F.R. David's song has a point about copywriting. Writing good copy, editing and getting your tone and content right isn't easy. And let's face it: I'd never proport to be an expert. I've written the odd tome and boy-oh-boy it's tough. But in doing so, there are a few things that I've picked up along the way which I'd like to share. Words certainly don't come easy to me.
I'm not talking about The Plain English Campaign - although they do jolly good work, even if their website looks like it was designed on a Speak and Spell, with their excellent use of stock images :-). No, I am talking about writing style. No matter what sphere your audience is in, write so your Mum can understand it. My advice is EYA – Explain Your Acronyms. You may think that only academics will be reading your text, but many a journalist might be looking over your shoulder for a story.
Tone of voice
There are two types of tone of voice to my mind. Your own – after all, Kerouac sounds a mile away from Will Self. And 'corporate tone of voice', which is not quite as Big Brother as it sounds. Organisations that have got their shit together have guidelines to help writers. These aren't necessarily restrictive; they can guide on things as simple as saying 'global' rather than 'international'. It's semantics. What's the difference? Not a lot, but there is a difference in tone. Every organisation should consider its tone of voice.
A descriptor should be a workmanlike description of what the company is and does. It should not include any flowery or emotive terms. It is not what the advertising world calls a 'lift speech', it is more basic than that but still very important. Think: 'XX company makes pencils. both lead and coloured'. Stop. Re-write: 'XX makes coloured and graphite pencils that are sold around the world'. No comment about how great they are or how ethically sourced the wood is. When writing about a company, write a short descriptor first. It sure focuses the mind.
Mission, vision and values
These three statements are not the same thing, though they are often featured alongside each other in annual reports and on websites. Here's the difference. 'Our mission is to produce the finest pencils possible (mission). We aim to return the use of traditional pencils back to the workplace (vision). We only use 100 per cent sustainable wood, ethical practices and environmentally-aware processes to deliver our products (values).' These bits of text are hard to get right. Understanding the difference is key to writing something meaningful that the whole organisation can stand behind.
Best bit of advice: if, when you read it, you could substitute another company or product and get the same meaning – you've got it wrong.
Call to action
Back in the DM (Direct Marketing) days, everybody knew what this was. Charities focussed every response on the call to action. But it is more than that. I haven't found many writing projects which, at some point or another, don't need a call to action, or, if you like, a 'next steps'. A call to action can be a 'next steps' just as much as it can be a 'donate now'. It can be 'move to the next step of your application' or 'feedback'.
Editors and proofing
I'm lucky enough to have an editor and proofer who looks at my work and makes sure it is 99 per cent correct. Nobody can be 100 per cent.
Writer or not, these people give a 'cold eye' to your work and make the chance of an embarrassing error an unlikely event. Most work freelance and they all seem to be very busy, so they must be doing something right.
Use 'em, don't abuse 'em.
This is a perfect example of getting it wrong. This article should be under Mission, Vision and Values. Hierarchy in content is massively important. So briefly, when writing a piece of content for an article in a publication, this is how it should go:
- Headline: intriguing, and semi-descriptive
- Stand first: short 'executive summary' that describes something that makes you want to read more
- Subheads: signposts that help the reader engage and know what is coming next
- Body copy: the meat of the article
- Pull out quotes, facts and figures: these are the advertising panels that stop the skim reader in their track and make them want to read the content.
I'm getting too wordy here, and that won't do.
Chutzpah, pizzazz and less is more
Any article, annual report statement, campaign leaflet, e-comm – anything – needs to be written without any adornments. An exclamation mark should be used as the last bullet in your gun. Most of the time you do not need one. If you ever put more than one, you look a bit silly. The same applies to any term that does not directly speak to your market. I might get away with 'splendid'– although it is a bit Jeeves and Wooster – but if I had ended this email with 'that was sick, bear good bro'...
Personally I am sick and tired of hearing the phrase and I reckon we've got at least three more years of it. It has become a brand – the French and the Germans know it. It is one of the best guerilla marketing terms ever. Britain's Exit. A great term. But I have to say, I can't wait until I hear it no more.
We write; we can write for you – we can edit, proof and put together those brand guidelines that will help others hit the right tone.