Five Ways You’re Doing it Wrong (Copy Edition)

October 10, 2014

By Lila Wallrich

“On Language” columnist William Safire wrote many wonderful writing tips. My favorite: “Avoid clichés like the plague.” The marketing world has its own set of clichés and foibles. Here are tips for avoiding them.

5. Assume your audience hates reading.
“Omit needless words.” It’s arguably the most enduring advice prescribed in The Elements of Style. One of the surest ways to improve your copy is to see how many words you can cut without losing meaning.

I will take that advice a step further. Take what you’ve edited down and then break it up into little pieces. Big blocks of text scare people—especially on a screen. They’re thinking, “That looks like a lot of words. I’m busy. I don’t wanna read this.” Then they check Facebook. However engaging your copy may be, you must trick the reader into consuming it.

  • Think of web pages as small plates.
  • You are the parent who cuts the ideas into bite-size paragraphs and bullet points and lifts them gently toward the reader.
  • Descriptive subheads are the soothing instructions explaining the fork’s flight path. “Heeere comes the content! You like content!”

When your visitor engagement statistics improve, that’s your audience slurping, clapping their hands and opening up for more.

4. When You Capitalize Everything, You Highlight Nothing.
People like to capitalize the things they think are impressive—especially their jobs and the subjects they studied—even though such things are not proper nouns. Doug Neidemeier may be “the President and Chief Curator of the Museum of Unnecessarily Capitalized Words.” He may have a bachelor’s degree in “Industrial Title Case Applications.” But technically speaking, scholarly subjects don’t get capitalized, and the only time jobs get correctly capitalized is when used as a titular prefix. In other words, “President Doug Neidemeier” is fine. “Vote Doug Neidemeier for President” is not, even if he’s a really stand-up guy.

3. Who would you rather hire: a period or an exclamation point?
Marketers often try to create excitement by modeling excitement. “Sale ends Sunday! Don’t miss it! These prices are insaaaaaaaaane!” But unless you’re selling tickets to a monster truck rally, you’re probably overusing that brazen hussy the exclamation point.

Don’t rely on punctuation to create an emotional response. Use your words and embrace the period. The period is confident. It is declarative. It shows you’re in command. Using the exclamation point indiscriminately makes it seem like you’re using enthusiasm as a substitute for authority. And under no circumstance should you ever—ever—use the dreaded double or triple exclamation point (!!!) in any business communication unless you are applying for head cheerleader of the Dallas Cowboys.


2. We are committed to noble abstractions.
“Hello, ladies. I’m a handsome man with rugged features. But I am also passionate about achieving the highest levels of sensitivity.” That would get roars and eye rolls in a dating profile, yet many take this approach to their company communications. “We’re committed to integrity, quality and service,” you say? Bullshit. OK, maybe you are, but they are empty platitudes that distinguish you from no one.

Customers don’t care about your mission and vision statements. Instead, impart your unique approach, your impressive results, and yes, your positive reviews if you’ve got them. Then let the audience decide whether to swipe right or left.

1. I know how to abbreviate already (IKHTAA).
Every industry has its jargon. For esoteric insider communication (EIC), abbreviation can be a useful shorthand device (USD) for sesquipedalian sequence encapsulation (SSE). This is especially true when such terms come up repeatedly (i.e., for EIC, abbreviation can be a USD for SSE. See?) However, when introducing jargon to a broader audience, techies often cannot resist following pet buzzwords with their associated industry abbreviation equivalent (AIAE). They may think they’re being informative, but to the average reader, it seems like they’re needlessly listing the first letter of each word in the preceding phrase (NLTFLOEWITPP). Remember, the point is to engage, not alienate. I think there’s a mnemonic device for remembering this, but I can’t recall what it is.

Five Ways You’re Doing it Wrong (Copy Edition)

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