The selling power of intelligent redundancy

September 27, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

redundancy in copywritingIntelligent redundancy is an idea that will make some writers cringe and most writing teachers faint. But it’s an important tool for copywriters whose goal is to sell, persuade, or prompt action.

To show you what I’m talking about, here are some common examples of intelligent redundancy:

  • free gift
  • added bonus
  • Introducing the new
  • major breakthrough
  • actual fact
  • brief summary
  • simple and easy
  • a “real person” will answer your call
  • 100% guarantee

In standard composition, these examples represent sloppy writing. A gift is by definition free. A bonus is something added. If you’re introducing something, it must be new. Every breakthrough is major. All facts are actual.

If a summary is not brief, it’s not a summary. Something simple must be easy. A person who answers your call must be real. If you don’t guarantee 100%, it’s not a guarantee.

William Strunk Jr. said it best in Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

He’s right. There is no better way to improve your writing than to “make every word tell.” So avoiding redundant words is a good practice most of the time. However, after years of writing for businesses whose goal is to sell products and services, I’ve come to learn that effective copywriting doesn’t necessarily follow standard composition rules.

You can argue that “free gift” is redundant. But I can argue that modifying the word “gift” with the word “free” is demonstrably more powerful. You can write a mailer in the proper way using the word “gift,” and I’ll write a similar mailer using the phrase “free gift,” and my mailer will almost certainly get a better response and make more money. Why? Because a “free gift” conveys more information than “gift.”

Copywriting is not about words, but about communication. Words are tools we use to convey ideas to other people. The goal is not to create a perfectly formed string of words but to perfectly convey ideas.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “gift” as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.” So technically, it’s free. However, the word “gift” doesn’t have anywhere near the power of the word “free.” The admittedly redundant phrase “free gift” means more than a gift, it’s a FREE gift.

Let me explain another way. I come from West Virginia, a state known for its mountains. Technically, a mountain is big. But those of us from “Wild Wonderful West Virginia” know that there are mountains and there are MOUNTAINS. Some are big and others are BIG. In strict academic terms, saying “big mountain” is redundant, but it delivers more information and better describes the mountain.

Plus, in the real world, a gift may may not be totally free. It’s something someone gives you, but is something expected in return? Is there a catch? “Free” take away all doubt and magnifies the idea of “without cost.”

It’s like the difference between saying, “no” and “hell no.” There’s no doubt that even while the first is a clear idea, the second carries considerably more meaning and emphasis.

Another thing to consider about redundancy is the relative lack of power written words have when compared to in-person speech. Studies show that most communication is non-verbal. Two people can say, “I want to talk to you.” One says it with a big smile. One says it through clenched teeth. The words are the same. The meaning is different.

To be effective, copywriting must overcome this lack of extra meaning through whatever means necessary, including redundancy. Remember that in any form of marketing copy, you are not always dealing with a captive audience as you would be when writing a poem, novel, or doctorate dissertation. Your writing is often delivered unexpectedly in a direct mail letter, catalog, TV ad, retail sign, email message, or other format.

An in nearly all cases, your readers are busy with other things. Your words are an interruption. Your audience reads for information, not pleasure. The writing must convey information quickly, bluntly, and without subtlety. You must over emphasize to make a point clear. A gift must be a FREE gift. A guarantee must be a 100% guarantee. A breakthrough must be a NEW breakthrough.

I call this “intelligent” redundancy because it should be used intelligently and purposefully, not ignorantly. Like any copywriting technique, redundancy must be used where it is needed and eliminated where it is not.

Knowing the difference is the mark of a professional and successful copywriter.

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Smart Comments

6 Comments on The selling power of intelligent redundancy

  1. Martin Stellar on Sep 27th, 2010 8:16 am
  2. Excellent post. The real lesson for me here is the fact that the written word is not the same as the spoken. After three ruined marriages, two dogs that didn’t survive, a courtcase and about seven or eight failed dates, I can attest that it makes a lot of sense to make sure your writing is fit for a reading audience as opposed to a listening audience.

  3. Randy Kershner on Sep 29th, 2010 2:01 pm
  4. Great comments, Dean! Love the concept of “intelligent” redundancy. In one of my college advertising writing courses, my professor would allow us to break rules of standard composition on copy assignments (incomplete sentences, redundancy, etc.), without getting points off. However, we had to initial that section of copy before turning it in to indicate that we knew what we were doing – that we were intelligently breaking the rules and not just writing poorly.

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. Dean Rieck on Sep 29th, 2010 2:13 pm
  6. @Randy: That’s impressive. There are so many ad professors who know nothing about copywriting. It’s nice to hear you had one who understood that copywriting is about communication and not composition.

  7. Rajiv Nagare on Sep 29th, 2010 8:25 pm
  8. Very important information. I am learning a lot!

    Thanks & regards.

    Rajiv, Navi Mumbai,

  9. Yiam Cross on Oct 1st, 2010 3:45 am
  10. Simple is not always easy! Pushing a 3 ton car up a hill is a simple task but it sure ain’t easy. Now I’m going to ponder the paradox of a redundant word intelligently inserted performing a useful function so it can’t be redundant. Hmmm.

  11. Andy Bartling on Oct 4th, 2010 5:46 pm
  12. ‘Intelligent redundancy’ reminds me of my first direct mail boss’ favorite maxim:

    “Tell them, then tell them again. After you’ve done that, tell them.”

    Good advice to push through my old boss’ other favorite:

    “Nobody reads.”