Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tuesday Tip No. 45 - How To Write Copy

If you have the choice, never write copy.

Why? Because no one reads it.

You’re just adding an extra element, which means fewer eyeballs will be attracted to the ad in the first place. So it’s counter-productive.

In the olden days, copy was important because it was a source of information about the product.

But nowadays, people almost never make a purchase without getting information from the internet first. Therefore, copy isn’t needed. Just put the web address.

In fact, even the web address is unnecessary, in my view, since consumers can be fairly confident in assuming that every company in the world which is selling products today, has a website. And you don’t even need to tell consumers what that website’s name is, because they’ll get to it via Google - that’s just what everyone does.

One argument you still occasionally hear in favour of copy is that it helps ‘close the sale’.

This ‘closing the sale’ argument is based on a bizarre view of how advertising works - that consumers read an advert for a product, drop their magazine and walk in a zombie-like trance to the shops to buy it.

Sorry, but you can’t close a sale with an advert. Advertising does have a huge influence on behaviour, but it’s not like you’re pressing the buttons on a radio-controlled car here.

There’s only one example I can think of when some copy on an advert might be a good thing. And that is when you want to imply that your product is a serious product, which has a lot worth saying about it. Of course, almost no one will read this copy. But the very fact that the advert has a lot of copy on it will communicate that this is a serious product, which has a lot worth saying about it. (N.B. this benefit may possibly be offset by the large number of people who will be put off even looking at the advert because of its dull and waffly appearance.)

So the only reason to write copy is if all the above arguments fail, and the client (via the account team) tell you that you have to.

Then you have to.

There’s very little to be gained from it. I’ve twice judged the ‘Copy’ section for D&AD, so someone out there must consider me a good copywriter. Yet in 15 years, no one’s ever told me: “Nice copy.”

Having said all that, I do think it’s worth doing a Tip about how to write copy.

Why? Because most Creatives nowadays come from an art-school or graphic design background rather than any kind of writing-related field, are not necessarily confident writing copy, and so (I get the feeling) would appreciate some guidance.

Also, although there is little to be gained from writing good copy, there is plenty to lose if you write bad copy. Principally, there’s a risk you may displease your Creative Director. He may be one of those Creative Directors (because remember he is a fair bit older than you - perhaps even of a different generation, at least in advertising terms) who still thinks that an ability to write copy is important.

Even if he does understand how irrelevant copy is, you may still piss him off if you do it badly - by taking up his valuable time to help you fix it.

The best result is you do this quickly and cleanly. That way the account team, Creative Director and Client are happy, while you have got it off your desk with a minimum of time & effort spent, so you can get on with something else… something which might actually advance your career.

Here are my 5 tips for writing better copy.

1. Spell-check. Every time you pass your copy to another sentient being – be that your Creative Director, Traffic guy, Client or whatever – spell-check. I personally believe that an insistence on correct spelling is pointless; nothing more than pedantry. I’m far more interested in what someone has to say, not whether they’ve remembered that ‘accommodation’ needs 2 C’s and 2 M’s. (Why does it?) However, there are plenty of people out there who place poor spelling on a par with poor personal hygiene, poor manners, and the decline of the British Empire. And you don’t want to piss anyone off unnecessarily. Not when avoiding it is as easy as pressing F7. So do that.

2. Get the account team to give you a copy brief, or ‘account man copy’ before you start. Often there’s little wrong with it.

3. Use simple, common words. But not exclusively - throw in the odd clever one too. It’s a trick that really works. The late style guru Sheridan Baker, who in turn was paraphrasing Aristotle, wrote: “For clarity, we need common, current words; but, used alone, these are commonplace, and as ephemeral as everyday talk. For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors; but, used alone, these become bogs, vapours, or at worst, gibberish. What we need is a diction that weds the popular with the dignified, the clear current with the sedgy margins of language and thought.”

4. Good copy is copy that flows. So avoid elements that could make a reader stumble. These include punctuation in the wrong place, words or combinations of words that make an ugly or weird sound in the head, lack of clarity, boasting, unnecessary changes of tense, use of passive voice, repetition (unless deliberate), clichés, vagueness, blandness… and lists. Like the one you just read.

Three is really the maximum number of items to put in a list, unless your goal is to send the reader off for his sleepy-time.

A bit more on some of those other “don’ts”:

Punctuation in the wrong place is bad. The only purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. Putting it in the wrong place makes your meaning less clear.

Avoid rhyming copy, it just sounds weird. In general, try to listen in your head to the sounds that your words make. Avoid combinations that sound ugly or are hard to say.

