Matter Chatter

Five Pitfalls of Bad Copy

Good copywriting is often more an art than a science, but as with any skill, there are a few common mistakes that can knock your finished product off the rails.

Pitfall-game

Comma Chameleon: In 1962, a single misplaced overbar in a line of code for the Mariner 1 space probe cost NASA $80 million and a boatload of bad press, a bungle that Arthur C. Clark notably called “the most expensive hyphen in history.”  While a minor typo is somewhat less likely to cause your press release to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, it’s still important to pay close attention to punctuation, grammar and spelling in your work.  Read, reread and enlist a second set of eyes to spot any latent errors whenever possible.

I, Thesaurus: Let’s face it – most copywriters turn to good ol’ Mr. Roget in times of need or desperation.  The thesaurus can be a lifesaver, and it’s the reason why I now know thirteen different words for the color yellow (xanthous is a personal favorite).  But for all its utility, excessive reliance on flowery synonyms can mire, ensnare, entrap and entangle good writing.  Striking the balance between splash and substance in vocabulary is a challenge, but the most effective points are often the ones made simply. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” is catchier than “The fleet sepia vulpine mammal gambols aloft of the languid canine,” for a reason.

The Insider:  An important skill for any copywriter to develop is the ability to read and write from the perspective of a layperson.  Demonstrating your knowledge of an industry might have landed you a job or client, but it’s your ability to communicate that knowledge to others that will ultimately pay the bills.  Like flowery language, industry-specific jargon can create roadblocks in your content for an otherwise-receptive outsider.  This is especially true when approaching targets with products and services outside of their respective trades.  It’s OK to get technical when the project calls for it, but always be mindful of your audience and remember that not everyone is the savvy expert you are.

Too long; didn’t read:  The shrinking attention spans of the digital age have forced the need for snappy, condensed media across-the-board.  Fortunately, bulleted lists, pull quotes and embedded visual collateral can break up the dreaded “wall-of-text” in your content.  Sites like BuzzFeed have blown up because humans absolutely love lists.  Even bloggers have adopted the list-making strategy to generate posts that are more attractive to readers…ahem.  Occasionally, you’ll be stuck with a format that doesn’t lend itself to one of these handy tricks.  If that’s the case, remember the Shakespearean axiom, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and keep it concise.  

The Dusty Pitch:  There are technical guidelines for creating good copy, but none of them matter if the writer isn’t a passionate representative for his or her subject.  Uninterested copywriters produce uninteresting copy, and finding a point of identification with your topic is an important and rewarding step in the creative process.  Draw on your personal experience for inspiration, or just take some extra time and do the research.  Be innovative and surprising, not stale and disinterested, and your enthusiasm will shine through in your writing.

What about you?  Any good copywriting advice to impart, or hazards to avoid?

  • Matt Mendolera-Schamann

    My two favorite things about this post: the Boy George / Culture Club reference and the final point about making sure that enthusiasm and passion (or at the very least, interest) come through in your writing. You can tell when someone writes something they don’t really believe. If you’re not buying it, why should I?