The phrase 'people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones' has never been more pertinent.

I present for you, 10 common traits of bad copywriters.

1. Too many exclamation marks!

Donald Trump is the perfect example! The President-elect fills his tweets with exclamations!

F. Scott Fitzgerald likened the use of an exclamation mark to the author laughing at their own joke! Terry Pratchett described the use of multiple exclamation marks as a "sure sign of a diseased mind"!

trump maga

2. Bullet points that don't make sense

This bugs me every time. Your bullets should follow on from your lead-in sentence, and should not be capitalised.

Correct

Pearls can be found:

  • in the sea
  • at a jewellers

Incorrect

Pearls can be found:

  • The sea
  • Go to a jewellers

3. Formal words

The GOV.UK style guide advises the use of ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’.

Plain English is important. Ditch the formal words.

formal

4. Long sentences

Apparently, long copy outsells short copy, though you'll have to go and find the study yourself.

Overly short sentences can indeed be cryptic, but long sentences are even worse (in my opinion).

Check long sentences to see if you can split them.

5. The passive voice

'Accenture recently bought the agency Karmarama.' - The active voice.

'The agency Karmarama was recently bought by Accenture.' - The passive voice.

I'm guilty of using the passive voice too often. You can spot it by its use of the verb be and a past participle. Learn more from the British Council's summary.

6. Too many adjectives

Here's an excruciating example I have managed to squeeze out of my keyboard:

Visit our fantastically relaxing spa for a wonderfully chilled-out break with your favourite girlfriends!

Too many adjectives can obscure the message you are trying to get across, making it difficult to take it all in at a glance. Overuse of adjectives is also arguably an attempt at 'telling' rather than 'showing'.

You can't convince your customers of just how relaxing the spa is simply by adding superlatives. You need to add context, detail (what are the facilities?) and imagery.

spa

7. Starting successive sentences or paragraphs with the same word

The word 'the' is seemingly innocuous, but if successive sentences or paragraphs begin with the word 'the', it can grate or seem inelegant (particular within long form copy).

The solution is simply a quick proof. The act of running your eye down the left hand side of the page will quickly reveal any successive paragraphs that begin with the same word.

The exception that proves the rule is when you're writing a deliberately repetitive piece, such as a list or an illustrative article about bad copywriting.

8. Banal or obscure adjectives

Adjectives are important, of course, but only if you pick a good one.

If you ever watch cookery programmes on TV, you'll know chefs are always using banal adjectives - every ingredient is 'lovely' or 'nice'.

"I've got some lovely carrots; some nice potatoes.." Needless to say, these chefs don't exactly scream personality.

However, there are also people that go too far the other way, using adjectives that aren't commonly understood.

When it comes to copywriting - your adjectives can bring life to a campaign, but they need to be just right, neither too banal or too recherché (obscure).

The Trainline gets it right here

the trainline

9. Misjudged humour & wit

Pride comes before a fall.

Many copywriters are brilliant at raising a wry smile by weaving humour and wit into their work. However, humour is subjective and writing elegant and funny copy is a tall order.

10. Poor formatting

Yes, formatting is the boring but essential thing that can make or break copy, particularly online.

Break up your text, use the right font, include imagery, go easy on the bold. If in doubt, make sure to use your preview functionality.

If you need help with your copywriting, check out our training courses.

Ben Davis

Published 7 December, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Re: Donald Trump is the perfect example!

@realDonaldTrump has 17m followers and just won an election with a campaign based around social media. He was up against an opponent with a bigger budget and the support of almost all the mainstream media, so using exclamation marks on Twitter seems to work well. His style is well worth studying in detail IMO.

Your advice is right for blogging, but I find that different writing styles seem better for different channels. Tweeting is very different from blogging for example. And advert copy is different from advertorial. What do others think?

over 1 year ago

Joe Hawkes

Joe Hawkes, Senior Digital Marketing Executive at Charles Russell Speechlys

@PeteAustin @BenDavis Definitely - there was a study last year that found texts/tweets with exclamation marks were perceived as more sincere. It seems directly relatable to The Donald's style: http://www.techtimes.com/articles/114507/20151209/texts-with-exclamation-points-and-without-periods-appear-more-sincere-study.htm

over 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Pete Yes, fair point. Also probably different rules for individual vs. brand.

@Joe Thanks for the study. Interesting.

over 1 year ago

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martin richardson, head of live experience at mci uk

Point 7. Well made. Even more so by starting each sentence with the same word (notice no use of an exclamation mark here although it could warrant one).

over 1 year ago

George Cole

George Cole, Digital Marketing Manager at TN

Timely. With one click this will be forwarded to my whole team because you've just saved me the job of outlining pretty much the 10 things I always try and weed out of our copy when I edit it. Perfect!

over 1 year ago

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Meg Harris, Direct Response Copywrtier at Megharriscopywriter

Great Article. Point Number 1 - in a culture of texting, we all tend to get carried away with exclamation points. Maybe because we know it's hard to get our tone across and the easiest fix is exclamations and emojis? Either way I fall into some of these traps time and again. I combat my failings with an annual read through of Strunk and White, or Zinsser.

10 months ago

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