Jan 24, 2016

16 Quirks Of Crappy Copywriting

Beat Your Buzzwords And Grammatical Traps

Have you ever told yourself that you’re perfectly capable of stringing a decent sentence together?

You can bash out a well-worded bit of web copy, a blog, a slogan or a press release, without the aid of some poncey copywriter.  

After all, no-one understands the business better than you do, right?

Well you’re not alone. But consider this quote from a wonderful article by Toby Litt: 

“Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self. The person who will admire it first and last and most is the writer herself.” 

If you love your own writing, you could be fooling yourself. And this delusion – this mistaken belief that good writing is easy – is very common.

So how about some objectivity?

Here are 16 notorious indicators of bad copywriting. Before you neglect to hire a professional, ask yourself, are you guilty of any of them?  

1. You LOVE the word ‘solution’ 

The word ‘solution’ is banded around in business like cake at a party: strategy solution, transport solution, solutions management solution, snack-before-lunch solution.

It is THE go-to word for thrusting managerial types who want colleagues to think they have all the answers. They don’t. They just have a limited vocabulary. And a punchable face.


‘Solution’ has become one of those buzzy, catchall terms with apparently endless applications. But that doesn’t mean you should start peppering your copywriting with it.

‘Solution’ is a default word. It’s a lazy, flabby, bland word.

‘Solution’ means precisely ‘blah’. The only people who use it purposefully to advertise their services are the manufacturers of ammonia and maths teachers.

The rest of the business world – and copywriters in particular – should find another word.

Be different. Don’t resort to tropes, convey something real. Create tangible images that your readers can work with. The word “solution” solves nothing.


2. Your writing is fully of words ending ‘LY’

Adverbs, words that modify the meaning of a verb (or an adjective), are umami to writers. They’re extremely moreish, the difference between writing, and being… well, writerly.

Used sparingly, adverbs can be powerful tools.  

They give dull writing a pep, and read deliciously, like intense, blobs of flavour. But you wouldn’t cover your dinner in brown sauce. And the same rule applies. 

Adverbs are enhancers. If they don’t add anything, don’t use them.

It’s precisely when copywriters flagrantly ignore this principle, and deploy adverbs unreservedly or improperly, that they get to the point increasingly slowly.


3. You avoid ending a sentence with a preposition

Its fine. End of.


4. You use ‘whilst’, ‘amongst’, ‘amidst’ and other Shakespearean relics

A copywriting client returned a draft to me once with every instance of the word ‘while’ crossed out and replaced by ‘whilst’.

I swallowed my indignation, quietly snapped a pencil and asked him to explain.

It’s just “more correct” he said.

But is it?

Although ‘whilst’ is synonymous with ‘while’, as a copywriter I’m inclined to avoid it.

‘Whilst’ for me, is a formal conjunction, a little arcane, even clumsy: like ‘while’ with airs and graces.

Words used by copywriters should cut to the quick, not flop around on the tongue. 

‘Amongst’ and ‘amidst’ are among others thou shouldst forego.

And as for ‘thus’, what’s wrong with ‘so’? 


5. Your writing is full of long sentences

I have no truck with long sentences, but it’s the mistaken impression of some amateurish writers that long sentences with endless conjunctions and a large number of subordinate clauses, that require your readers to pause constantly to take a breath, in the same respect as using long words, give your writing a degree of sophistication.

If it were only the occasional sentence that rambled on in such a protracted way, then that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, but writers who feel obligated to string one long sentence after another, like Henry James, for some weakly justified rationale such as “long sentences sound more intelligent”, will quickly lose the attention of their audience.

The best copywriters vary sentence lengths to keep things interesting. And they're not afraid of a short sentence.

Short sentences are good. Even ‘sentences’ without verbs. They’re punchier. Easier to digest.

Okay so fusty Cambridge University grammarians might have something to say about them. But who cares? This is copywriting.


6. You wouldn’t dream of starting a sentence with ‘And’, ‘But’, ‘Yet’ or ‘So’

Some amateur writers labour under the apprehension that you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction. They’re wrong. But they’re not easily swayed.

I remember a fellow copywriter who was edited harshly by a client for beginning a sentence ‘So’. The attached note read “Surely we’re better than this?” While a client of my own was incredulous that I would start a sentence with ‘And’.

“But it’s not proper English!” he kept repeating, ignoring his own rule. 

This silly belief has been around for generations. And it persists despite put downs by great writers like Kingsley Amis: 

‘And the idea that and must not begin a sentence, or even a paragraph, is an empty superstition. The same goes for but. Indeed either word can give unimprovably early warning of the sort of thing that is to follow.’


