My top 15 copywriting gripes
If a key goal of copywriting is to convey meaning quickly, then it’s important to write with clarity. Mistakes and ambiguity slow the reader down. Here are 15 copywriting issues that I see often.
- by Peter Labrow
English grammar can be an amazingly divisive subject. Where some people moan about the misuse of the comma, others see the complainers simply as pedants. To some, the correct use of the word ‘fewer’ is a matter to be championed, where others may not understand the distinction between that and the word ‘less’.
As a copywriter, I would admit to using fairly casual English. After all, I’m trying to communicate concepts quickly, not win the Booker Prize. I think nothing of using contractions or starting a sentence with a preposition. I might begin a piece in the third person and then switch to the first person. In copywriting, these are actually useful devices, even if they might be frowned on by purists.
You see, the key part of my job is to communicate. My customers want copy that can be read quickly. It’s important to ensure that readers don’t stumble or even pause for too much consideration. Marketing copy should typically be near conversational in tone and written for the Internet’s average reading age (about 14).
That said, I think that, like many writers, there are words or phrases which raise my hackles a little, or a lot, for various reasons. Here are 15 of them. I’m not saying that all of these are ‘hard errors’ or even not up for debate. These are my personal choices; you may well have your own. I’ve avoided many of the most common (such as incorrect use of the apostrophe) and dealt with those which I see most often and which I feel are ambiguous, vague, misleading or even worthless. In all cases, it’s not really whether they are ‘wrong’ which bothers me, it’s that using them is lazy; there are always great alternatives available.
I’m sure that I’m guilty of having written some of these. I sure as heck see them written often elsewhere – even on leading websites such as BBC News. But that doesn’t make them right nor mean that the words or phrases couldn’t have been improved on. It just means we’re used to seeing them; we’re familiar with them – perhaps to the point where they seem correct.
The key thing to remember is that the reader may well have a different appreciation of English from yours as the writer. Since our goal is to communicate smoothly, it’s worth taking the time to weed out things which may jar with the reader.
A number of…
This is written a lot; possibly more by journalists than by copywriters. The biggest issue with this is that it conveys absolutely no meaning, since ‘one’ is as much ‘a number’ as a trillion. So, if a piece describes ‘a number of solutions’ or says that ‘a number of people was injured’ then the reader is simply left guessing. It’s typically used when the number in question isn’t known or is likely to change – yet English gifts us with many words and phrases which can convey the rough idea of an amount, without having to state the specific number itself. For example: a few, a handful, hardly any, several, plenty, many, a multitude and so on.
It’s also not uncommon to see another error associated with this phrase – describing ‘the number of things’ as plural rather than singular. For example, ‘a number of people were’. This is incorrect because the verb should conjugate with the first word (a) and not the ‘number of people’. Therefore, ‘a number of people is’ would be correct. Admittedly, to some people, this can sound clunky (but the reverse of this, whether you appreciate it or not, is that the incorrect version will grate with many others; just because it sounds right to you, don’t assume it will sound right to the reader). If you feel this is the case, then why not find a different way to write what you mean? For example ‘A number of people ran away. They…’ allows you to move from singular to plural with more elegance.
This is often seen in phrases such as ‘our existing clients’ or ‘our existing services’. The problem with this is that it more correctly means ‘that which exists’, rather than ‘that which we have now’. (Just think about ‘our existing clients’ – the opposite of which would really be ‘our dead clients’.) The solution is simple: these are really your current clients. (I can think of one exception here, where it could be useful to stick with the word ‘existing’. If you have a Web page where you are logging into an account which exists, then clearly ‘log in to your current account’ can imply to some that you’re logging into your bank account, so ‘log in to your existing account’ would actually be less ambiguous.)
There’s hundreds of things…
This may not look wrong, until you think about what that apostrophe is doing. In this context, it’s creating a contraction of ‘there is’ and you certainly wouldn’t say ‘there is hundreds of things’. Since there isn’t a common contraction for ‘there are’, it’s better to write it out in full: ‘there are hundreds of things’. This applies to other phrases such as ‘here’s’ – which always means ‘here is’.
I think this is one which marketing people and business people love, perhaps because it makes the thing being described seem to be almost one of a kind. The issue here is that there aren’t degrees of uniqueness: it’s either unique (and there is only one) or it isn’t. Again, English provides us with several, more meaningful, ways to describe something in this way: rare, scarce, infrequent, few and far between – and even more colloquial terms, such as saying it’s like gold dust. Likewise, saying that something is ‘even more unique’ than something else is an impossibility – you can’t be more unique than unique.
