Category : Copywriting


The secret behind successful copywriting…

My writing resolution for 2014: never use three words when one will do

In the first week or so of any New Year, TV and the written press bombard us lesser mortals with talk of New Year’s resolutions. If you haven’t yet come up with a resolution for your business or organisation, here’s a suggestion to make your marketing and social media campaigns more engaging. It’s very simple: be brief.

As an eager journalism student years ago, I have vivid memories of receiving my first assignment back from our lecturer – an articulate, erudite lady with an impeccable track record in lexical manipulation.

To my horror, I noted that more of my precious words seemed to have been deleted than actually remained on the page – and, judging by the reaction of my classmates, my experience was not unique. They, too, had suffered a savage and apparently unprovoked attack on their verbosity.

Our lecturer’s writing mantra, she explained, was to remove every word that was not doing a job.

When I reread the offensively red text she’d handed me, I realised that she hadn’t changed the meaning of my writing one whit: she had simply removed the parts she deemed “redundant”. And what was the result of her interventions? Precisely the same message was conveyed in around 30% fewer words…

This baptism of fire at the hands of an editor who wielded a red pen like a scalpel was a stark reminder that in copywriting, as in so many other aspects of life, it is quality – not quantity – that matters.

Take slogans. They’re an excellent example of writers making words work hard for a living – in just three words, companies such as Nike (“Just do it”), Coke (“Coke is it”) and Audi (“Vorsprung durch Technik”) promoted their brands memorably.

It probably took their marketing teams days (perhaps even weeks) to develop these short, yet highly successful, slogans – an apparent paradox which was neatly summed up by American writer Mark Twain. He is quoted as saying, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”

As for how long it took to translate (or “localise”) the three aforementioned advertising slogans phrases into a host of other languages in such a way as to achieve a similar effect across both cultures and continents, well that’s another story entirely (and the subject of a blog later this year)!

Twain wasn’t the first writer, by a long way, to identify the difficulty of being concise with words. In Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy Hamlet, Polonius declares:

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”

Even before that, Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

These three men understood the importance of being succinct.  Having spent the first 20 years of my professional life being paid by the volume of words I translated, it’s perhaps ironic that I now regularly advocate brevity. But I do.

modern english lesson cartoon

Is Grammar a Goner?

Is Grammar a Goner?

modern english lesson cartoon

When the cartoon to the left appeared on my Facebook page recently, I promptly shared it, as I suspected it would appeal to several friends who, like me, are fascinated by matters grammatical and orthographical.

Responses to the cartoon ranged from a teenager’s desperate “Oh gosh, please no” to an adult’s philosophical “If language isn’t a living thing, then what is it?” to another adult’s firm “Yes, it’s organic, but it doesn’t have to be a free-for-all either, or the rate of change will get out of hand. We sticks-in-the-mud serve a useful purpose in trying to slow the process down just a little.”

Evidently the importance – or lack of importance – of grammar has the capacity to polarise people, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the issue rears its head in the press reasonably often. Indeed, scarcely a week goes by without an article in some paper or online forum bemoaning the state of the English written language, denigrating the decline in standards of spoken language, and forecasting a time when we will be reduced to the grunting and babbling favoured by our Neanderthal forebears.

One of the most recent grammar-related furores was provoked by Oxford Professor Simon Horobin, who questioned if apostrophes were really necessary any more. In response to his query, The Telegraph newspaper online invited readers to vote for other grammatical rules they’d like to see banned.

So is grammar worth holding on to? Or is it doomed to oblivion in the not-too-distant future? Personally, I hope not – and not just because I’m an editor and proofreader (who could well become extinct if grammar, including apostrophe usage, were to fall by the wayside!). Being a linguist as well as a writer, I genuinely fear that the act of removing basic grammar rules from our language one by one could have the same effect as systematically removing the foundation stones from a building – at some point in the future that building is likely to come clattering down. And at current rate of progress, by then there might be no one with any knowledge of grammar left to rebuild it…

Building Language

The importance of building language on secure foundations.

Occasionally, my writing background sees me called upon to tutor Higher English pupils, and I have to confess to feeling ever so slightly nervous about the lack of grammatical knowledge demonstrated by many of these youngsters. It appears that during the early years of secondary school they forget virtually every last grammar rule diligently drummed into them by their primary school teachers. Not even 50% of the 14 to 16-year-olds I’ve worked with recently were confident what a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition or conjunction was at their first lesson. In fact, the majority could not correctly identify more than a couple of these terms.

Given that these elements are fundamental to an appreciation of how language fits together, it was scarcely surprising that these teenagers were finding it hard to write insightfully about the relative merits of the texts they were being asked to criticise. If you don’t know the correct way to construct a sentence properly yourself, it’s not going to be easy to de-construct it for the purpose of analysing how proficient the writer has been at his or her craft.

Lack of grammar is only one aspect of the fundamental malaise that is striking at the very heart of (native and modern) language learning. A dearth (needless to say, not one of last year’s tutees knew what that meant) of vocabulary also hinders young people in achieving good results in a subject that is, after all, their mother tongue. Unfortunately, this issue is hardly likely to be resolved in a matter of days or even weeks, especially when many teenagers communicate via Twitter. This micro-version of social media has turned the paring of sentences and chopping of words (necessary to achieve the mandatory 140 characters) into an art form. I should clarify that Twitter is not all bad, of course; after all, it does involve careful selection of words and creative use of language. However, it most certainly discourages the use of high-register, polysyllabic words which can greatly enhance the quality of formal written texts.

