly and warm. If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re a firm of lawyers/accountants/other type of professional service, then I would challenge that perception. Too much serious-toned sales bluster on your About Us page can actually come across as intimidating and, in some cases, gives off a condescending air. Remind people you’re a bunch of humans, too.

ShitcoffeeAmazingcoffee

(I asked a group of friends which sign they preferred. ‘Shit coffee’ won hands down.)

8 • Don’t brag.

Saying you’re the market leader or the best in your field is all very well, but who cares? No one likes a big mouth.

By all means get the message across that you’re number one gun, but do it with some subtlety. It’s less off-putting and more believable. All companies have their flaws and weaknesses, so why claim to be perfect? Everyone knows it’s not the entire truth.

Be honest about who you are. And again, don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

9 • Don’t stack stats.

Never add up lots of statistics to make one big, fat, meaningless statistic, such as: ‘We have over 175 years’ experience between us.’

TV documentaries are particularly guilty of this insult to the nation’s intelligence. Ie: ‘These 40 dieters lost a whopping 150 stone between them.’ So what? It means nothing to anybody. How one dieter lost a few stone is what’s relevant and interesting.

Keep stats to a minimum and put them in context to make them meaningful.

10 • Ignore what everyone else is doing.

Don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s websites/brochures/adverts. You will definitely find someone whose work looks better than yours. And another person is likely to think your work looks better than theirs. And so on and so on…

So don’t waste time drooling over their awards/portfolio/market position.

Avert your eyes and ears from all the noise out there, find your true voice, write yourself a quick, uncensored pep talk and frame it. That voice in the pep talk – that’s the one.

You’re writing for the person who gets you. And as you’re the first person to get you, you’re basically writing for yourself.

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Slasher on the loose

The other night I was in the pub with a group of women, when someone asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I’m a copywriter, and that I used to work as a sub-editor. Like many people, she wasn’t too sure what a sub-editor did. I joked that sub-editors are like the distant cousins of axe-murderers – that there’s a lot of hacking and slashing involved.

Everyone knows what an editor is, of course, and people often assume that you are the editor of some publication or other, inadvertently pegging you further up the career ladder to a slightly more impressive position than the one you actually occupy. But in fact, sub-editors are usually a few notches below the editor, doing the dogsbody work of axing, lengthening, re-writing, fact-checking, spell-checking, proofreading, headlines and captions, while making the text look tidy, consistent and presentable.

I like to think of sub-editors as the unsung heroes of journalism, that behind every great journalist is a team of great subs, whipping that copy into shape, giving it an attention-grabbing (sometimes misleading) headline, axing a lot of unnecessary waffle and leading it towards a neatly tied-up conclusion.

Subs also have the power to change the tone of a sentence and take words out of context (surely the bane of every celebrity’s life). This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes a 1000-word article has to lose 500 words in order to fit into an appointed space and leave room for pictures. A sub decides which 500 words must go. Sentences will get skimmed down, losing words here and there, sometimes with the result that a light-hearted remark ends up sounding brusque.

Sub-editing is definitely a geek’s job. You get apoplectic about apostrophes, and you appreciate a sentence that has the words apoplectic and apostrophe in it. You weigh up ‘the staff is helpful’ versus ‘the staff are helpful’, knowing the former is correct but the latter sounds more natural. And of course, you are as smug as a bug in a rug when you spot a typo such as this one: ‘The lightweight screen shits comfortably on top of the hard drive’, which I’m relieved to say I spotted when working on an IT magazine years ago. (Although I’m pretty sure the editor planted it there just to keep me on my toes.)

Subbing is also a creative job. Thinking of the right headline to match the article is one thing, but getting it to fit into the allotted space with the given font size is another challenge. This was particularly tricky working at The Sun TV Guide years ago: Most headlines for the soap pages were only three or four short words long, and there was only so many times you could have ‘Mum’s the word’ or ‘Kat’s got the cream’.

But there are also disadvantages to working as a sub-editor. For example, I am now programmed to always think in puns when trying to come up with a headline, strapline, caption or title. A deluge of corny, cheesy, inappropriate ideas will always come gushing out before anything vaguely on the money.

But by far the worst disadvantage: I am not allowed to make a mistake. Ever. Dare I send a text or email to a friend abbreviating ‘you’re’ to ‘your’ because I’m in a hurry? No, I dare not, lest they think I don’t know the first thing about the English language. If I’m proofreading, I cannot miss a single forgotten full stop or misplaced apostrophe, even if my eyes are bloodshot from staying up way past midnight ploughing through a box set of The Killing.

No, there is no mercy for the sub who makes a mistake (despite eradicating hundreds). So I raise my glass to subs and copywriters everywhere: “Pats you’reselfs on the bak, u lot. U is all doin a gr8 job:-)’