Copywriting myths busted. The long and the short of it.
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
“Top 10 copywriting tips”. “50 killer ways to improve your copy”. “25 things that will transform your copy.” You’ve seen the click-baity blog post titles. While there are often useful nuggets in these articles, they’re maddening in the uniformity of advice. The very writers who claim originality and creativity in their work, only ever have the same limited advice to give when it comes to copywriting tips.
Well in our opinion anyway. So, we thought it was time to bust some copywriting myths and do a bit of zagging while everyone else zigs.
1. Short words are not best
George Orwell said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Wise words. But note, he's not saying that long words are bad.
The copywriting police miss a very important point in their zeal to reduce everything to one syllable.
Yes, short words can add clarity. Yes, we can all swap out ‘utilise’ for ‘use’, or ‘demonstrate’ for ‘show’. It makes for a quicker read and short words are easier to remember.
And, yes they add impact. We learn short words first. They’re the ones hard-wired into our brains. We learn to walk before we perambulate.
But are short words always more interesting or engaging? Of course not.
This poster from Tesco illustrates the point nicely.
What’s the most interesting word here? Mantlepiece. The syllable nazis would have changed that to 'shelf' in a trice. And the ad would have lost its charm.
When we ask people their favourite word in our writing workshops, the contributions are dripping with syllables: discombobulate, serendipity, fantabulous. People savour the right kinds of long word.
And so do certain sorts of brands.
Take a look at how Harrods describe their Almond Caramels:
They could have said, “Posh sweets”. But it wouldn’t have had the same impact. The way it’s dragged out makes our mouths water.
Or how about this from Hendricks? The alliteration and the syllable count give a nice rhythm. They could have used shorter words (tasty moon gin?), but it wouldn’t have had the same effect.
The truth, as in life, is that variety is the spice of writing.
Remember: short words are often there to make the long ones shine.
2. Long sentences are not bad.
No one likes waffle. Long sentences are readability killers. Take this example from Lamborghini. All the excitement is lost is the rambling sentences and hideous words like ‘functionality’.
So, the copywriting tip-dispensers will tell us to keep our sentences short.
Short sentences are easy to remember. They’re easier to write. They add energy.
But after a while, reading short sentences is like being punched in the face. Staccato. Salesy. Irritating.
And what actually is short? Three words? Seven? Twenty three? There’s some research to suggest that the average conversational sentence length is around 7-10 words so that’s a guide. Usability folk will tell you an average of 12 is good for web copy.
Note here that we're talking 'averages'. Short isn't the answer. Varied is.
This famous example from Gary Provost captures it neatly:
In the real world, this Apple ad illustrates variety neatly:
Also, you may have noticed that they’ve included a one-word sentence. Gasp.
You can do that too. If it was good enough for Dickens' intro to Bleak House, we mortals should give it a go.
London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Bleak House
Having started with a one-worder, and soon after a three-worder, he comfortably eases into a 45-worder. Dare you.
Remember: Longer sentences aren’t bad, they’re just harder to write well.
3. Contractions are not always your friend
For some copywriters, expressions that aren’t contracted such as ‘you will’ or ‘are not’, are like garlic to a vampire. That should be ‘you’ll’ and ‘aren’t’, they shriek.
Introduce a ‘do not’ into your copy and the copywriting line-toers will shrink back into the dark muttering ‘don’t’, ‘don’t’, ‘don’t’.
We’d agree that contractions serve a useful purpose. They reflect conversational speech. They’re shorter and more day to day. They're relaxed and engaging.
But slavishly changing every ‘we have’ to ‘we’ve’, reduces the power of your writing.
Yes, contractions are conversational, but they lack power and oomph. Sometimes it’s much better for a brand to say, ‘we will’, or a sales email to promise, ‘you will’.
Like Queen never sang: ‘We’ll, we’ll, rock you.’
Not being shackled to contractions will give your copy more range. Flex your copy muscles and do what is right not what the last piece of LinkedIn copywriting advice told you.
Simple is it not?
Remember: you don’t speak in contractions all the time, the same is true for writing.
4. Don’t avoid passive voice
Every other brand tone of voice guidelines will tell you to avoid the passive voice in favour of the active.
(We’ll draw a veil over those who think that 'active' means using more energetic language like 'run' or 'jump'.)
Passive voice is often seen as the bad guy, but sometimes it comes in handy. Say you want to make it impersonal or focus on what was done rather than who did it.
Newspaper headlines use the passive voice very effectively:
Sales copy can use the passive to the same effect if you need to lead with the newsworthy bit of the story:
Call of Duty 7 has just been released. Grab your copy now!
You could write 'We've just released Call of Duty 7' but it wouldn't focus on the news.
The passive voice works well in copy that empathises with your situation: When you’ve been shouted at by the boss, pushed off the sofa by the dog, and ignored by the lottery again – maybe it’s time for a (insert luxury/drink/helpline brand here).
The passive voice also works well in web copy where the newsworthy element takes priority.
Your precious photos will be saved by our team of digital experts.
Again, it’s a case of doing what’s right for the story. And ignoring the clamour of the copywriting clones
Remember: it’s a green squiggle, not a red one in MS Word for the passive. It’s not wrong. And sometimes it can be right.
4 and a half. Odd numbers don't work best
Let's end here. We could have reached for five tips But we thought 4 was enough for today. 5 looks good in email subject lines. 3 is a popular number for all sorts of copywriting shapes and rhythms. But there's nothing wrong with 4.
After all, you read this far. Now it's time for you to be an unconventional copywriter too.