I was sitting in the cinema recently, waiting for the film to start. After the ads and the trailers, we were treated to this screen announcement:
“The management regrets the necessity of informing patrons that the safety of personal valuables cannot be guaranteed and they should not be placed where they cannot be seen.”
A bemused, then amused, murmur went round as we worked out what it meant:
“Keep your bags safe: don’t put them on the floor.”
‘You can’t go out looking like that!’
That started me thinking about the way we dress up perfectly simple messages in stifling layers of unnecessary language. It’s almost as if we’re ashamed to let our words out of doors unadorned. Here are a few examples that trip off the keyboard but should be avoided.
- ‘Purchase’, as in “You can purchase as much or as little as you want.” NOBODY uses ‘purchase’ as a verb in conversation. The word is ‘buy’.
- “We should be grateful if you would…” These seven words mean ‘please.’
- “Please don’t hesitate to contact me…” This type of boilerplate phrasemaking does what its name suggests: it makes your writing sound like it’s been bolted together. We can shorten it, simplify it and make it more positive by saying ‘Please call me.’
It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it…
In the cinema, it didn’t really matter: we’d already paid our money and the message was just for our information. But when you’re writing copy, the language is everything. How you say it is more important than what you say.
And I use the word ‘say’ deliberately. Remember that copy is simply a substitute (and a poor one at that) for a conversation you ought to be having with individual customers.
Regaining a natural tone of voice
That’s enough about the problem; what’s the solution. Well, like a lot of copywriting challenges, the answer’s actually quite simple.
Write down what you’d say to someone if you were talking to them. It won’t be perfect, but no first draft ever is. But it will be a good start, couched in the kind of natural language—plain English, if you prefer—that people use themselves and hear every day of their lives.
Once you have the first draft in plain English you can look for errors of grammar, or punctuation, or phrasing; but you won’t have to worry that you sound like a Victorian civil servant.
Why you need to rewrite
You may then find that your copy lacks a little sparkle. That’s OK. Writing as you speak means you might be using a few handy phrases that you’re used to seeing or hearing around you. They mean what you want them to mean, but they don’t grab the reader; they don’t inspire them. That’s what your second draft is for.
Be on the lookout for second-hand language and be ruthless in replacing it. Send it straight back to the charity shop and replace it with some dew-fresh words and phrases of your own.
Oh, and a final thought about this style of writing. Idea for idea, it’s invariably shorter. Which is better.