8 copywriting catastrophes and how to avoid them

Ian Lurie

I’m a creature of habit. And there are 8 stupid copywriting mistakes I make with amazing consistency. Here’s how I try to deal with them:

1. The camouflaged typo

Ever use ‘form’ when you meant ‘from’? When you do, your computer snickers to itself and mutters something like Remember that time you cursed at me because you forgot your password? Well it’s payback time, sucka! Spell check THAT!

Your spell checker won’t save you. Certainly not from embarrassing stuff like this:

lick here - not exactly what they intended, I think

And, of course, truly horrendous mistakes that make a ‘lick here’ style typo seem like nothing.

The fix. I read most of my rough drafts backwards. Yes, you heard that right. Backwards. That makes correctly-spelled typos jump out at me. It’s a trick one of my best writing mentors taught me, and it works beautifully.

2. Word vomit

Just because I know the word ‘pusillanimous’ doesn’t mean I should use it. But I admit, I still get a little thrill out of using ten syllable word. Why use ‘fix’ when I can use ‘ameliorate’?
Here’s the thing: If I’m trying to learn about, I dunno, internet marketing, then I have enough on my mind. Keep the writing simple.

The fix. I actually use a few tools to check grade level, like this text-statistics gadget. And I keep a rubber band on my wrist. Every time I use a word with more than 4 syllables, I snap the rubber band. Ouch.

3. Weasel speak

Ever read something like this?

“Dramatic Technology helps clients build value by leveraging digital assets. We use our unique skill set to integrate technology and human processes for great results.”

Uh, what?

I’m terrible about this. I’ve written entire pages of text that could apply equally well (or poorly) to fresh fruit or bicycle frames.

The fix. Write the paragraph. Show it to someone else. Ask them what you’re writing about. If you’re describing a car and they say “Um, a peanut farm?” you need to rethink.

4. Lack of context

I talk a lot about the blank sheet of paper test: If you write a title tag, or a paragraph, or link text, on a blank sheet of paper, the reader needs to know what it’s about.

Online, your writing gets pulled apart and re-used in search results, feed readers, etc.. So you can’t rely on the fact that your headline will always be right by the photo that clarifies your meaning.

Some truly dramatic fails I’ve seen:
“Royals to get a taste of Angels Colon”
“Supreme Court tries sodomy”
“UN to grant Taliban amnesty”

The fix. Use the blank sheet of paper test. That’s it.

5. There’s no call for that

I work for hours on a piece of marketing copy. When it’s done, there’s no call to action. At all. It describes a company’s new service in prose that would make David Ogilvy weep from on high. Everyone reads it and swoons. But no one actually does anything.

Because I didn’t ask.

The fix. I wish I knew. Right now I have a sticky note on my desktop that reads “Call to action?!!!”. That takes care of it. Usually.

my sticky note

6. Getting passive

Choke. Passive voice. I could write “We build web sites”. But it’s so much more fun to write “Web sites are built by us”.

I had a Humanities professor in college who looked at me one day and said “Lurie, if you could write in active voice, you’d save 100 trees a year.”

I’m paraphrasing.

For some reason, though, I can’t seem to just say [SUBJECT] [VERB] [OBJECT]. I have to say [OBJECT] [PASSIVE VERB] [VERB] [SUBJECT]. If could add in more stuff, I probably would.
The fix. Back to the rubber band thing. SNAP.

7. Writing angry

I know, you’re all snickering.

I once wrote a letter to an auto mechanic that started with “Dear Criminal”. For some reason, he never called me back…

dear dumbass

The fix. I’m better now. I don’t write truly angry. I wait a bit, simmer down, then write. Or I write, walk away, come back, revise, and then publish.

8. Lack of polish

It’s really, really hard for me to write something and not immediately publish it. The pressure to generate lots of useful, interesting stuff and get it out there is overwhelming.

But I know that, if I put in just 10 minutes of editing, I could turn a so-so article or report into a good one.

The fix. Stop using the internet. Seriously, I have no idea. I try to slow down now and then, but it feels like diminishing returns. Not smart, I know. Maybe you all can humiliate me if I do a lousy editing job on something?

