Copywriting 101: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Mrs Bird, looking the very picture of delight, was superintending the arrangements of the table, ever and anon mingling admonitory remarks to a number of frolicsome juveniles, who were effervescing in all those modes of untold gambol and mischief that have astonished mothers ever since the flood.

So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, one of the most influential and important books of the last 200 years, in her beautiful prose.

But let’s be honest, it’s quite convoluted isn’t it?!

Stowe might be one of the greatest writers of all time but that sentence from 1852 is a good example of how not to write content in 2017.

Here’s a quick guide to help you clarify, clean-up and declutter your copy, step away from those sesquipedalian words, and write short, punchy copy instead.

  1. Delete unnecessary words

    Here’s an example of a company explaining what they do:

    Working from our headquarters, we can help you set up a business in your sector and provide services to your clients by assisting you through the process of forming a company, and all that entails.

    What’s really important here? What are they trying to say?

    Take out all the unnecessary words and you get: We can help you set up your business.

  2. Break up your sentences

    Having lots of clauses in a sentence can start to get really complicated as readers have to keep lots of information in their heads, so by the time they’ve got to the end they can’t remember what they read at the beginning, they might need to go back to the start and re-read the whole sentence to get the gist, which is a pain, or they might give up altogether, decide it’s not worth the effort and see what’s on the telly instead.

    Try to write in short sentences. Your readers will stay with you and get your meaning. And you can use tricks – like starting sentences with ‘and’ – to keep it flowing.

  3. Replace long words with short ones

    Always use a short word instead of a long one if you can. It’s not dumbing down or being condescending to your audience, it’s writing naturally rather than sounding like a sixth former who’s swallowed a dictionary and is trying to bring it back up.

     

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    QUICK TIP: Listen to the words you use when you’re out networking or meeting a client. Do you talk about facilitating opportunities, being solutions-focussed, or offering a multitude of diverse services?

    Probably not. You might say you help people find new and exciting opportunities, or you help them work out the best way to grow their businesses, or you work in lots of different ways to suit your clients. When people read, they hear the words too and industry-speak just sounds weird. My advice? Write the way you speak.

  4. Informal vs. formal

    I think that online content should be conversational and fairly informal (unless you’re writing your terms and conditions or other official documents).

    My personal style-guide means I never use ‘whom’ (always ‘who’), ‘whilst’ is not in my vocabulary (while ‘while’ is), and no one could pay me enough to insert a semi-colon into my writing!

  5. Tone of voice

    Whenever you write for or about your business – you might be explaining something to your readers, entertaining or amusing them – you’re expressing your company’s character and brand through your choice of language (or, as we like to call it, through your ‘tone of voice’).

    If you want to stand out in a competitive market, reflect the difference between you and other organisations on your website and in your copy. Don’t look and sound like everyone else. Be the funky ones, the interesting ones, the ones people remember, not the dull as dishwater just like everybody else ones.

Copywriting is about getting your meaning across and creating an unfulfilled desire in your reader to call you, buy something, or wait for you in the car park. But you can express yourself and your business through your words too, so don’t be afraid to develop your own rules. Language is constantly changing and evolving. If no one tried new things we’d still be writing like Harriet Beecher Stowe – and that would make my life very challenging!

If you found these tips useful you might enjoy some of my other blogs:

Thanks for stopping by.

Sally

P.S. The term ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ was coined by Kelly Johnson, an engineer in the U.S. navy in the 1960s, and is based on the idea that most systems work best if they’re kept simple. The K.I.S.S. principle is often applied to copywriting.

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Karen Knott - February 22, 2017 Reply

Loved this Sally – some really good tips, thank you. I’m a huge fan of the K.I.S.S. principle (in theory) but find it challenging to put into practice! Will try harder.

Sally Mayor - February 22, 2017 Reply

Hi Karen,
You’re welcome, I hope they help (though I’m sure you’re very good at it already!).

Thanks for your comment.

Sally

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