Lack of clarity is your No.1 enemy. Always check your copy (or have someone else read it) to see whether any bits could be read the wrong way.

Don’t boast. Describing the product as ‘amazing’ or ‘wonderful’ won’t actually make people think it is. Would you describe yourself as ‘amazing’? Persuasion occurs when you present someone with the facts in an appealing way, and let them come to the amazingness conclusion for themselves.

Avoid unnecessary changes of tense. A sudden move like this can throw a reader right off his horse. In general, keep everything in the same tense. The present tense.

Passive voice has a place – like maybe if you want to portray someone as a real victim – but rarely in advertising copy.

Avoid repeating words, even little ones like ‘of’ and ‘and’. Such repetition probably wouldn’t trip a reader, and may not even be consciously noticed. But unconsciously, I believe it registers as a low-quality signal. Someone who finds it necessary to repeat a word, when they’re only using 50 of the blighters, obviously doesn’t have a very large vocabulary. Repetition is only okay if you’re doing it deliberately, for effect. Example: “There’s no business like showbusiness.”

5. For goodness sake, don’t spend ages on a piece of copy. Chances are that as soon as you have it perfectly crafted, with not a word out of place, and a rhythm that would be the envy of Keats… the Client thinks of a point they want to add or take out, and you’ll have to re-tool.

Previous Tips:

Be Funny All The Way Through; How To Do Virals; How To Get A Pay Rise; Be Wary Of Punding; Challenge The Brief; Tell The Truth; Playing To Lose; How To Write Headlines; How To Do Direct; How To Do Radio; How To Do Press; How To Do TV; How To Do Digital; How To Do Posters; Look At Weird Shit; Presenting To The Client; Presenting To The Team; Presenting To The Creative Director; How To Deal With Rejection; Look Creative; Don't Be Afraid To Ask; Your Idea Has To Be 120%; Read Iain's Tips; Don't Behave; How To Discuss Ideas; Read Hugh's Tips; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7); How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ; Make Friends With Traffic; Get Reference; Don't Stop Too Soon; Be Very; Breaking Up; Working Well With Your Partner; Finding The Right Partner; How To Approach Agencies; Never-Seen-Before Footage; Dicketts' Finger; Two Blokes In The Pub; Play Family Fortunes; Should You Take A Bad Job?; Don't Overpolish


Anonymous said...

Tuesday Tip No. 46 - AVOID TRENDS.

Lunar BBDO said...

Shit. No wonder you haven't written a post in so long.

I like copy; my ability to string a sentence together reminds me that I'm better than the mouth-breathing art school dunderheads who barely know which end of a marker pen to use.

Just kidding.

You're absolutely right about how tempting it is to a reader, though. Being a copywriter I have trawled through many a copy section of D&AD and yet still found hundreds of excuses to avoid reading the blah blah blah that lies within. So if I can't be bothered under those circumstances, then the average punter won't give a mouse shit. Oh well.

Cleaver said...

Agree with your general point that people don't read copy, but I think there's one teeny tiny exception.

People will read copy if, and only if:

(a) The copy is written to amuse and entertain, rather than to witter on endlessly about product features and benefits; and

(b) There's nothing better to do.

So copy on a billboard at a tube station or on one of those posters above a urinal = not a bad idea.

Copy in print, on web, or any other form of outdoor - anywhere there's anything else to look at at all - = waste of space and money.

Of course, I have no evidence to back up this theory. Just the sight of a few people reading those Goldfish posters and a forlorn hope that one day I might write something people might read.

Rob said...

Oh no, how depressing. It's finally happened.

First of all art directors that could draw were put to the sword. And now copywriters who can write.

The ushering in and encouragement of the death of the copywriter is such a shame. I personally love copy. I love its heritage. I love its great practitioners.

I refuse to accept people don't read copy until the day they stop reading magazines newspapers and. um. blogs.

What people don't read is BAD copy. And unfortunately bad copy is everywhere.

Probably because no-one values good copy any more.

"Ideas people" has been the term in the new aeon. I think 'ideas people' is a brilliant linguistic tool to hide any shortcomings in talent; one not uncommonly cited by the people who WANT to be in advertising. The kids who have loved money and stuff from the day they were born and never even dabbled with non-commercial artforms.

Yes, in most ads, the ideal word count is nil. But sometimes words are needed to make an argument.

"A picture is worth a thousand words". I've yet to see a picture articulate those seven words adequately.

I wish people with a voice in the industry would avoid saying such things.