Practice, practice

The best way to avoid all of these copywriting disasters, of course, is practice.

If you write a lot, the chance that you’ll leave in a horrific typo goes down.

Every time you remember to add the call to action, you improve the hardwired instinct to always include it.

And, the more you edit your own work, the better you get at it.

Any writing issues you have that I haven’t listed? Bare your soul in the comments – it’s good for you.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Hmm. When written in the passive voice, online text is … a *catastrophe*?
    Ian, in regards to #2 (word vomit), do you feel that using misleading words has any similarity to using pretentious adjectives and uber-syllabic words? Are the occurrences above truly catastrophes?
    I can’t help but feel that online marketers are squeezing the meaning out of words in efforts to lure readers to their blogs via hyperbole camouflaged as truth.
    As someone who has long respected your skills + knowledge + writing ability + your CM book + company, I wanted to hear your thoughts–as 1/2 way through this article I thought to myself, “These aren’t catastrophes. Sigh. I’m getting very tired of being tricked by post titles. And I wonder what Ian thinks about all this.”

  2. On the lighter side, in true top 10 fashion….
    #9: don’t use no double negatives.
    #10: avoid cliches “like the plague”.

  3. My Achilles heel in copywriting is the use of what you so eloquently call “Weasel Speak” combined with a bit of “Word Vomit”, especially when creating application specifications. A few revisions later, and if my manager can understand it, then I’ve successfully dumbed it down enough.

  4. @Erin definitely not my intention to exaggerate… much. 🙂
    Seriously – if you’re a professional writer, I do think passive voice is pretty awful. So is failure to be aware of writing grade level. These are equivalent to knowing how to rotate the tires on a car if you’re an auto mechanic. If you do ’em wrong, you have no business in the business. So I cringe when I fall into these traps.

  5. Hey Ian,
    #3 is one of the mistakes I believe deflates the majority of marketing messages. I love how you covered two mistakes with one, the concept of using jargon in your copy AND trying to inspire action with zombified sentences.
    The BEST fix that I’ve found to date to solve this problem is a four part formula I learned from Eben Pagan.
    Anytime I’m making a claim about what something I’m offering does, I run it through this short check list…
    SPECIFIC: Is “Lose weight fast” better than “Lose 15 pounds fast?” No. Axe the first in favor of specificity.
    CONCRETE: Is “Lose 15 pounds fast” more compelling than “Lose 15 pounds in 90 days”? No. Chop the previous in favor of giving someone a deadline as to when they can expect to see the result the want realized.
    EMOTIONAL: Is “Lose 15 pounds in 90 days” tugging at heart strings? Nope. So, we enhance it by saying… “Lose 15 pounds of that muffin top belly fat in 90 days”.
    CONNECTED TO RESULT: Now is “Lose 15 pounds of belly fat in 90 days” getting to the core of what this prospect wants? Yes and no. We can make it better by helping her make a picture of what’s possible by saying… “Lose 15 pounds of muffin top belly fat in 90 days so that you can fit into your skinny jeans.”
    This system of refining a claim through demanding it meets these 4 Factors of Communication Mastery has radically transformed how I present an idea to someone.
    Hopefully it can serve someone here too.

  6. #8 is the one I learned back in college and feel it can truly make or break a solid post. Back then it was the difference between another C or an A paper. These days it’s links I suppose.
    When I write for a client’s site my goal on the first round is to just get something on paper, trying to end the game on one swing takes too darn long and never ends well. Those 10 minutes or so to polish things up is time well spent.

  7. Don’t repeat yourself too much.
    Trust your audience that they will take action even if you didn’t Mentioned & bolded “click now” 10 times along the text.

  8. Regarding editing – my biggest problem is going over a piece right after I’ve finished writing it.
    If I can take even a 15 minute break before I re-read or re-work, my edits are infinitely better.

  9. Ian, could you humour me and explain a bit more about writing in an active voice vs a passive voice? Sounds like a really important distinction I haven’t heard much before, will have to do some research mate.

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