No, it won't do. Ten reasons (and many more) why your copywriter probably isn't on autopilot.

I don't normally do 'riposte' style posts, but this morning I read this post from We All Need Words about why copywriters are often on autopilot.

Now, I'm willing to take it with a pinch of salt, because what they're really talking about - I think - is advertising copy, as opposed to the workhorse, everyday, need-to-fill-the-page copy that many of us provide for web and for print.

It's an important distinction, because in advertising, often you're looking to convey an emotive message in the fewest words possible - a catchy slogan, or a brand message that will stick in the reader's mind.

Contrast that with what I call workhorse copy - technical specifications, instruction manuals, and so on - and there's a clear difference in tone. And between the two extremes, there's a whole spectrum where product descriptions and 'about us' pages can be evocative, but still need to stay fairly restrained in terms of poetry and imagery.

So it's a shame that, from the start, We All Need Words go with a general statement like "much of the blame [for bad writing] has to lie with copywriters themselves. Too many of them have knocked out sloppy words for far too long".

Let's take a look at their ten "provocations" for how to "stop the rot and get out of this rut".

1. Style is a crutch

They argue that style should be stripped back - words should be simple and trick-free, like any great advertisement from the past 50 years.

In principle, it's hard to disagree with that, although I'd say it's always worth remembering the tone of voice of your client's brand - not everything needs to be written in Standard English.

2. "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Again, this point refers to "adding flourishes" to your writing, claiming that this is something copywriters do to show off.

Well no, not really. Many of us have trained for years to be the best writers we can be - I've studied language from its smallest components upwards, and from completed texts backwards into their individual constituent parts.

If it "sounds like writing", that's probably because it's using carefully selected words in a certain order, building meaning and impact as it goes along, and working towards an intended goal - whether to entertain the reader, or to sell something, or for any other purpose.

Rewrite everything that sounds like writing, and you'd be left with something on a linguistic par with The Only Way is Essex.

3. Sometimes commas are in the wrong place. Get over it.

I'm going to print their entire argument on this point in full below. Ready? Here it comes...

"It's easy to fix a stray apostrophe. It's a lot harder to fix a weak idea."

I literally don't know exactly what they mean by that, but I think they're saying that they don't care about punctuating things correctly, as long as you can get the general gist of it.

Now imagine you're paying that person to write for you...

4. Write like you really speak.

Again, there's a bit of confusion here between the defining characteristics of speech and writing.

I mean, like, erm... [pause] when you say things out loud [pause] you don't always know... get it right... exactly right first time. You- you- you make false starts [pause] and um hesitations. And stuff. And it's not gre- not always great.

Let's clear this up for good. A conversational tone is fine. Especially for informal writing, like blog posts, or (heaven forbid) 'chatty' brands. But give some thought to whether or not you're starting to really piss off your target customers, for the sake of indulging your commitment to a conversational tone of voice.

Remember rules 1 and 2 up above - don't use style as a crutch, and don't add unnecessary flourishes to your writing (without good reason, I'd add, as there are always exceptions where a bit of flourish can work wonders).

It's also worth noting the comment "Innocent Drinks (unfairly) get most of the flak for wackaging, the cloying matey tone favoured by banks and fizzy drinks."

I mean, it's easy to defend a brand when they're among your clients.

5. Never trust a writer who says they're a 'storyteller'.

I think I agree in principle with this point, although it's so poorly made that again I'm not 100% sure what they're trying to say.

They argue that "storytelling comes with the job", but I'm still not sure if they think every piece of writing is always a story, or not.

Either way, I think we're in agreement that not every piece of copy needs to 'tell a story' in order to be effective, but given the way they described butter and figs last week, I'm not convinced that We All Need Words really practise what they reach.

6. Say it directly or don't say it at all.

On this point, they ask why banks say "we aim to" and "we believe" instead of simply stating what they are going to do.

Well, sadly, compliance departments the world over will be screaming at your copywriter if they hand over a website full of statements beginning "we will".

You only have to look at any interim financial statement from any major corporation to see a disclaimer against "forward-looking statements", pointing out that the brand can't predict the future, and that you shouldn't invest based on their forecasts.

Good writing should never get mired in legalese, by any means - but nor should it jeopardise the legal standing of its publisher.

7. Clunky segues are a warning sign.


This is the same kind of objection that leads people to say "semicolons are dying out"; in fact, they're not.

Semicolons are much loved among professional and amateur writers alike; they serve a specific function, and they serve it well.

But what do semicolons have to do with anything?

Well, according to We All Need Words, 'clunky segues' mean two unrelated ideas are being forced together.