The use of this term certainly divides people. It’s typically used to describe a ‘massive change’, yet, in fact, an actual quantum leap (interestingly a phrase seldom used by physicists) is tiny and describes the sudden jump of an electron, atom etc from one energy level to another. The reason why this divides people is that the change is measurably tiny, yet, in relation to the original, represents a massive leap. So, you could (and many do) argue this one way or the other. Our job as writers is to pull people through the text without them pausing to question semantics – since we know that this is a big issue in some people’s mind, it can be better to omit the phrase. Plus, let’s face it, it’s jargon – and marketing text is always improved by removing jargon.
This is simply tautology, since panacea means ‘universal cure’. In other words, the writer here would be saying that something is a ‘universal universal cure’ (a bit like saying PIN number). I would personally avoid the word panacea, as it can be perceived as inflated, marketing-speak. There are plenty of more accessible alternatives, such as cure, fix, remedy and so on. (“But they don’t sound as important,” some people might cry. Clarity trumps posturing, I would retort. Every time.)
An inescapable part of marketing is bigging things up – but, in an attempt to out-boast your competitors, you can easily go too far. Claiming to be experts is a good example of this. The reality is that, in any field, there are actually very few experts. If you’re in training, then someone like Dr Donald Kirkpatrick would be an expert. It’s very unlikely that you could realistically apply the same designation to a commercial training provider – or, indeed, the people within it. Better to say that you are specialists or perhaps an authority.
Market or sector?
Many companies specialise. When they do, it’s something worth shouting about. But is it better to say you have a market focus or sector focus? To a degree, the two phrases can be seen as interchangeable – and variety is always useful in prose. But customers don’t really like to think of themselves as part of a target market; an entity to be sold to. Of the two words, I’d most readily opt for sector, which is unfettered by connotations of sale and sounds less exploitative.
Some services can have many elements to them – and this needs to be described. However, describing the service as complex can be highly off-putting to readers (many of whom will interpret complex as complicated). It does convey part of what you intend, but it also sounds difficult to buy, use or implement. Customers don’t tend to like their purchases to be complex, they prefer them to be simple. A better alternative might be sophisticated or highly developed.
This one gets me every time. It’s a common enough phrase, used when booking something before an event. Yet, the action here is still booking – as anything that is pre-booking takes place before the booking.
Companies quite often have divisions, out of organisational necessity. From a structural perspective, they make sense: they provide business focus and accountability for a specific set of products or services. That said, they’re something in which your customer has almost no interest. At best, introducing a special division in copy can convey the impression that you are now more difficult to deal with. At worst, it can imply that, as an organisation, you are, in fact, divided. The question to ask is whether knowing that a division exists is of any relevance to the customer – it’s usually more positive to describe teams of specialists.
The company are…
Another people one this. Take this phrase: ‘The company are leaders in the field; they continually innovate.’ From a grammatical perspective, a company is not a plural – since there is only one of it, it should always be described in the singular. Therefore, the phrase would more correctly read: ‘This company is a leader in the field; it continually innovates.’ The same is true of a team within a company, despite (like a company) comprising several or many individuals. On the same note, let’s not write ‘the company who’, when we mean ‘the company which’ – it is not a person.
The use of capital letters foxes many people. It’s not difficult to see why. In English, only a proper noun would be capitalised (unless it started a sentence) and a common noun would not. Nouns are words for people, places and things. What typically sets a proper noun apart from a common noun is that it will be one of a kind. So, a writer is a common noun, but Bram Stoker is a proper noun.
Where this unravels in copy is usually with words which the writer thinks are, in some way, important. But that doesn’t make them a proper noun. For example, this often happens with job titles, so Consultant or Managing Director might be used. It’s easy to see why people think this is right, but consider this from a grammatical perspective. These are just job titles, so if you substitute Toilet Cleaner or Janitor, then these more immediately scream out as wrong, because they’re ‘not important’ – though they are identical grammatically. Job titles are not proper nouns; they don’t need capital letters.
