The reading level for this article is Expert
In my ten years as an advertiser, I’ve encountered plenty of folks with a flair for writing. They were born having some idea of where to put the words within the sentence, and the sentences within the paragraph. They usually know what words to use – when to say ‘bloom’ instead of ‘grow,’ or ‘confused’ instead of ‘befuddled.’
But having a flair doesn’t make them an expert in the field.
I’m an expert ad copywriter. But I can’t write a journalistic piece to save my life. I have no experience in this area, and it’s just not my bag. So I happily leave this task to the reporters. Likewise, a retailer, marketer or salesperson should leave the writing to the writer. Yet they seldom do.
A copywriter is forever trying to explain why he inserted a word where he did, or why he chose one expression over another. Frequently, a client or employer takes a writer’s carefully constructed piece and turns it into a wordgarbage wasteland. An atrocity… of verbosity!
If you’re such an offender, shame on you! Let your writer do the job he or she was hired for: to make you look good. But if you insist on meddling with the marketing, critiquing the catalog and butchering the brochure, you may as well learn how to do it right. Master the secret to writing that packs a punch and makes people view you as a credible source. Learn the tricks of the trade that will get you taken seriously!
Use concrete examples to prove your point. Repeating an idea in different words leaves your writing flat and empty. “We’re great! We’re so awesome! You won’t believe how cool we are!” Why are you cool? Did you help a billion people save money last year? Did you rescue an endangered species from extinction? If you can’t back your claim with solid evidence, no one will believe what you say. Be specific! “I’m thinking of you” might win brownie points, but “I’m thinking of you in that little black dress you wore last weekend”—now that’ll actually get you somewhere!
Resist the temptation to cheer for yourself. You’re good, and you know it. But if you must crow about it while doing your peacock strut, tell it to your mother because no one else cares. The world’s consumers aren’t interested in what you can do. They’re interested in what you can do for them.
Don’t pepper your writing with bad puns and kitschy wordplay. This is a weakness of mine. Puns come to me at the strangest times… in the shower, while I’m driving, as I’m trying to fall asleep. I want to paint the world with my puns, but alas, this is not appropriate! No one wants to click on their financial advisor’s website and see him raving to everyone in the free world that he’s “so money, baby!” Puns are fun, but the true meaning of a well-turned phrase is one that’s used at the right time and in the right context.
Use the active voice. I forgot about this for a long time, and my writing suffered for it. The active voice lends a certain dynamic quality to your writing. “The teacher wrote the words on the blackboard” employs the active voice. “The words on the blackboard were written by the teacher” illustrates the passive voice. Don’t be passive! Avoid any form of the verb to be, such as ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘were’. Practice this by literally using your own voice. Read your writing aloud, doing your best “announcer” impression. If as you read, you find yourself lapsing into a sing-songy elementary-school kid reading his essay out loud, you probably failed the assignment.
Get rid of the “asides” in parentheses. They might look cute in an email to a girlfriend, but ‘”asides” that stray from the main point of an informative paragraph make you look like a scatterbrain. Interrupting a thought with an unrelated remark is distracting to the reader. It’s a comedic tactic that plays out well in informal writing, but just doesn’t fly in the real world.
Avoid the following: double negatives, redundancy, dangling participles.
The double negative: “It’s not impossible.” Why not just say, “It’s possible.” A negative plus a negative really does make a positive, even in writing!
Redundancy: “We’re also offering free gifts to our members too.” ‘Also’ and ‘too’ may be at opposite ends of the sentence, but they’re serving the same exact purpose and that means one has to go. Better: “We’re also offering free gifts to our members.”
Dangling participle: Beware the dangler in this sentence! “Shivering with cold, Anne’s hat barely covered her ears.” Here, ‘Shivering with cold’ should modify Anne because she’s the one who is shivering. The way this reads now, Anne’s hat is the one with goosebumps. Acceptable: “Anne’s hat barely covered her ears, and she shivered with cold.”
