7 Deadly Sins of Copywriting
Published 07/07/2016
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The job of a copywriter involves a wide range of different skills and abilities, including a superior command of the English language, good creative instincts and research skills, as well as a knowledge of modern marketing techniques and digital media.

It's a lot to get right when producing written content that aims to rise above the din of online marketing, to win people's attention, build brand awareness and generate sales as a result. An awful lot can and does go wrong but, in the interests of simplicity, let's go over some of the the basics of clear, concise and simple writing and deal with the more strategic and scientific aspects of copywriting in another post.

The following seven recommendations will help to separate the copywriting saints from the sinners. Okay, they aren't really deadly sins and you won't be pitchforked for all eternity if you disregard them, but '7 bad habits of copywriting' wouldn't have made a very catchy title. Would it?

The business world is plagued by jargon. Words such as ‘leveraging’ (taking maximum advantage of) and ‘cascading’ (passing down) are still used far too widely at a time when people generally seem to appreciate the importance of plain English. A smattering of well-placed terminology is fine if you're writing for an audience of your industry peers but if you're aiming to reach a wider audience, you cannot afford to use complicated, pompous language. Do yourself a favour, keep your language clear and simple. Banish the jargon and your business and brand will be stronger as a result.

A cliché is the height of lazy writing - a word or phrase which springs to mind automatically, with almost no thought required, and which has gone stale through overuse. How many times have you been promised ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’, for example, or been invited to employ a company ‘with a strong track record’? These empty shells of words do nothing for your writing, or your business. So next time they pop into your head, as they inevitably will, don’t let them stay there. Finding an alternative form of words isn’t hard - this is the English language, after all - and your writing will be fresher, bouncier, and all the more interesting for it.

You can electrify your sentences by using strong verbs and writing in the active voice. An active sentence is one in which the subject performs the action stated by the verb. It’s a great way to keep your writing lively and to create a sense of urgency, immediacy, and decisiveness that sweeps your reader along with it. There’s nothing wrong with a passive construction, per se. Indeed, there are times when only a passive voice will do. But if you allow it to dominate, your writing will suffer with sentences that are wordy, sluggish, and bland.

See how much stronger the first example here is, when written in the active voice:

The journalist wrote the award-winning news story last year
The award-winning news story was written by the journalist last year

This one is more bad habit than deadly sin - but verbs with 'ing' at the end can disrupt the flow of your writing and rob your sentences of their immediacy. It is often far more effective - and more assertive - to write in the simple past tense. Instead of saying, for example, ‘the boss is demanding improvements from his staff,’ try ‘the boss demanded improvements from his staff.’ Again, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s more a question of style, something to think about when you know a sentence is a bit lacklustre and you’re trying to beef up your writing.

Nothing smacks of laziness like a piece of writing stuffed to the gills with adverbs. As Stephen King once said: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” - and he would know, it’s a road he travels every day. Put simply, an adverb tells your reader how an action is being taken, instead of ‘showing’ them. A strong verb illuminates the meaning of your sentence; an adverb is a shortcut around imaginative copy.

Consider the following examples. Notice how the second one creates a stronger impression than the first - and using fewer words:

The man closed the door firmly (tells how something happened)
The man slammed the door (shows how something happened)

This may seem counter-intuitive to people in business but the whole purpose of a blog post, white paper or brochure is not to sell but to educate, inform and intrigue your prospective customers and encourage them to make further enquiries. Your content is just one part of your sales process, it’s about sharing your expert knowledge for free, building brand awareness and trust. Great sales copy should sneak up on your prospect, not beat them around the head. It should repeat on them even if they leave without making an enquiry or completing a purchase (and there are marketing techniques for this, but more on that later).

William Faulkner talked about the need to ‘kill your darlings’. What he meant was that you must ruthlessly cut out anything that doesn’t improve your writing overall, no matter how fond of it you may be. Write for your reader, edit your writing objectively, let go of those self-indulgent, flowery passages. The cutting will be painful but it’s essential if you truly care about your readers’ experience. If you can imagine Russell Brand reading your words out aloud, in that flamboyant way of his, then your writing is turning purple. Like, Barney the Dinosaur purple.
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