Cringe-worthy copywriting – 5 tips to stop you sounding like an idiot

Posted by Nick Mitchell on Jul 29, 2019 4:48:22 PM
Nick Mitchell

A great piece of copy is a hard thing to quantify (though many have tried). Sadly, it turns out, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. You either write like Shakespeare or you write like shit. Relatively speaking.


Of course, it is still possible for any old hack to churn out basic, functional copy that ‘does the job’, which is the very least you should be doing. But, unless you want your company to sound as if it’s run by people who don’t know their arse from their elbow, please do not do any of the following:


  1. Give overall responsibility for copywriting to someone with a literacy grade of below Level 2


Ever heard a Copywriter say something along the lines of, ‘How does this person not know the difference between “pacific” and “specific” – what, are they 11 years old?’ and thought they were being ‘snobby’? If so, you are missing the point of their frustration and should not be writing or judging copy.


The Literacy Trust says that adults, ‘with skills below Level 2 may not have the skills to spot fake news or bias in the media’, and that adults, ‘with skills below Level 1 may not be able to read bus or train timetables or understand their pay slip.’


Not that I’m trying to ‘illiteracy shame’ anyone – there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with not being able to read and write well. But would you let a person with no distance perspective land a 747 aeroplane? Then why would you let someone who can’t fully understand messaging (including all of its subtexts) work as a writer?


Sure, maybe you’d encourage illiteracy if you were purposefully democratising messaging in an attempt to make yourself look more inclusive. But, even then, you’d need a literate person to oversee the project to make sure your company isn’t just espousing meaningless babble in its communications.


On the whole, though, if your best, most brilliantly opinionated people have things to say but don’t have the skills to say them well, get someone who does have those skills to write them on their behalf! That’s why the role of Copywriter exists in the first place – to make you sound good.


  1. Make uneducated guesses in an attempt to sound clever


I know a guy who used the word ‘inseminate’ as if it meant ‘to disseminate internally within the organisation.’ I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to suggest that he was going to shoot actual sperm into the company. So, you know… it’s good to know what you’re talking about.


I know someone else who once used the phrase ‘sloppy seconds’ to describe second-hand information, not knowing that its actual meaning is to have penile sex with someone who already has someone else’s sperm inside them.


Now, malapropisms (look it up, if you don’t know what it means) and other linguistic corruptions aren’t all sperm related. But surprisingly many are, because everyday colloquial language is pretty fixated on sex and general carelessness means that it – and other cringe-worthy language – is making its way into business vernacular.


What I’m saying is: if you’re going to write, at least use words the meaning of which you actually and definitely know. Otherwise, you’ll sound like a lunatic (and possibly a pervert, too.) This is sort of a reinforcement of point 1.

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  1. Think that spelling, grammar and syntax don’t really matter


They really do.


Sure, Copywriters will tell you all the time that you can throw away the rulebook, start sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘because’ and basically do whatever you like in the name of great copy. And all that’s true. As I just proved in the last sentence (which was actually just a clause, but I turned it into a sentence for effect).


However, and this is important, you have to know what’s in the rulebook before you can throw it away. Because there’s a difference between using language skilfully in spite of the rules and just sounding like you don’t know what you’re doing.


A writer who has all the rules at her/his fingertips is armed with the ability to weave words together fluidly, cleverly and in a way that has a certain impact. A writer who doesn’t will sound like an idiot. A well-placed comma can be the difference between telling someone, ‘that’s lovely, Fanny,’ and telling them, ‘that’s lovely Fanny.’


  1. Think that, because everyone else does it, you definitely should, too


Just because, for example, lots of people have stopped using apostrophes because they don’t know how to, don’t think that means you should too.


‘24 days holiday’ is a compound noun. ‘24 days’ holiday’, however, is a phrase that includes an adjective (determiner) followed by a noun, a punctuation to denote an omission of the word ‘of’ and another noun.


See the difference? No? Then give your copywriting to someone who does. Don’t just think it’s OK for you to do it, too, because all you’re doing is contributing to the diffusion of meaning in the English language.


Why is that a big deal? Well, it all depends on whether or not you think intelligence is a determining factor in the ability to make decisions and garner respect. Which, traditionally, it is. Though, nowadays, who the fuck knows? Maybe you think being stupid is cool. You know, like Donald Trump does.


Me, I’d rather be able to make informed decisions about language so that, when I say something, it doesn’t simply prove just how little I know. Which means not just blithely following trends set by people who clearly do not know what the fuck they’re doing.


  1. Speak in a voice you’re not completely at ease with


This is one of the oldest, most persistent offenders.


Picture it… a kid walks into shot on a TV advert. His baseball cap is on backwards. He is wearing an outfit that clearly looks like an adult has dressed him in an appropriation of ‘clothes kids like to wear’. He describes the product he is using as ‘cool’ and ‘wicked’ and ‘rad, dude!’


Then, you look over to your own child who is watching the advert on the sofa in confused horror.


Real kids do not behave like this. Only kids in embarrassing adverts written by guileless 45-year olds behave like this.


Writing in an affectation of a dialect or idiom you don’t really understand makes you look like more of an idiot than if you’d just stuck to plain English – believe me.


Remember when Dick Van Dyke rapped to his junior doctors’ class in Diagnosis: Murder and then moonwalked out of the classroom at the end? Well, it’s like the copywriting equivalent of doing that.


Copywriting is a craft. It is something that can only be learned by practice. It’s not the language of the Gods. It isn’t transmitted as if by some glorious magic from the heavens. There’s nothing ‘genius’ about it. It’s just a case of learning how language works and then playing with it. Over and over again until it sounds amazing. You will find new and different and exciting voices in which to write, through practice, and I would encourage everyone to do so. It’s as soulfully rewarding as it can be financially. Just don’t get ahead of yourself and make sure you know the basics first. Otherwise, my friend, you are going to make whichever organisation you’re writing for sound like a dickhead. And you don’t want that.


Do you?


Nick Mitchell Maiato is a Creative Director and Copywriter with 20 years’ experience in the advertising industry. He writes for some of the biggest brands on the planet. And, yet, has never once written what he believes to be the perfect piece of copy. Go figure.

Topics: Social Media, Employer Branding, Candidate Attraction Campaign