Tense, nervous adjectives?January 19, 2012
Copywriting ought to be a reasonably healthy job. No heavy machinery – unless you count lugging your old 486 down to the storeroom. No noxious chemicals – OK, so you sniff your old fountain pen now and again just to remind yourself where it all began. And no occupational illnesses to speak of…or are there?
Over the years, I have compiled a set of detailed case files on the various medical conditions suffered by writers I have been asked to help (or, occasionally, replace). So I thought I’d share with you my notes on seven of the more common, not to say virulent, ailments that afflict marketeers and copywriters from time to time. In each case, I provide names, symptoms, causes and treatments, starting with the sad story of Frances F.
Frances was an able web writer who had avoided much of the wide-eyed wonderment that can infect the digital community as they advise the rest of us that “You can make people want to read on by using a headline.”
But Frances had a problem. Her verbs – once so energetic – were gradually disappearing. She experienced a slow spread of nouns in their place; decreased vigour; and a preponderance of words ending in -ment, -ance, -tion and –sion. Here’s an example: “Our specialisation is the provision of business solutions.”
Nounitis is often caused by a desire to be seen as important or of high status. The direct cause is excess hot air in the paragraph.
For Frances and her fellow sufferers, I recommend surgical removal of noun endings to restore smothered verbs: “We specialise in solving business problems.”
Jonathan B was a promising copywriter. He could uncover benefits quickly. He could identify with his reader easily. He could write short sentences often and well. But after an ill-advised job writing copy for his local dry-cleaners, he caught a nasty case of the screamers. (Punctuation sticklers would call them exclamation marks.)
The symptoms include a genuine but misplaced belief that writing “Now in blue!” will somehow excite the reader. And, perhaps most tragically of all, a disfiguring rash all over your copy.
The treatment is simple. Deletion. Some swear that a mild case of the screamers is benign and best ignored. Believe me, I have seen these things metastasize faster than you can say “full stop.” (Which, incidentally, is a far more useful alternative.)
Once thought to have been behind King George III’s periodic bouts of insanity, Puffyria afflicts copywriters more than other professionals. For Alfie B, whom I first encountered in the garden of the Sunnydale Home for Distressed Copyfolk, it had led his writing into uncharted waters of grandiosity.
Tweaks to the layouts of the magazines he promoted were only ever ‘revolutionary’. Pedestrian promotional gifts ranged from ‘brilliant and ‘amazing’ to, occasionally, ‘unbelievable’.
Alfie’s symptoms were distressing. He suffered from breathlessness. He was addicted to a dangerous cocktail of overblown language and desperate adjectives, particularly ‘exciting’, ‘important’, and ‘unique’. And he had become unable to see straight.
Puffyria is usually caused by an imbalance in the rational brain. This imbalance results in a strongly held, but erroneous, belief that one’s product or service is on a par with watching your child being born, or bungee jumping off Everest.
I was able to treat Alfie during a period of reflection and counselling, enabling him to see the true values of his titles and, thus, to select more appropriate and believable descriptors.
Multiple Personality Disorder by Proxy (MPDP)
In perhaps one of the strangest cases I have ever worked on, Rebecca T had come to believe, not that she had multiple personalities, but that her readers did. Rebecca’s letters would start well enough but then her unfortunate condition would assert itself and she would start to write to all her readers at the same time.
Perhaps you have received a letter yourself written by an MPDP sufferer. The writer uses phrases such as “Some of you…”. “Many of you…”. “There are those of you…” They will often switch from a personal to an impersonal tone of voice mid-letter. My reaction is to look over my shoulder to see who these ‘some of’ me are.
Whereas David Ogilvy famously adjured us not to “…address your readers as if they were gathered together in a stadium,” MPDP sufferers do just that. They start seeing all of their readers in front of them at the same time. Perhaps because they are aware that certain lists or database segments know something about their titles, and others not, they become unable to focus on an individual reader.