The problem with improving vocabulary is that it is a lengthy and ongoing process – like fitness, it has to be worked at, and it has to be worked at regularly. For some strange reason, we humans tend to assume that while it’s necessary to sit and learn new words if we want to master a foreign language such as French or Spanish, new English words on the other hand will somehow drop from the skies into our waiting minds without the least effort on our part… Unfortunately, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that! Even now, at the grand old age of nearly 50, I openly confess to following the Oxford English dictionary’s Word of the Day on Twitter and having the Wordsmith A.Word.A.Day emailed to my inbox. Moreover, I hope to be doing so for many years to come.

Some of my tutees – especially (and this is in no way intended as a sexist remark) the boys – readily admit to reading nothing other than what they “have to” read for school. With this in mind, I encourage (all right, I nag!) all my pupils to read anything and everything – books, poetry, instruction manuals for gadgets, plays, newspaper headlines, controversial columns in magazines, sports reports, signs on buses, menus, adverts, etc.

Why is that worth doing, you might ask (and many 16-year-old boys certainly do…), especially if you have no intention of using English again when you leave school? Stop right there! That is precisely the point I’m making. Can you really claim that you are never going to use English again when you leave school? Not ever…?

Of course you can’t, because the truth is that no matter which career path you end up following, you will almost certainly be asked to produce an essay, a report or a presentation at some point. Through observing other people’s writing and identifying what is done badly or well by others, we can all learn how to write better ourselves. Analysing the grammar, the style, the tone of voice and the different literary devices used by another writer trains our brains to be sensitive to what makes a piece of writing successful. Once you have you have learned to identify the factors that make a piece of writing more effective and more interesting for the reader (in this case, you!), the easier it will be for you to apply this knowledge to your own writing.

If, however, despite your best attempts to grapple with the minutiae of English grammar and syntax, you still approach writing presentations, reports or promotional materials with a feeling of impending doom and despair, have no fear: that’s why professional copywriters were invented!

Beware the dangling modifier

Inglourious Grammar

Putting the fun into pedantry.

As any pedant will tell you, grammar is a serious business – and, though it pains me to say so, often viewed by others as a very dull business. In fact, the very mention of the word has the power to send the most severe insomniac straight to the Land of Nod. However, with a bit of creativity, there are always ways of livening up a potentially dreary subject, and the film makers at College Humor did precisely that a few years ago when they made a mini-spoof (a whole three minutes) based on the film Inglourious Basterds and featuring a “grammar Nazi”.

Without giving too much away, the punchline requires the viewer to be familiar with an issue of syntax (sentence structure) that catches out even the most experienced writers at times. So before you watch the film, here’s a quick heads-up on the dreaded “dangling participle…”

Normally we use an adjective to describe a noun or pronoun. For example, we say, “John is tired.” However, we also modify nouns using whole phrases, which we place before the said noun or pronoun, e.g. “Tired and footsore, John stumbled down the path.” This is correct, as the modifier describes the subject of the sentence, “John”. However, it would not be correct to say, “Tired and footsore, the path seemed to John to go on forever.” Here, the writer is saying that the path is tired and footsore, rather than John. In this case, the modifier is said to be “dangling” – hanging about at the start of the sentence, not quite sure where it fits in.

Here are another few examples of dangling modifiers, just to get your eye in…

“Barking and snarling, John was bitten by the dog.”

Now John might well have been snarling after the dog bit him, but the writer actually meant the modifier “barking and snarling” to apply to the dog and not John. Yet as the word “John” follows immediately after the modifier in this sentence, technically it applies to him.

“Laughing loudly, I could hear Jim at the other side of the room.”

Here, the writer wanted to imply that Jim was laughing so loudly that the speaker could hear him from the other side of the room. However, what he actually wrote implies that the speaker himself is doing the laughing, and not Jim, as the modifier “laughing loudly” is placed directly before the pronoun “I”.

OK, so now that you can spot a dangling modifier at 100 paces, enjoy the film!

Thanks to US outfit College Humor for this extremely creative grammar teaching tool!

What’s This Blog About?

Are you good at what you do?

As a copywriter and journalist, I am regularly asked what makes a “good writer”. You’d think the answer would be blindingly obvious, wouldn’t you? However, it’s actually incredibly difficult to define what makes a writer “good”. Why? Well, the main reason is that each individual reader has his or her own personal opinion on what actually constitutes good writing.

For some, good writing is purely about conveying information in a way that they can easily understand. For others, good writing means creating copy that engages buyers and persuades them to invest in products or services. And for many of us, good writing means entertaining readers and taking them on a fictional journey to another place or time or universe. In short, good writing comes in as many different forms as there are briefs and genres. It is thus impossible to slap a one-size-fits-all definition on the term “good writer”.

Over the coming months, this blog will be looking at numerous writing-related issues, ranging from common grammatical errors which we can all make at times (hopefully some of us less frequently than others!) to examples of inspired copywriting, to news stories that touch on anything to do with language.

In the case of this first post, I’m going to look at copywriting for websites, which brings us back to that original question… what makes good web copy?

Let’s start with the basics that apply to all website copy. It should be:

  • Accurate and grammatically correct, with no typos or missing words.
  • Written with the reader in mind, i.e. informative and relevant to his/her interests.
  • Fit for purpose, i.e. convey the intended message (plus a call to action, if required).
  • Laid out in such as way that it can be read quickly and easily (both by the search engines and by visitors to your site), e.g. small, chunks of scannable text.

If you’re planning a new website or want to revise the copy on your existing site, take time to plan the pages carefully. Give careful thought to what search terms people searching for your product or service would be likely to submit to the search engines, then integrate those terms subtly into your web copy, but without overdoing it (the last thing you want is to fall foul of any Penguin algorithm changes!).

Last but not least, use your common sense. Think what sort of copy would make you decide to stay on a website (for example, copy that’s relevant, easy to digest and interesting to your business) and what sort of copy would make you dive straight for that little cross in the top right-hand corner. [OK, you can go there now – I’ve finished!]