Mad men and lousy copywriters: writing style for bloggers and digital journalists
He’s staring at a virgin piece of paper laid out on the desk. His pen hovers over the blank sheet. Stumped, he leans back in his chair with a sigh. Smooths his hair and draws deeply on a cigarette. David Ogilvy, one of the best-known of the Madison Avenue ad men, said he was a “lousy copywriter”. “If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone,” he told one correspondent who asked for the recipe for good writing. “This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush. ”
The printing press and movable type, the typewriter, the word processor and the internet have made it easier over the centuries to share the written word. They haven’t made it easier to write well. Competition for attention has grown with every new communication channel, whether offline or online. But having the means of publication is not the same as having an audience. The internet bulges with blogs with an audience of one: the writer. Poets and novelists hope to find an audience but can work to please themselves. But journalists and copywriters are paid to enlighten, engage or entertain and have failed if their work is unread. Likewise, bloggers.
So what makes good copy?
Literary writing is where style has no bounds. The author can be as florid or sparse – as obtuse or accessible – as they wish. Clarity is the keynote of style for professional copywriters. Ideas, facts and messages should be expressed in a way that is easily understood. Style that confuses, obscures or over-complicates is a barrier to comprehension – a barrier between the writer trying to express an idea and the reader intended to consume it. But clarity is not a synonym for dull. Clear copy can be compelling copy. Crafting pithy and precise sentences, stripped of clichés and unnecessary adjectives, is the copywriters’ art.
The first steps
Words are the outcome rather than the starting point. In the beginning is the idea. What are you trying to say? If you are not clear, there’s little hope for the reader trying to comprehend what you are struggling to say. Has it been said before? If so, there needs to be a good reason to say it again. A little research is priceless. The exchange of value between the writer and the reader is either entertainment or enlightenment. You want a reader to give up their time to read your words? Be sure you’re giving them amusement, diversion or insight in return. The final test of the idea is how best to communicate it. We type words because we have a keyboard. Having a keyboard does not mean words are the best way to communicate an idea. Is this an idea better explained in moving or still images, graphics or audio? Back to Ogilvy: “Before actually writing the copy, I write down every conceivable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.”
This leads to step two. The audience. Who are you writing for? What is their prior knowledge of the topic likely to be? Is the target a specialist audience with technical knowledge, or a lay audience of interested generalists? Confuse the two and the copy is likely to be confusing. Creating a model profile of the target audience – personas – will help focus the effort. Root those personas in reality. They can reflect either someone you know or the résumé of a target reader you’ve never met –Linkedin profiles can help. Write with a persona or complementary personas in mind and you are more likely to write in style and substance in a way that is relevant to the intended readership.
The opening line of an article is the hook to capture attention. Fail to grab the reader at the outset and the odds are they won’t reach the second line. There are lessons to be drawn from journalism.
Every cub reporter is taught there are two basic types of “intro” to an article. The most common is to give priority to compelling points at the beginning of the piece. If you are breaking some news, you don’t want the reader to have to wait till line 20 for the killer fact. You’re not writing an essay – point, counterpoint and conclusion. That’s for academics. But how do you decide the most compelling line? Editors over the years have offered the same advice: “How would you explain this story to someone in a pub?” What would you say to a friend, or someone you’ve just met, to spark a conversation about a topic? That’s your way in.
The second opening style is the “drop intro”. It’s a common device of feature writing, and this article is an example of the approach. It’s a slow tease. You draw the reader into the piece with an unusual opening; often a line that is illustrative of the point about to be made without dealing with it directly. Too long a drop – too slow a tease – and you’ve made the reader wait too long before they start reaching the point. You’ve probably lost their attention.
You will struggle to find better guidelines for clear writing than from two 20th century novelists and journalists. Forget that they were writing in the era before the internet. They were master craftsmen with words. They advocated the considered rather than casual use of words. George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language offers relevant advice for the 21st century digital writer:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Keith Waterhouse, author of Billy Liar and a long-serving national newspaper columnist, offered similar thoughts on the need for clarity in his book Waterhouse on Newspaper Style in 1989:
- Use specific words (red and blue) not general ones (brightly coloured).
- Use concrete words (rain, fog) rather than abstract ones (bad weather).
- Use plain words (began, said, end) not college-educated ones (commenced, stated, termination).
- Use positive words (he was poor) not negative ones (he was not rich–the reader at once wants to know, how not rich was he?).
- Don’t overstate: fell is starker than plunged.
- Don’t lard the story with emotive or “dramatic” words (astonishing, staggering, sensational, shock).
- Avoid non-working words that cluster together like derelicts (but for the fact that, the question as to whether, there is no doubt that).
- Don’t use words thoughtlessly. Waiting ambulances don’t rush victims to hospital. Waiting ambulances wait. Meteors fall, so there can be no meteoric rise.
- Don’t use unknown quantities: very, really, truly, quite. How much is very?
- Never qualify absolutes. A thing cannot be quite impossible, glaringly obvious or most essential, any more than it can be absolutely absolute.
- Don’t use jargon, clichés, puns, elegant or inelegant variations, or inexact synonyms (BRAVE WIFE DIED SAVING HER SON is wrong; wife is not a synonym for mother).
- Words are facts. Check them – spelling and meaning – as you would any other.
So begin with a clear idea. Research the topic and consider whether words are the best medium to convey the idea. Have a target audience in mind. Write with clarity rather than clumsiness. Finally, good copy prompts a response: from anger, delight, relief or frustration to practical action, whether protest or purchase. Be ready to reply to criticism or praise. The era of published and be damned is over. Today is the era of publish, be damned and respond.