Six Uncomfortable Truths About Copywriting
“Accept certain inalienable truths. Prices will rise; politicians will philander. You too will get old.” There are some truths in life we cannot escape, and not just those we hear in weird 90s essay-cum-Baz-Luhrmann-hits.
Like death, taxes and household cables contorting themselves, another inalienable truth is this:
Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis.
Once you’ve established yourself in the copywriting community, you begin to notice some recurring jokes. Our sense of humour is mainly rooted in painful client experiences, and we laugh about the biggest offences in copywriting to ease the pain.
But what if they’re not always offensive?
The exception that proves the rule
Before you throw rotting fruit at me, please remember that I champion these ‘copywriting rules’. However, a good journalist knows there are two sides to every story.
Start ripening those tomatoes now because these six uncomfortable truths about copywriting may boil your blood.
1. The word “we” kills your copywriting
The Golden Rule, nay, the Platinum Rule of copywriting is to speak to the reader, right? Rather than waxing lyrical about our “innovative services”, we must communicate how they can benefit YOU. With pronouns.
Nine times out of ten, that’s true. But what if we’re using “we” in an alternative context? Go back and read those last few sentences. Note that I used “we” to talk about me…and you. Not my wonderful team of stock image call centre workers.
By including us both in the messaging, I’m making you feel like we’re on the same team. Done badly, this comes across insincere and lacking self-awareness. “We all struggle with our finances from time to time,” says Jeff Bezos. Really?
Done well, it’s empathetic and entirely contextual. Let’s say your copywriting niche is in healthcare, psychology or parenting. Using “we” helps to humanise your messaging and lets readers understand that they’re not alone – your service will fix their problem because you’ve been through it yourself.
2. Be concise or lose the reader
Ever wanted to flip the bird at your word processor because it’s got all sassy with you? Often, the machines will scream at us because we’ve used a phrase such as “on account of” or “however”. They even lose their shit when we use the word “very”.
Akin to Stephen King and his loathing of adverbs, word processors tell you to be concise in all that you do. Cut the crap. You didn’t run fast – you sprinted. It wasn’t very large. It was enormous.
But doesn’t this contradict the…silver rule of copywriting? To write how you would talk? When I’ve got enough caffeine in me, I will throw out verbal diarrhoea like it’s going out of style. There’s a difference between writing War and Peace and using the occasional (non-offensive) ‘weak’ noun phrase.
3. Use “solutions” at your peril
The lead protagonist of the copywriting joke book, “solutions” opens itself up to abuse. There’s even a corporate ipsum generator for when you’re ready to spout some world-class BS.
But are we giving this blameless noun a hard time? Stemming from the Latin solvere, to loosen, “solution” implies there’s a problem to fix. It’s not the solution’s fault that Silicon Valley marketing gurus have bastardised it to the point that it means absolutely nothing.
Or does it?
I once saw a copywriter’s Twitter bio claiming: “Solutions is fine as long as it’s in context.” (Words to that effect – I’m sorry that I can’t remember your name!) The whole point of solutions is that they’re there to solve a problem.
If there’s no problem – I don’t have enough novelty office stationery to get me through the day – there’s not really a solution. If there is – my team can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery – a project management solution might be the answer.
4. Nobody cares about what you’re delighted to announce
Sorry to say it but it’s true. Your readers are driven by their own self-interests, so if you’re bragging about an award win, they don’t care how delighted you are.
But hey – you’re not always out to sell, right? What if that announcement you’re so delighted to share helps to foster trust in your company? “We are delighted to announce that we are now carbon neutral” sounds pretty appealing if you want to work with ethical suppliers.
Sure, you could just tell them you’re carbon neutral. But where’s the fun in that? Better still, your announcement could attract messages from your supporters…even your friends. One share of your little win could lead to a big sale. Most people won’t care, but where’s the shame in being happy about an achievement?
5. You should never price by the word
This one’s not so much about the effect of copywriting but the commercial side. See this sage advice from copywriting extraordinaire Jackie Barrie below:
No doubt. Charging by the word will only be lucrative if you’ve somehow managed to master the art of producing forest-burning, eloquent essays in minutes. Let’s not forget, though, that paying by the word is common in publishing (as this biting article into the fantasy that is Carrie Bradshaw’s career illustrates).
This may be because word counts are so rigid in this industry – 1,200 words in Carrie’s column, for example. When we’re charging for a services page or a blog post, it’s difficult to calculate how much content we’ll need, and how much time or research it will take.
The only exception I would venture is something that is relatively easy and indeed constrained by these word limits. Think meta descriptions, product descriptions or tweets. If you’ve got the information there or you’re translating copy you’ve already written into this slightly less sexy format, it may be easier to price by the word. It’s less likely to warrant research or edits, for starters. My advice? Charge this way as a last resort if and only if most of the work is done.
6. This isn’t an English lesson
Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures in copywriting is the artistic licence to bend the rules. See how many times I’ve started a sentence with but? We’re allowed to do that because it gives our copy personality.
First impressions count. I’m not here to clap my erasers at anybody but there is a certain expectation – particularly among those who’ve never hired a copywriter. They assume we all have English degrees and a vocabulary larger than Shakespeare’s. When it transpires that we actually have marketing, business or even psychology backgrounds, it’s a welcome shock – but a confused apostrophe will sound the alarm bells.
Getting away with murder
So, how can we copywriters get away with bending our own rules? Here are six tips from one tomato-covered scribbler:
- If you must use “we”, don’t use it to tell people what “we believe” – use it to show empathy and foster trust.
- Read your copy aloud to check for overuse of offending adverbs or complex phrases. There’s nothing more human than hearing it out loud.
- Save the solutions for the problem-solving – often in the tech sphere. Remember your audience, too. Corporate culture welcomes this loquacious style. If you’re writing for Big Pharma but sound like you’re promoting Monster…not the best start.
- Don’t congratulate yourself too much. Baz Lurhmann strikes again. If it’s a big deal, it’s fine to be delighted. If somebody brought cake in…
- If pricing by the project/day/time/research/length is impossible – by the word may be acceptable. Don’t sell yourself short.
- Typos happen, but running your copy through a machine editor shows attention to detail.
Are you still with me, copywriters? Remember – these are exceptions, not standard practice.
That’s the beauty of this job though, isn’t it? We can do what we want.
27th February 2021