I know I'm sounding like a dinosaur. But killing talents and craft skills with such de rigeur statements is dangerous. Because when something is dead, it stays dead.

Imagine how ludicrous it would seem if we said "images" are dead. It would sound absurd. And this sounds equally absurd to me.

There's always a story to be told - at least in every idea worth having.

Sorry this reply is so long, if I'd had more time it would have been shorter. (A Wildeism, I think)

Anonymous said...

I got bored after the first line of the first comment. In fact I think its a god damn miracle I made it onto the comments page, (applause from copywriter's around the globe)
And by the way Scamp, have you thought about using a different typeface, I mean for gods sake, so many to choose from.

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed reading Scamp's copy.

Got bored to tears reading rdsrae's diatribe.

Who's the better writer?

Anonymous said...

Sorry... to ad to my last comment, I've just read rdsrae's 'About me' on his blog where he says:

"I'm a copywriter. I work through-the-line. I should have gone above-the-line, really. But I couldn't be arsed".

Thank fuck he never made it above the line.

Rob said...


Anonymous said...

I do try to avoid writing copy whenever I can, mainly because it's my job and I am extremely lazy.

More pertinently though, I agree with cleaver. Placement, or the right channel or whatever, seems pretty key. If you have a captive audience then good copy is a good thing. But just blindly trusting that everyone will read reams of text blathering on about God knows what is ignorant in the extreme.

Right, back to the 24-page brochure that nobody's ever gonna read. Apart from the no doubt suicidal lawyer who keeps sending it back to me with changes.

Rob said...

I took one look at M&C and thought "not for me."

But personal stuff aside, anonymous, what's your opinion on the original post?

The debate is an interesting one. Or is this going to be just another shit flinging fest from people withholding their identities.

Anonymous said...

No. Fair enough rdsae. Was just a bit grumpy this morning. Got to get on with some art direction but will try and compose some thoughts on the original post later.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The Goldfish ads are a great reason why copy is dying on its arse. They are monumentally fucking, fucking, fucking boring. You might get through one if you're bored on a tube platform but otherwise (and believe me, I've tried) they will inspire you to scrape out your eyeballs with a rusty hacksaw, firebomb the Goldfish offices and wonder what on earth the pretentious load of old monkey-wank is all about.

If anyone involved is reading this, please tell us why we would give a shit about your cuntily-named credit card based on a dreary story from a comedian whose best years are long since behind them.

Then kill yourself.

Anonymous said...

The oracle has spoken.

Well said the oracle.

George said...

Does nobody think that the bring back the Whisper campaign was any good? That was an enormous page of copy, but if you read the first line, then there was an urge to read on...... And it worked, didn't it?

Also - Scamp - some examples of your favourite copy?

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

For great examples of readable copy that engages you, go back and read some CDP/BMP print ads from the 70s/80s. Thinking specifically of Birds Eye and Parker among others.

They often used images that inspire you to go and read the copy.

Eugen Suman said...

good tips, bad attitude. copy is equally important as art, if not more. and, shocker!, people still read. check it out, you'd be surprised.

Steve H said...

Be as open minded to copy as you are a great photograph, a great visual, a great bit of design. The minute you say one is no longer relevant you cut down your creative options. Scamp, to a degree is right, copy isn't often all that necessary in print ads. But one day, it may just provide a refreshingly different approach for you and D&AD might cry, "long copy, how utterly original - here, have a pencil or ten." Might not happen, but learn how to write copy just in case.

Lunar BBDO said...

As an addendum to the comment above, we had this to say about copywriting earlier in the year:

Writing as a skill and element of persuasion still has a place, though not so much in conventional advertising.

Martin said...

Agree with the oracle on Goldfish. If they got proper professional copywriters to do it instead of washed-up "celebrities" it might have worked.

That's the level of respect we've currently got for copy. I can't see a day when Duncan from Blue will be paid a fortune to lift ideas from youtube and present them as his own though.

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

At least this is one advantage ex DM creatives will have, they will be much more experienced with copy.

Anonymous said...

Yeah...experienced doesn't mean good. I know DM doesn't just mean leaflets and mailshots, but most of it is and most of them are shit.

Ex-dm people have an advantage in that they know what it is to be a member of the most downtrodden disregarded section of the communications industry. If they can get through a few years of that without drinking strychnine, then they might have the resilience to continue their tiny, washed-up, dribbly little lives.

Scamp said...

Okay, I agree with those who said copy is acceptable on a cross-track.

I remember once seeing a cluster of people on an otherwise empty tube platform reading some brilliant long copy on a Samaritans ad (it was by Alun Howell at Ogilvy, I think).

