The copywriter’s curse: tradition, cliché and readability

If you're reading this, chances are your level of English is fairly advanced. You can almost certainly speak it more or less fluently, and read, write and understand it to a high degree.

As copywriters, we face the challenge of translating a client's vision into words - easy peasy, you might think. The client can probably describe what they want from us in words already. 

But we occupy the space between what people say, and what people hear. And translating words which sound like perfection to an individual, into a phrase that resonates with an audience, can be tricky.

Insight one: tradition

There're a lot of writing hangovers which people carry with them. Double spacing after a full stop. Indenting paragraphs. Writing incredibly long sentences to demonstrate that you've got a good grasp of how to use a comma. And, not starting sentences with 'And', 'But' and 'Because'.

It can be tough to talk someone out of the habits of a lifetime, especially if they've been taught that these are 'the rules'. And in all fairness, as long as the quirks are used consistently, and don't interfere with a piece's readability - there's no real problem.

The difficulty is convincing people that these aren't rules, and your writing is often much better off - and much more readable - without them. I won't bore you with the technical reasons why dogmas like 'not starting a sentence with a conjunction' are actually just stylistic preferences - this blog can do that for you. But a good response to anyone who gets pedantic is to ask if they've a problem starting a sentence with 'If'. If they don't, they're not using their own 'rule' properly.

Insight two: cliché

When your day-to-day life revolves around writing, spotting a worn-out old cliché can cause reflex eye-rolling and the immediate application of angry red pen. But when it comes to making an immediate connection with your reader - clichés aren't all that bad.

In the modern day, digital world, your writing is competing with a myriad of other distractions. So, capturing your audience is of utmost importance.

Clichés - worn out and weathered as they may be - are often immediately understandable, instantly memorable and easily applicable. MarketingProfs have done an excellent job summarising when it's appropriate to use clichés in your writing. So leave your snobbery at the door and unleash the beast; it's time to reclaim the cliché!

Insight three: readability

Readability is one of the core precepts in copywriting - write in short sentences, create easily scannable text, and make information easy to digest. But what digital copywriters have always known is now becoming commonplace in other literary forms.

"In Words Onscreen, published this year, the American linguist Naomi Baron surveyed the change in reading patterns that digital publishing has wrought. Where the impact can be measured, it consists primarily of a propensity to summarise. We read webpages in an "F" pattern: the top line, scroll down a bit, have another read, scroll down. Academics have reacted to the increased volume of digitally published papers by skim-reading them. As for books, both anecdotal and survey evidence suggests that English literature students are skim-reading set works by default."[1]

There may be some people hand wringing at the death of literature, but I see this as just another step in the evolution of communication. Whether you're writing poetry, SEO text, a novel, a website, a recipe, or the lyrics for a pop song - your priority should be communicating your idea in a way that reaches your audience. And if that means making it easily skimmable, so be it.

Everyone has their own idea about what good writing is. And every audience responds to different tones of voice in different ways.

The copywriter's curse, but also its blessing, is that there're no hard and fast rules about how to communicate. The art comes in striking the balance between how you want to say something, and how you want it to be heard. 

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