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Ten signs a copywriter is on autopilot

It’s easy to blame bad writing on cautious clients or the scars of two-thousand-and-one track changes. But much of the blame has to lie with copywriters themselves. Too many of them have knocked out sloppy words for far too long.

We want it to stop. So we’ve written, not rules exactly, but provocations. What if we rip up the lazy clichés and hold people who write words for a living (including us) to account? So writers can’t hide a weak idea behind stylistic tricks or coast when they think a client won’t notice, or the deadline is tight.

Let’s stop the rot and get out of this rut.

1. Style is a crutch.
Don’t use style to cover up the fact that there isn’t anything to say. It never works. Pick a great ad from 1962 to 2012 and, nine times out of ten, the words are simple. Mundane, even. It’s about coming up with a tight idea and finding the best way to say it. Simple words (trick-free) nearly always do the job better.

2. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Elmore Leonard’s right. Just as drama school kids overact, copywriters ‘overwrite’, adding flourishes to show off. But every time you draw attention to your writing, you get in the way. It’s the copywriter’s job to be read, not heard.

3. Sometimes commas are in the wrong place. Get over it.
Why do pedants fixate on punctuation and grammar over whether the words are any good? It’s easier to fix a stray apostrophe than a weak idea.

4. Write like you really speak.
Innocent drinks (unfairly) get most of the flak for wackaging, the cloying matey tone favoured by banks and fizzy drinks. On his blog last year, writer Nick Asbury asked whether we’re fed up of brands trying to sound like people. We think the problem is simpler: brands don’t sound anything like real people. Only a packet of crisps would say they’re Bloomin’ marvellous value for money. It’s fake. And only copywriters (or Enid Blyton) write blimey and crikey. Stop it.

5. Never trust a writer who says they’re a ‘storyteller’.
We write things for a living which means storytelling comes with the job. So what is it with copywriters and their need to bang on about stories? We’ve got a theory that copywriters who talk about stories are failed poets or would-be authors. It would explain all the bad novellas on boxes of cereal and bottles of whisky.

6. Say it directly or don’t say it at all.
‘At Big Bank inc. we…’ So many corporates start with this sentence. Why not just ‘We’? It’s the same with ‘We aim to’ or ‘We believe’. We’ll believe you if you do it, so say what you’re going to do.

7. Clunky segues are a warning sign.
‘That’s why…’
Not only are these some of the most lazy lines in all of copywriting-dom, they’re also a sure sign that a writer is trying – and failing – to shove two unrelated ideas together.

8. The. Lazy. Shortcut.
Stringing three bland words together with full stops doesn’t make a headline.

9. Microsoft Word gives you verbal diarrhoea.
Don’t write words for websites, packaging or anything where layout matters, without sketching them out first. Otherwise you’ll write the Encyclopaedia Britannica when a few words or an image will do the job better. ‘Welcome to our website’ is a good (bad) example of the sort of words that should never be on homepages ever again.

10. The fake testimonial. Oh the shame.
“It was a wonderful shopping experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.” Did they really say that?