I disagree (obviously); like a semicolon, a segue sentence of this type is a way of demarcating the division between two distinct but relatable ideas.

They're a nod to the reader - an admission that you're asking for a leap of faith, but only a small one - and like any punctuation (which they're a slightly larger example of, when you're reading aloud) they add a moment's pause, a breathing and thinking space before the text continues into the new idea.

8. The. Lazy. Shortcut.

"Stringing three bland words together with full stops doesn't make a headline."

Erm, yup, can't argue with that one. Whether we're talking about news or advertising, headline laziness is a real bugbear with me too - particularly the way American news outlets use a comma in place of the word 'and'. It's the word 'and', it's hardly gonna bankrupt you paying for the extra ink, is it?

We All Need Words didn't expand on this point beyond the statement quoted above, so there's not much to object to.

9. Microsoft Word gives you verbal diarrhoea.

The point here only makes any sense if you're talking about print, but the authors still include websites in their list of problem areas.

They say that you shouldn't write anything, for anywhere where layout is important, without sketching out your container first.

Now yes, OK, if you need your words to fit into a certain space, you need to know how big that space is. But it's worth remembering that words are not fixed in their dimensions.

Alter the font size, and you change the size of your text - but not your container. Even italicising can make text wider, which caused horizontal scrollbars to appear when they weren't needed in the early days of the web (I know, because I was building websites in the mid to late 1990s).

Nowadays there are different concerns to take into account, particularly online, where the following two rules apply:

a) If your font size is fixed, you know how big your text will be.

Literally, fixing your font size fixes your text size. That means you can write in that font size in Microsoft Word, and know that your text is filling the same amount of space that it will on the website.

You'll still need something to give you an idea of the space you have available to fill, but it can easily be a jpeg mock-up of the page template, and not the finished, working, HTML version.

b) If your website is accessible, your font size is not fixed.

A truly accessible website - and one compliant with modern-day CSS conventions - does not fix font sizes.

This allows visitors with visual impairments to adjust the font size in order to make it larger - and it's worth taking into account when you're designing your site.

It's why fixed-width WordPress templates make me feel a little uneasy, because your visually impaired readers will be left with massive words crammed into the middle 640 pixels of their 2000-pixel-wide flatscreen display, effectively making them read your website as though it was still 1997.

My personal preference for full-width templates with as much space dedicated to the main content as possible stems from this desire not only to cater for visitors with accessibility needs, but to put the main content of my site front and centre for all of my readers.

We All Need Words add that you shouldn't write the Encyclopaedia Britannica when "a few words or an image will do the job better".

Again, it depends on what you're trying to achieve, but if you want your page to have any kind of presence in the search results, you're going to need a decent amount of well-written plain text, until Google make a few more advances in interpreting the content of images.

Seriously, why would you hire a copywriter to suggest an image? We're not photographers. We're not graphic designers. If you want an image to do the job, don't hire someone to write you 500 words.

10. Quoting people. Oh the shame.

We All Need Words evidently are of the opinion that word of mouth is irrelevant, and therefore that there's no point in quoting happy customers on your website, advertisement, brochure or otherwise.

I'd say they're partly right - those trailers for horror movies that consist solely of laughing audience members saying "OMG I was SO frightened!" are cringeworthy for sure (not to mention the fact that 200 people laughing hysterically does little to vouch for the wet-pants-inducing nature of your film).

But sometimes a quote offers an independent voice, a chance to see what somebody really thinks of a product or service before you put your own money into it.

I use testimonials on this site, and they've helped me to secure work. I've given testimonials both as LinkedIn recommendations, and in print in the prospectus for the course I took at University. Sites like Amazon use them too, although you'll see them as customer reviews, rather than as direct quotes.

If your customers are happy - and are willing to go on the record to say so - there is absolutely no reason why you should ever feel any shame about that fact. Just be wary of coming across as smug because of it.

So there we go, all ten points deconstructed and over-analysed. If you've read this far, I'm amazed. In fact, if you've read this far without skipping anything, you should probably hire me to write for you, right?

I've tried to be even-handed in my analysis, because I genuinely do agree with a couple of the points made by We All Need Words, and I hope I've justified myself where I disagree. In places I would have said more, if I was more confident of the point the original authors were trying to make.

To cut a long story short (too late!), the point is this:

Good copywriters have studied and trained for years to develop that autopilot mode that allows them to produce excellent-quality content as second nature, rather than agonising over every word and producing something self-aware and stilted.

If your copywriter can turn around a 500-word project, free from typos, in half an hour, and you're still happy with the result, they probably deserve a pay rise. Don't be too quick to criticise them - you might find they're hard to replace.

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