If you have the choice, never write copy.
Why? Because no one reads it.
You’re just adding an extra element, which means fewer eyeballs will be attracted to the ad in the first place. So it’s counter-productive.
In the olden days, copy was important because it was a source of information about the product.
But nowadays, people almost never make a purchase without getting information from the internet first. Therefore, copy isn’t needed. Just put the web address.
In fact, even the web address is unnecessary, in my view, since consumers can be fairly confident in assuming that every company in the world which is selling products today, has a website. And you don’t even need to tell consumers what that website’s name is, because they’ll get to it via Google - that’s just what everyone does.
One argument you still occasionally hear in favour of copy is that it helps ‘close the sale’.
This ‘closing the sale’ argument is based on a bizarre view of how advertising works - that consumers read an advert for a product, drop their magazine and walk in a zombie-like trance to the shops to buy it.
Sorry, but you can’t close a sale with an advert. Advertising does have a huge influence on behaviour, but it’s not like you’re pressing the buttons on a radio-controlled car here.
There’s only one example I can think of when some copy on an advert might be a good thing. And that is when you want to imply that your product is a serious product, which has a lot worth saying about it. Of course, almost no one will read this copy. But the very fact that the advert has a lot of copy on it will communicate that this is a serious product, which has a lot worth saying about it. (N.B. this benefit may possibly be offset by the large number of people who will be put off even looking at the advert because of its dull and waffly appearance.)
So the only reason to write copy is if all the above arguments fail, and the client (via the account team) tell you that you have to.
Then you have to.
There’s very little to be gained from it. I’ve twice judged the ‘Copy’ section for D&AD, so someone out there must consider me a good copywriter. Yet in 15 years, no one’s ever told me: “Nice copy.”
Having said all that, I do think it’s worth doing a Tip about how to write copy.
Why? Because most Creatives nowadays come from an art-school or graphic design background rather than any kind of writing-related field, are not necessarily confident writing copy, and so (I get the feeling) would appreciate some guidance.
Also, although there is little to be gained from writing good copy, there is plenty to lose if you write bad copy. Principally, there’s a risk you may displease your Creative Director. He may be one of those Creative Directors (because remember he is a fair bit older than you - perhaps even of a different generation, at least in advertising terms) who still thinks that an ability to write copy is important.
Even if he does understand how irrelevant copy is, you may still piss him off if you do it badly - by taking up his valuable time to help you fix it.
The best result is you do this quickly and cleanly. That way the account team, Creative Director and Client are happy, while you have got it off your desk with a minimum of time & effort spent, so you can get on with something else… something which might actually advance your career.
Here are my 5 tips for writing better copy.
1. Spell-check. Every time you pass your copy to another sentient being – be that your Creative Director, Traffic guy, Client or whatever – spell-check. I personally believe that an insistence on correct spelling is pointless; nothing more than pedantry. I’m far more interested in what someone has to say, not whether they’ve remembered that ‘accommodation’ needs 2 C’s and 2 M’s. (Why does it?) However, there are plenty of people out there who place poor spelling on a par with poor personal hygiene, poor manners, and the decline of the British Empire. And you don’t want to piss anyone off unnecessarily. Not when avoiding it is as easy as pressing F7. So do that.
2. Get the account team to give you a copy brief, or ‘account man copy’ before you start. Often there’s little wrong with it.
3. Use simple, common words. But not exclusively - throw in the odd clever one too. It’s a trick that really works. The late style guru Sheridan Baker, who in turn was paraphrasing Aristotle, wrote: “For clarity, we need common, current words; but, used alone, these are commonplace, and as ephemeral as everyday talk. For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors; but, used alone, these become bogs, vapours, or at worst, gibberish. What we need is a diction that weds the popular with the dignified, the clear current with the sedgy margins of language and thought.”
4. Good copy is copy that flows. So avoid elements that could make a reader stumble. These include punctuation in the wrong place, words or combinations of words that make an ugly or weird sound in the head, lack of clarity, boasting, unnecessary changes of tense, use of passive voice, repetition (unless deliberate), clichés, vagueness, blandness… and lists. Like the one you just read.
Three is really the maximum number of items to put in a list, unless your goal is to send the reader off for his sleepy-time.
A bit more on some of those other “don’ts”:
Punctuation in the wrong place is bad. The only purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. Putting it in the wrong place makes your meaning less clear.
Avoid rhyming copy, it just sounds weird. In general, try to listen in your head to the sounds that your words make. Avoid combinations that sound ugly or are hard to say.
Lack of clarity is your No.1 enemy. Always check your copy (or have someone else read it) to see whether any bits could be read the wrong way.
Don’t boast. Describing the product as ‘amazing’ or ‘wonderful’ won’t actually make people think it is. Would you describe yourself as ‘amazing’? Persuasion occurs when you present someone with the facts in an appealing way, and let them come to the amazingness conclusion for themselves.
Avoid unnecessary changes of tense. A sudden move like this can throw a reader right off his horse. In general, keep everything in the same tense. The present tense.
Passive voice has a place – like maybe if you want to portray someone as a real victim – but rarely in advertising copy.
Avoid repeating words, even little ones like ‘of’ and ‘and’. Such repetition probably wouldn’t trip a reader, and may not even be consciously noticed. But unconsciously, I believe it registers as a low-quality signal. Someone who finds it necessary to repeat a word, when they’re only using 50 of the blighters, obviously doesn’t have a very large vocabulary. Repetition is only okay if you’re doing it deliberately, for effect. Example: “There’s no business like showbusiness.”
5. For goodness sake, don’t spend ages on a piece of copy. Chances are that as soon as you have it perfectly crafted, with not a word out of place, and a rhythm that would be the envy of Keats… the Client thinks of a point they want to add or take out, and you’ll have to re-tool.
Be Funny All The Way Through; How To Do Virals; How To Get A Pay Rise; Be Wary Of Punding; Challenge The Brief; Tell The Truth; Playing To Lose; How To Write Headlines; How To Do Direct; How To Do Radio; How To Do Press; How To Do TV; How To Do Digital; How To Do Posters; Look At Weird Shit; Presenting To The Client; Presenting To The Team; Presenting To The Creative Director; How To Deal With Rejection; Look Creative; Don't Be Afraid To Ask; Your Idea Has To Be 120%; Read Iain's Tips; Don't Behave; How To Discuss Ideas; Read Hugh's Tips; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7); How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ; Make Friends With Traffic; Get Reference; Don't Stop Too Soon; Be Very; Breaking Up; Working Well With Your Partner; Finding The Right Partner; How To Approach Agencies; Never-Seen-Before Footage; Dicketts' Finger; Two Blokes In The Pub; Play Family Fortunes; Should You Take A Bad Job?; Don't Overpolish
If you have the choice, never write copy.