But I don't believe people will read long copy about haircare products or chocolate bars, however bored they are.

Yes, people read thousands of words in novels, but novels are about life & death & relationships, not haircare products or chocolate bars.

For these kind of products, it's better to land a quick hit and get out.

Rob said...


I love the hatred towards DM. We get paid just as much as you do. We get to mess about as much. We just don't take ourselves so seriously. Let's not descend into eye-poking.

Yes, most DM is shit. But so are most brand ads - especially in print.

In DM, copywriting skills are essential. But Clive is right, experienced doesn't mean good. There are many, many shite copywriters in DM. I've never understood how they get work.

I think the colleges have a lot to answer for. I'd be more willing to trust someone with a 'proper' degree to write good copy than someone who spent three years being *taught* how to have ideas.

But my peers seem not to agree.

I'm sorry if this deviates the thread away from its ATL focus. I've assumed on the back of Scamp's 'how to do direct' tip that he considers us a part of the mix.

As for my washed-up dribbly life. Fuck that. This is a gas.

Anonymous said...

no wonder no one wants to hire me as a copywriter...

So for those of us who are trying to break into the industry (as a copywriter), what do we do now?

Anonymous said...

agree with scamp. copy, if necessary, should be informational. what are the immediate questions one might have about the product? How much? Where can I get it? etc

that's yer copy.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1.26
Don't take this blog too seriously.
It's just a middle aged bloke in tight jeans.

Anonymous said...

Scamp. People won't read copy about chocolate? I enjoyed reading the long copy on that Wispa ad. If it's an interesting subject to the reader and it's informative and entertaining then believe people will read it. Just ask any successful author. And you've used an awful lot of copy here to argue against the use of copy

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

Copy benefits from good art direction.

If the images are interesting and engaging enough, people may think the words are also worth reading.

Also, sometimes copy is far better as getting something across than images. Thinking specifically of the famous food health ad (fly) by Saatchi and Saatchi.

Rob said...

Will people read about Smoothies?

Anonymous said...

Tuesday Tip no 46: how to art direct.

Pretend that the colours are too 'hot' over here or too 'fresh' over there.*

Pretend that moving things half a millimetre to the left has some effect.*

Try to create an air of mystery around the fine art of doing fuck-all and getting well paid for it.*

None of this applies to any AD's I know but most of the ones I don't.

Anonymous said...

Good article Scamp, but just like long copy ad's I didn't make it to the end...


Anonymous said...

Scamp - just read some excellent long copy for a hair care product.
Check out p.24 of this years latest one show annual (thanks losers BBDO for the tip on Amazon)
Put that in your 'long copy is dead' pipe and smoke it.

william said...

Being a creative who knows how to write is like knowing karate. You don't have to go on and on about it, but you are not to be fucked with. And people (even quite senior people) will count on you to save their ass.

Anonymous said...

scamp's point is good. the role of print in people's lives has changed. advertising actually used to be a source of information for people. albeit a one-sided one. we now have the internets.

yes, howard gossage once said that people don't read ads they read what interests them. but that was in the mid-60s.

Anonymous said...

Writing copy is like trying to fit a massive tallywhacker in an unlubricated arse.

Lots of fun.

Anonymous said...

anon 4:10 you're the loser.

john dodds said...

"People almost never make a purchase without getting information from the internet first"

Really? We like to think so, but is it true? Is it true of all categories? What is the extent of that "research" and would great copy be more effective than or influence what they read on the internet?

And it may be a moot point, but what is all that information except copy?

Anonymous said...

You should edit that...

Don't write copy - reinvent it.

Shying away from copy is kind of a cop out.

People will read if they're given a reason to.


But so is well-crafted copy.

Anonymous said...

ps. 'he kills coppers'?
is it this genius that's supposed to knock us into a cocked hat?

Scamp said...

5.44 anon -

No, not that one. But soon my friend, very soon. Later this week in fact.

Anonymous said...

I await your self-congratulatory posting of them on this blog then.

Anonymous said...

I like copy.

I like brands with a tone of voice. And i think copy helps acheive this.

Being old skool, but not old. (29), the words "Why write copy, people can just go on the internet and read about it" makes me shiver.

Anonymous said...

hold on.

"people can just go on the internet and read about it."

Gosh, what are they reading? not copy by any chance?