My prescription in these cases is large doses of the second person singular. I have also found that a drawing or model of a single reader placed opposite the writer helps. Most tellingly, frequent reminders that readers are alone when they read copy and, except in very rare cases, NOT themselves suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder.
A simple tip is to say “There are those…” if you need to refer to a wider group of prospects.
(Reader) Repetitive Strain Injury
Mike D actually used a voice recognition program – so how did he end up with RRSI? Actually, Mike was fine; it was his readers who were suffering. Mike was too busy to proof-read his copy and frequently sent his first drafts to the printers. The result? Subs letters, renewal series and flyers bursting with repeated words and phrases.
In perhaps the most extreme example (which, I began to suspect, revealed incipient Puffyria) he managed to repeat the word ‘fantastic’ six times in a two-page sales letter.
In RRSI cases, the reader becomes distracted by the repetition. Eventually, irritability and strain set in. As letters are crumpled and flung binwards, broken nails, cracked knuckles and torn muscles can result.
Curing RRSI involves a strict regime of checking work, looking particularly for lazy repetition of key words. The writer is encouraged to think of new and fresh ways of saying the same thing, particularly since repeating concepts is a powerful sales technique.
She was bright. She was creative. She was lazy. Catherine F started sales letters well enough, but the lure of the next project was too tempting. Trying to save time by ‘borrowing’ copy from other documents to complete her own, she contracted cutandpastistis. One of the worst infections I have ever treated, in fact.
Here is an example. It’s from a sales letter Catherine wrote promoting a legal newsletter.
Dear Mr Sample,
If you are anything like the thousands of barristers who have come to rely on The Jarndyce Files, you prize timeliness, insight and case law examples highly. And that’s why I am writing to you today.
[A good start, and one Catherine should have persevered with. But read on.]
Recent years have witnessed an explosion in class actions. Widely misunderstood yet often pursued by unscrupulous law firms, class actions have three defining features…
[Here, we see the telltale signs of the infection: a lurch in tone, a baffling digression into the reader’s profession and, clearly, another writer’s style.]
My treatment was in three parts. First, education. I explained to Catherine the dangers of sharing documents. Then we examined her time management and planned enough time in her day to allow her to relax and complete each document herself. Finally, we tested a new-style letter against the infected version and measured the results. She never caught it again.
Some writers will, if asked (and plied sufficiently with alcohol), admit to having suffered from some of the more, shall we say, glamorous ailments of the job. Puffyria, perhaps. Or Multiple Personality Disorder by Proxy. They will hold court in the Nib and Quill, the Cursor or the Wordsmith’s Arms and regale their listeners with tales of struggle and ultimate cure.
Few, though, will ever own up to wind. (Though actually, this is one of the most common health issues for writers, particularly those in the corporate communications arena.)
For Greg C, wind was an ever-present problem, though owing to a related condition, he was unable to detect his own effusions. Greg would regularly churn out sentences like this one:
“It is our intention to contribute on a quarterly basis to the understanding of the need for greater utilisation of primary and secondary customer-facing segmentation methodologies and models.”
No, I don’t know what he meant either. And nor, I fear, did Greg’s readers, on whose response Greg depended for his job.
The symptoms are visible to the naked eye: long trailing sentences, slab-like paragraphs and bloated documents.
Surgery was the only option. I cut out redundant adjectives, repetitions, clichés, tautologies, abstract nouns, superlatives and waffle. After a few refreshing redrafts, Greg’s copy was able to stand on its own two feet.
Occupational health issues may seem more relevant to machinists, data-entry clerks or trawlermen, but copywriters must be careful, too. There are many insidious illnesses that can strike at any time, weakening your lexical immune system and robbing your copy of vitality.
So, include plenty of copywriting reference books in your diet – Bird, Bly and Ogilvy are three of the best – exercise your imagination at least once a day, and visit Doctor Maslen now and again for a check-up!