Why simple is better when it comes to copywriting

A few days ago I shared an image on Twitter that I found pretty compelling…

Retweets aside, I received a few messages and tweets from fellow writers who were in wholehearted agreement with the sentiment ‘less is more’. Why then, in a professional setting, are copywriters repeatedly encouraged to overcomplicate things? It’s something I’ve encountered throughout my writing career, most notably when working in-house for big companies who want you to make their content sparkle.

It’s an occupational hazard really. Copywriters are frequently used as walking, talking thesauruses. I can’t count how many times someone has wandered over to my desk and asked in earnest, ‘What’s a better word for [X]?’ where [X] is quite probably the best word they could be using, because it’s precisely what they mean to say. To the untrained eye, this is a copywriter’s job; the exchange of simple, basic words for more complex, seductive ones. Can you imagine such a world?

Sleepwalkers would become somnambulists. Rather than talk about clarity we’d ironically discuss perspicuity. Instead of liars we’d have fabulists and a happy individual would become an insouciant one. And why not? More letters means more impact, right? Hmm. Hold that thought.

For civilians, this kind of dramatisation might produce a few unfathomable Facebook posts or an annoying tweet, but for a copywriter to spill the contents of a thesaurus onto a page just for the sake of it would be akin to professional negligence. To ask your copywriter to ‘make something more snazzy’ with long words is to show your customers the door. Here’s why.

As we touched on very briefly, it’s a common assumption that a copywriter’s role in any kind of business is to take the ordinary, the bland, the mundane, and make it sound extraordinary, impressive and exciting. When it comes down to it, the ordinary and the extraordinary are quite rightly joined at the hip. There’s little to be gained from prying them apart except confusion.

A copywriter’s job isn’t to mindlessly embellish, it’s to show you the path of least resistance when communicating with your target audience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of room for eloquent, compelling and creative messaging, but there’s an all too common habit of skipping the basics that first needs to be addressed. Copywriting is about writing fluently, precisely and concisely, and those that have been in the industry long enough have come to understand this.

We’ve all been there though. There were times when I couldn’t resist the fatal allure of the thesaurus with all of its shiny, impressive words, as I punched keys and watched the Word document in front of me go from bland to worse. It turns out that my priorities were in the wrong place, and rather than swapping out basic language for complex statements, it was often the basic statement itself that needed refining. I’m not trying to say that copywriters should habitually make their work boring and uninspired; the trick is simply knowing which word works best in a given situation. It’s all about balance.

I’ve always maintained there are no rules in copywriting, not really. If there were a set of rules, they’d have to bend and change from client to client, project to project, and from a creative standpoint you’d be handicapped from the outset. Rather than work to a set of rules, writers should work to a set of goals, and in any given scenario the most fundamental goal is a constant – comprehension. Those who work in short form copy know all too well the importance of a pithy headline – it’s a chance to wax creative and hook the reader in – it’s fun, but not at the expense of clarity. If readers don’t know what you’re getting at, what’s the point?

That’s when balance really matters, and it’s a copywriter’s job to strike that balance based on their own experience and expertise. If, by incorporating some interesting language, we also manage to make our copy shine more clearly and carry more impact, that balance has been struck and your goals are more likely to be met.

So, while my inner voice may sound like a Times crossword, believe me when I say I’m doing you a favour by distilling and refining that inner voice to let your real message shine through, comprehensibly and effectively. Next time you ask your copywriter for another word for ‘grandiloquence’, imagine trying to explain what you mean to a 5 year old. If some of the words you use match the answer you get from your copywriter, don’t be surprised.

Originally published on the Copy Matters blog


3rd December 2015

Jackie Barrie

There is some research on this, by Daniel M Oppenheimer of Princeton University, with the gob-smackingly beautiful title of ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’.

Sorry to take you off to my own blog, but I wrote a brief summary of how it applies to copywriting, here.

What do you think?

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