Anonymous said...

god this is tedious.

look, if it's a considered purchase, like a car say, people read about it (and configure it and customize it, pick a color etc) online. so blathering on about how great a car it is is a waste of ink and trees. this is a comparatively new development. but a good one from marketer's pov. way better than a press ad.

and if it's not a considered purchase, say a shampoo for example, there's bugger all to say anyway. so no copy.

plus, in my experience, it's invariably blindingly obvious how much copy is unavoidably required.
unless of course one chooses to channel one's inner indra sinha and pretend it's 1975.

Anonymous said...

i think one of the reasons we don't write copy led ads anymore is that it takes time to write it and craft it well. and the time creative depts get on briefs at the idea stage is almost non existent these days.

so instead of presenting sub standard copy to thier CD's, creatives always present the quick visual routes at ideas stage of the process.

Anonymous said...

re 4.10pm, 'this years latest One show Annual', are you telling us that the One show Annual is now being published several times a year? I think the clue to this not being true is in the name of this publication: One Show Annual, Annual means something that happens once a year. I mean come on this is a post about copy.

Anonymous said...

alright you pernickety cnut, one show annual Vol 29.
Give me strength.

Anonymous said...

I love copy, maybe I'm old fashioned but I strongly believe in the power of the written word enabling brands to communicate with their audience, especially since reading copy in magazines and newspapers is about as close as I can get these days to masturbating on the telephone whilst calling the John Lewis furniture dept. I lost all feeling in my Penis after an awkward moment with my Dyson DC05 ( Blue model, not the more common yellow one).

The rather dull Goldfish long copy ads are a particular favorite for my long copy wank Bank right now.

Anonymous said...

re 9.34

You spelt cunt wrong, or were you just being nice?

Anonymous said...

OK Scamp. Take a look at the link below. It might be a US example, but maybe copy CAN work:

Scamp said...

That's an interesting question. Do people think copy works better on the net than it does in print? And if so, why?

Anonymous said...

copy works better online because the reader has sought it out and is actively interested.

god help me, i find ad blogs interesting. fly-fishing, not so much. but fly-fishing websites don't get in my face trying to get me interested in fly-fishing.

Alan Wolk said...

Much as my gut tells me you're right Simon and much as I want to believe it (okay, and much as I make the same argument myself) there's a world of research out there proving us wrong. That putting the web address or the phone number or the words "buy it now" at the bottom increase sales when that's the only difference between the two ads.

Check out this blog, which is all about that sort of stuff and ranks as #2 on the (US) Ad Age Power 150

Anonymous said...

"if you have the choice never write copy"

Glad to see so many people standing up for the written word, after that opening swipe.

I'm sure this is all stems from our hyper active existence nowadays. Copy is seen as an additive instead of an essential ingredient and/so people can just by-pass it.

Plenty of room for good copy in the world, online and in print. But, I agree with the people saying there's gotta be something which hooks you into the copy.

And that's why you need the copywriter...not an art guy who tries NOT to write copy.

Your tips are most useful Scamp, but I'm poo-pooing this one ;)

~Copywriter for hire. BA Hons~

Anonymous said...

The written word is a pain in the arse.
- James Joyce

Anonymous said...

People do read copy, and lots of it.

Sorry Scamp, but this one's way off base. Some of your contentions regarding the appropriate uses of copy are valid, but the notion that all copy is obsolete is a poor one.

Advertisers should be encouraged to build their skills in writing, lest the client does writes your ad for you. And poor spelling, and poor grammar, is just lazy, even if you don't care for either.

Try again.

Anonymous said...

Scamp, while I disagree with your general dismissive thoughts on the need for words, your tips for writing better copy are excellent (so good in fact I will be making my copywriters read your blog on Monday).

So I say "nice copy" to you.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully droll - and I see that whoever first said irony is usually wasted was right again.

Anonymous said...

much thanks to the 39 year ironic t-shirt wearer for the comment on my samaritans ad - thing is that year d and ad were going to get rid of the copy section - thing is if u want to buy something u will read anything on an ad - the small print up the side the legals etc - if you dont - you wont read anything - but today people seem to the copy has to be some abstract story rather than writing about the product -
and even in long copy ads the way its laid out seems more important -

i think we underestimate the importance of writing in advertising - there are no awards for slogans - how come - there are for retouching -

the pun headline was rightly ridiculed - but it's time the visual pun went the same way - look someone came up with the idea of summing up the message with a visual idea - it's done stop it - at cannes last year it was like i was seeing the same idea a thousand times over - just find the message - oh and make a visual pun out of it - stop now

Jefe said...

A great man (and I'm sure you know who I refer to) once said: "People read what they want to read"
And for those few that get the chance to take a glimpse of what you have written ... you know how it feels.