8 copywriting catastrophes and how to avoid them
Ian Lurie Jan 6 2011
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:
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.”
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.
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.”
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…
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?
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 is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More