The same is true of things which may be important in your industry. It’s very common to see certain words needlessly capitalised because of this. In medicine or care, these might be medicines or treatments, such as aspirin or acupuncture (wrongly written as Aspirin and Acupuncture). Something being important to you doesn’t mean it should be capitalised; when it’s read by others outside of your field, it screams out as a mistake. It also creates a big issue for the writer – what do and don’t you capitalise? Once you deviate from the rules of grammar, then you have to take each common noun on its own merits and create an arbitrary rule.
Are there exceptions to this? Well, in legal documents, it’s common to capitalise words such as ‘the Company’ after it has been legally defined and to then continue to use the capitalisation throughout the text, so that ‘the Company’ is differentiated clearly as the defined company and not another company. However, some then see this usage and presume that ‘company’ must always be with caps – it should not. Using the medical example above, Alzheimer’s is correct when capitalised as it is named after the person who first described it, Alois Alzheimer. (This itself can create confusion, with those who don’t understand the reason for capitalisation then using this to justify other capitalisations to which the same rule doesn’t actually apply.) Remember, our goal is for people to read our text quickly – creating anything which makes him or her stumble is not desirable.
This commonly used word is an easy one to sprinkle into text, seemingly raising something from being ‘just a service’ to somehow being of greater worth. My main issue with solution/solutions is that the word conveys little. If you think about a phrase such as ‘we offer real marketing solutions’, then it’s worth making a couple of observations. The first is that solutions (by definition) solve a problem. Is this really what’s happening? Does the customer have a marketing problem? Or is it a marketing need? In which case you’d be wanting to meet the customer’s need not solve the customer’s problem. But moreover, it’s so easily and glibly used. For instance, I’ve honestly seen a shrink-wrapped apple described as a ‘meal solution’. It’s a word that doesn’t really register or resonate with readers. Solution should be used with care and caution; there are usually better and less overused ways to convey what you really mean.
Various different items
Again, this phrase is tautological, since the word ‘various’ already means things which are ‘different’ from one another. ‘Various items’ is enough; if you don’t feel that this adequately conveys the message of difference, then consider rewriting it entirely, rather than appending a word with identical meaning.
A few bonus words, phrases and concepts
The facts: it’s always worth checking what you think you already know. For example, you might think you shop at Tesco’s, but actually you shop at Tesco. You get married at a register office, not at a registry office (some dictionaries, such as the Cambridge online dictionary, shows these to be interchangeable – but if you’re describing a UK register office then that is actually what it calls itself, so you should too; always check such details at the source). The computer company HP was never called Hewlett Packard, but rather Hewlett-Packard (and it’s now simply HP). It’s always worth checking these things when writing – which is easy, with Google. Getting facts wrong can raise eyebrows, slow the reader or even create offence.
Consistency: if you can’t be right, then at least be consistent. I can’t tell you the number of documents where I’ve seen e-mail, email, Elearning, eLearning, e-learning and elearning within adjacent paragraphs. It’s true, modern words such as e-mail/email, on line/online or Website/website do come up for grabs for a while. But if you create a rule for one, then it’s a rule for all. If you choose email, then I’m afraid eeconomy is correct by that rule, visually clunky though it is. Likewise, try to be consistent when writing dates and titles – so a document doesn’t mix April 10 with 10 April and Doctor with Dr for example. (My preference with dates is to go from smallest to largest, so 10 April 2014 for example.) If you’re using words such as ‘focused’, which can be spelt with a single or double s, be consistent – make a choice and stick with it.
Make sure it says what you want: there are plenty of phrases which must have sounded right to the writer, but in which the reader may find an entirely different meaning. A good example of this might be when describing a fire within a building and saying that the ‘people were evacuated’. Er – this actually means that they had their bowels emptied. It would be more correct to say that the ‘building was evacuated’ or that the ‘people were evacuated from the building’. Remember, it’s all about being clear. We don’t want readers to stumble, if we can avoid it.
Avoid jargon and marketing-speak: these words don’t make you sound more important; they more often make you sound more pretentious. They’re also a barrier to clarity, taking many more (and often longer) words to convey something which can easily be said in fewer words. Examples might be: leverage, turnkey, paradigm shift, repurpose, win-win and top-down. On a similar note, cringeworthy office-speak is also best avoided. Whether these are grammatically correct or not, they lower your credibility. They also typically contribute nothing to a piece. Examples of this might be: going forward, touching base, holistic, cradle-to-grave approach and low-hanging fruit. These, and phrases like them, are simply best avoided.