Tips For Copywriters: How To Write More Powerful Copy
Most of us today, who write even a little for a living, will have felt the steady tug to informality and imprecision in business communications. Getting it 'done and out' and using 'insider-speak' trumps style and clarity. In some cases, like political speeches, obfuscation and abstraction is deliberate and even, sadly, expected.
When it comes to writing, almost all of us have terrible habits going all the way back to grade school, reinforced and worsened by the 140 character universe and animated gifs on loop that tell the story. For me, unclear writing isn't only irritating to decipher, it can be downright seductive for the wrong reasons, the way laziness or group-think can sometimes be seductive - everyone else is luxuriating in jargon, they don't mind, why not just join them? Most of the time we're not even aware of the slide into buzzwords and tag-on phrases that communicate nothing. Reading George Orwell on this subject steels you to go back to your own writing and hack out what's wrong with it. It also makes you step back and see how poorly conceived and communicated ideas impact us negatively, whether we're talking about culture, people, or companies.
Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language 69 years ago. And his observations are as relevant today as they were then. To write well, said Orwell, is to think well, which then clarifies meaning and creates more powerful and persuasive ideas. Easier said than done when most of the writing around us today, in emails, texts, newspapers, marketing plans, advertisements, social content, best sellers, political speeches, and letters to the editor are full of dead metaphors, stale imagery, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. It's a reflection of the quality of thought that went into the work of course, but also the quality of the mind capable of such muddled carelessness.
Here's Orwell on the state of the English language in 1946:
"Quite apart from avoidable ugliness [of these preceding passages], two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing; as soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."
I'm not sure I know immediately what a prefabricated hen-house looks like - apparently much more central in the public mind in 1946. Regardless, we can take his advice to care more about what we say and how we say it and apply this rigour daily - one mission statement, marketing strategy, newsletter, and annual report at a time. Our thinking will be clarified, and so will be the delivery of our thoughts. Orwell's Big Five Rules For Writing Well:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print;
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do;
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out;
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active;
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent. One for the road:
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.