Why good copy goes bad: are you stupid or just ignorant?

May 24, 2012 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

copywriting gone badOne of the worst mistakes you can make as a copywriter is to assume your job is about writing. It’s not.

Now I know that sounds a bit odd. After all, the word “writing” is in the word “copywriting.” So it’s understandable why you might misunderstand.

But writing and copywriting are two very different things.

When you write a novel or a poem, readers want great words. They enjoy the rhythm, the imagery, the wordplay. People expect this kind of writing to deliver a certain art and beauty.

When you write websites, ads, white papers, or other business materials, readers simply want information. They don’t care about the artistry. They aren’t looking for beauty. They just want to find out how to solve a problem or meet a need.

This isn’t to say that copywriting can’t be well-crafted. It should be. But it should be crafted in such a way that the words disappear and the meaning shows through. I like to think of good copywriting as if it’s a toy store window, clean, polished, and invisible, providing a clear view of the wondrous goodies inside.

So when copywriters forget that their job is to convey meaning, to connect with needs, to influence and persuade, they focus on the words alone and create, well … crap. When you do this, it’s not that you’re stupid. It’s just that you’re ignorant.

Ignorant of the purpose of your copy. Ignorant of the meaning of your product or service. And ignorant of the perceptions of your readers. In other words, even beautifully-crafted copy can go bad when you pay too much attention to how you say something and ignore the meaning of what you’re saying.

How do you avoid this?

You must reach into the world other people live in. For example, if you’re a liberal and you’re writing web copy for a conservative website, you have to abandon your own views and immerse yourself in the world view of people who think differently.

You must empathize with the feelings and beliefs of your readers. They say you can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. So become a shoe thief, walk, jog, run in as many shoes as you can. You have to feel what others feel to write copy that connects with them.

You must have an interest in everything … and then some. In a recent conversation, a writer told me that he hates projects about things he has no interest in. How can you be a copywriter if you’re not curious about new things? You should know a little about everything.

You must be a quick study. Copywriting is always on a deadline. You have to inhale information and understand it rapidly. You have to be a pregnant woman in the morning and a retired trucker in the afternoon. A senator on Monday, a heart surgeon on Wednesday, and a champion cyclist on Friday.

You must always do your homework. Read everything. Ask questions. Take notes. And when you think you know it all, keep digging. As Edmund Burke said, “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.” (Edmund Burke? Could I have chosen a more arcane reference?)

You must be willing to change your copy to meet a goal. You can’t be a diva. Yes, you spend hours or days or weeks writing and rewriting. But if the copy doesn’t do the job, you have to let go. Top writers are ruthless editors and heartless revisionists.

You must recover from mistakes and learn from them. We all make them. What separates good writers from great writers is that great writers learn from mistakes and become greater. Lesser writers make excuses, react stubbornly, and get defensive.

If you’re a copywriter, you’re probably pretty smart. What you have to watch out for is being ignorant.

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Smart Comments

7 Comments on Why good copy goes bad: are you stupid or just ignorant?

  1. Belinda Weaver | Copywrite Matters on May 30th, 2012 9:22 pm
  2. Great post Dean – as always!

    A little off topic but I often get asked, “Have you written for [insert industry] before?” It’s a fair enough question but I usually have the same answer. Each copywriting project is unique and gets its own excavation. I listen, I research, I analyse.

    I think being able to show similar copywriting projects just gives the client permission to say yes.

  3. Dean Rieck on May 30th, 2012 9:51 pm
  4. Belinda: Yes, that’s right. You’re selling the invisible. Clients want reassurance that you understand their products and services and they won’t be wasting thousands of dollars for off-target copy. Exact-match samples are great, but sometimes you have to combine samples, such as a B2B sample with a XYZ Product sample when a client calls who sells XYZs via B2B.

  5. Trace Conger on May 31st, 2012 9:15 am
  6. Dean, great post as always. I have no issues making copy changes—I’m not an artist—and have rarely died on a sword for my copy (I’d rather have the paycheck), but I’ve had clients who have demanded some changes that would alter the context and purpose of the piece. For example, clients that want to add so much promotional material to a white paper that it turns into a brochure.

    As a copywriter (and to some extant a copy consultant), I believe it’s also our job to counsel clients and produce strategic documents that actually deliver on their purpose. When client feedback and revisions begin to endanger this, it’s our job to stand firm and explain why these changes shouldn’t be incorporated.

  7. Dean Rieck on May 31st, 2012 10:24 am
  8. Trace: I agree. It’s my policy to explain to clients why I’ve done what I’ve done and why their change would be bad. But if the client persists, I’ll do what the client wants with the caveat that they’re making a mistake. It’s their money, after all.

    Sometimes clients have good suggestions and it’s important to listen and never be knee-jerk defensive about copy. There’s never just one way to write something.

  9. Olivia Shannon on Jun 13th, 2012 9:31 am
  10. “[Copywriting] should be crafted in such a way that the words disappear and the meaning shows through. I like to think of good copywriting as if it’s a toy store window, clean, polished, and invisible, providing a clear view of the wondrous goodies inside.”

    The same is true of great literature. That’s why it’s so hard to become a successful creative writer. “Good prose is like a window pane” –George Orwell

  11. Ted Grigg on Aug 2nd, 2012 10:27 pm
  12. Your post provides a great assessment of the role of the professional copywriter.

    Sometimes, the ignorance comes from the client side rather than the copywriter.

    I once delivered a leave behind brochure that the client contracted for to help close the sale on BtoB leads after the sales people made their appointments.

    The headlines, subheads, copy and offer in the piece did a great selling job. But guess what the client told me. “I was expecting more creativity!” I lost the account.

    I never could get him to share a sample, website or any other input that defined what he meant by “creativity.” All he could tell me was that he would recognize it when he saw it.

    What would have been your response to his comments?

  13. Sarah on Aug 22nd, 2012 10:44 am
  14. Hi there

    I’ve just read your article and wanted to say good job. I agree with what you’re saying here…the meaning is more important than superfluous words.

    Have to say, my favourite part was…

    ‘They say you can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. So become a shoe thief’

    Do your clients now go to meetings bear foot? ;)