7. You write ‘state of the art’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘innovative’

Every modern enterprise would like to present themselves as pioneers, surfing the crest of the wave, or whatever. Indeed, what’s the alternative – limping after the pack, rehashing the breakthroughs of others?

All we ask is that you find another way to say it. ‘State of the art’ and ‘innovative’ are lazy terms nowadays, plastered all over adverts and sales pitches.

Plus, while I’ve never been to the cutting edge, I can only imagine it’s PACKED up there.


8. You dig superlatives

Many businesses have a high opinion of themselves, but flinging superlatives around holds little sway.

Companies continually refer to themselves as ‘leading’, ‘world-class’, ‘superior’ or ‘unrivalled’. But besides being clichéd, this degree of self-importance can be hard for your audience to swallow.

Resist the temptation to employ superlatives. Explain instead how you outperform the competition, and why your product is better than others. 


9. ‘That’, ‘just’ and ‘quite’ keep popping up

‘That’ is quite an awkward word. ‘This’ is better. But ‘that’ – the subordinating conjunctive – just clutters the place up and gets in the way of more active, interesting words.

Sometimes ‘that’ can’t be avoided. But sometimes it just crashes sentences uninvited, sleazes on the guests and steals all of the free booze.

Quite inexperienced copywriters can fall into the trap of thinking that it’s required, when in fact it’s pointless in this sentence.

As for ‘just’ and ‘quite’, they’re pointless in every sentence you’ve just read.

Good writers strive for economy in their copy. Needless words should be pruned away.


10. ‘Experience and expertise’

Okay they’re perfectly decent words, but unless you want your copy to sound like everyone else’s CV, try to find others.


11. You have no idea what a tautology is

Tautologies are pairs of words or phrases with the exact same meaning. Like that one.

They’re redundant constructions which make the same point twice. Some have crept into common parlance through repetition. But excluding irony, or a poetic attempt at emphasis, most tautologies have no place in quality copywriting and must be squashed under your boot.

Need some examples? No problem. 

‘First and foremost’ – They’re the same word.

‘Meet with’ – Don’t be silly.

‘Reasons why’ – Nope.

‘Comprise of’ – More subtle, but that’s no excuse.

‘Necessary requirement’ – Give me a break.

‘Joint collaboration’ – Classic office piffle.

‘Close proximity’ – Think about what you’re saying!

‘Forward planning’ – As oppose to planning something in the past?

‘In my opinion, I think’ – You should stop.

‘Top priority’ – Please stop.

‘Advance warning’ – Just no.

‘Added bonus’ – Don’t do it.

‘Repeat again’ – Okay that’s enough.

‘Null and void’ -  Ridiculous.

‘The honest truth’ – Is this a joke?  


12. You try and…

Don’t try and write anything. Try to write it.


13. You ‘utterly’ love intensifiers.

We’ve already discussed why good copywriters avoid adverbs. Well intensifiers are totally, absolutely, completely to be avoided.  

Strung together, they create a meaningless babble. Listen to any Donald Trump speech: 

“I’m going to cut taxes bigly… yuuugely… believe it… etc”

While intensifiers may be forgivable in everyday conversations, these little flourishes overcomplicate your copywriting and stop you from getting to the point.

Recently I lost a client for challenging him on lines like this:

"We are absolutely passionate and totally committed to providing an utterly unforgettable experience.”

Passionate’ is a strong word (albeit overused). It doesn’t need intensifying. Insisting that you’re ‘absolutely passionate’, or ‘totally committed’, is tedious and desperate.

As for ‘utterly unforgettable’, I can’t even.

I mean, how can you have degrees of ‘unforgettable’? Are we classifying the shelf life of memories now?

Anyway, I’m off for a quick lie down.


14. Due to the fact that…

You didn’t, did you? Quickly change it to ‘because’. I won't tell anyone.


15. You use jargon or acronyms

 Jargon is dog poo. It’s a sloppy, awkward necessity.

 Jargon should be bagged and binned. Copywriters who leave it in a public place should pay a fine.

There is no justification for jargon besides the limited sharing of information between close colleagues.

This includes everyday corporate-nonsense like ‘upskill’, ‘drill-down’, EOP and bandwidth, as well as obscure nicknames or technical terms.

Jargon cannot be defended by claiming it’s ‘industry-wide', or ‘shows we know what we’re talking about’.

If just one of your readers is confused by your copy, then your copy has failed. 


16. Completely unique

Unique’ means ‘one of a kind’. Qualifying it in any way is just silly.