Employ parallelism. Parallelism helps reinforce a point with repeated sentence structure. Bulletpoints best illustrate parallelism. An example:
The product effectively:
– relieves headaches
– eases tension
– boosts immunity
Notice that each bullet follows the same format: action verb, object of verb. To stray from this format is to do a disservice to the bullet. Paralellism also works in a sequence separated by commas. “I like pie, I like cake, and I like pudding.” Another example: “She enjoys climbing, hiking, and fishing.” The incorrect version of this sentence: “She enjoys climbing, hiking, and to fish.”
Avoid wordiness. Eliminate the following words and phrases from your vocabulary, and feel better about yourself: very, unique, being that, utilize/utilization, a lot, needless to say, it goes without saying, in back of, without a doubt, at some point in time, as to whether, it seems to me, oddly enough. They’re just filler, and they’re in the same category as their credibility-stealing cousins redundancy, the double negative, and the passive voice.
Go easy on the prepositional phrases. “The girl who was sitting on the porch of the house that was up on the hill, felt the breeze as it was gently blowing through her hair.” Eegads, what a mouthful! Correct this problem by breaking up your ideas into separate sentences. “The house stood atop the hill, and as the girl sat on the porch she felt the breeze blowing through her hair.”
Use adjectives sparingly. “What? But my English teacher taught me…” Forget about what your teacher said. You’re running with the big dogs now. Which is more interesting? “The boy skipped happily and grinned openly,” or “The boy skipped down the hill, a grin playing about his face.”
Don’t repeat words. I repeat: don’t repeat words.
Avoid hyphenating words that shouldn’t be hyphenated. What is this new trend that’s sweeping the nation? “Put-on your coat.” “Please check-in before 9 pm.” Hyphens are used to join two words that, when used in conjunction, take on another word form. “Put on your coat” doesn’t require a hyphen because you can also say “Put your coat on.” ‘Check-in’ would require a hyphen if the sentence read like this: “Check-in is at 9 pm.” This is because check and in work together here as a noun. Hyphenation is tricky, I admit; even as a grammarian I must consult my styleguide from time to time. I suggest you do the same.
For the Love of God, SPELLCHECK! Enough said.
Don’t over-exclaim or use excess punctuation marks in formal writing or advertising. And for God’s sake please don’t slip emoticons in to help you convey a feeling. That’s what the vast English vocabulary is for. When people see you dropping exclam-bombs everywhere, they’ll think you’re cheap, tawdry and lacking design capabilities. Remember, you can use big bold fonts to make certain buzzwords jump right off the page.
Dashes – and – ellipses… are not acceptable ways to finesse a poorly constructed paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with having two separate sentences instead of one that’s broken up into sections. Dashes and ellipses are a copywriting crutch. I’m tempted by them just as much as the next guy. It’s so easy to insert a little pause in my rambler of a run-on using those three cute little dots. The ellipse… I love it! But I must control myself. Make a simple statement, punctuate with finality, move on to the next idea. Don’t underestimate the power of the period. We all need a break now and then!
Don’t be afraid to use contractions. More and more I come across emails written by people who are either too lazy to use contractions, or they are simply fooled into thinking it is going to make them look smart. What’s wrong with the sentence I just wrote? Contractions such as it’s, I’m, we’re, you’re, they’re, couldn’t, wouldn’t didn’t, doesn’t, aren’t etc. are a way to sound conversational in writing. That’s how people talk. What if you were making a formal speech? If you eliminated all the contractions, you’d sound pretty robotlike, wouldn’t you?
One space will do. Those who are behind the writing times still type two spaces after an end punctuation mark. Modern word processing programs have eliminated the need for this, as they can sense the need for a skoche more room after periods, question marks and exclams. So as much as I applaud you for being fastidious in your space insertion, you can stop it right now. Do your clients a favor! They’re not doubling up on spaces in their websites, so when you submit writing for them, don’t you do it either.
This article is lengthy, but every single sentence holds weight. Read, and heed these words! Don’t be an advertising amateur; if you really want to wow ‘em with your wordsmithing wizardry, memorize and hold true to the writing rules outlined here. Above all: practice, practice, practice! Master these tactics, and you’re sure to establish yourself as a writer with valuable insights, expert information and a powerful message to the world. And a writer like that gets taken seriously.
Copyright 2005 Dina Giolitto. All rights reserved.