When I was in school the length of my content was often dictated by a minimum and sometimes maximum word count that was predetermined by the teacher. An essay assignment was handed out and every one of us was given the same rigid parameters no matter what our chosen topic or our personal style of writing. The audience and the goal were always the same: we were writing for a teacher in order to get a good grade, or at least a passing one.
Sometimes the assigned essay length and my copy meshed beautifully, but often I found myself searching for filler to pad out an essay that just didn’t feel like it needed an extra 500 words. In school, longer is usually perceived as better and the more jargon-filled our essays were, the more academic they were often judged to be. I took English and Women Studies in university and as much as I loved the core of both subjects, I remember wondering how we would ever get the world to care about literature or issues of equality if we were writing for an audience of one: our professor.
Despite good intentions to write well and to edit heavily, this kind of education makes it easy to fail and fall into the habit of padding content with tired cliches and words that mean very little to the intended audience. I’m the first to become incensed over marketing-speak and I love the “douchey” snark of websites like Unsuck It, but when I read over my own copy I know that I am also guilty of many of the same offenses.
In my happy place, everyone in need would have the means to hire an excellent writer but we all know that isn’t even remotely possible for most small to medium size companies. The lucky ones will have one and maybe two marketing people who probably handle everything from PR and print to web and design and somewhere in there, they squeeze in some time to write a bit of copy. So they rely on filler to cover pages with words and they regurgitate the same tired messages that everyone who has ever taken an Intro to Marketing class is familiar with and their audience doesn’t bother to read it.
To those marketing people: I feel you, I’ve been there but there is another way and it shouldn’t be a huge time suck.
Know Your Audience.
Yes, this is itself a marketing cliche. If you don’t know where to start, it will mean absolutely nothing to you. It’s like all those online tutorials that claim they’ll help you bring more visitors to your website that begin and end with “Write good content.” What if you aren’t sure what good content is? How is this helpful?
Here’s the thing about knowing your audience: you’ve already got this. People will tell you that you need to send out surveys, crunch numbers, hire analysts and do user testing to truly figure it out. All of these practices are great, if you have the time and money, which you probably don’t if you’re reading this. As a marketing person, either directly or indirectly, you deal with samples of your audience every day. You answer calls from them, you probably hear front-line staff talk about them, the product-development people are building things for them; there are likely dozens of points of contact at your fingertips but you need to stop and look for them. Remember, you were probably hired in the first place because someone, somewhere thought that you would be able to create material that the end user would relate to.
Is your ideal consumer rich, poor or somewhere in the middle? Do you want to motivate them to buy something or do something? Ask yourself a few basic questions about what these people look like: you probably already know the answers.
So if you’re working in a museum and you’re writing content about a family fun day, why are you writing about the exhibition as though it’s designed for an art history class? Why are you including terms like, “We’ve really pushed the envelope with the new Warhol show …” What does that even mean?
Take five minutes and think about who you’re writing for. If it isn’t an academic audience or group of die-hard Seth Godin fanboys, then read on.
Write Content to Quality Not Length
If you are writing for the web, there is absolutely no excuse to impose arbitrary minimum word counts on your copy. I’ve read insightful blog posts that are only a few paragraphs long and others that seem to go on forever and still hold my attention. If you feel like you’ve made an important point or shared valuable information in a short amount of text, don’t ruin it by padding things out; bigger for the sake of bigger is not better. If you don’t have anything to say and find yourself spewing vile filler then ask yourself what the purpose of that piece of content is in the first place. There are no rules – nothing has to be included on your website. If you don’t have anything real to say then it is genuinely better not to say anything at all.
Marketing Speak Means Nothing
One of the worst things you can do to your audience is waste their time. Presumably they’ve come to you because they believe you offer something valuable. Don’t squander that trust by filling your copy with meaningless drivel that does nothing but force them to filter through a mess to find a tiny nugget of information. Most web visitors won’t bother to sift, they’ll just leave and they won’t come back.
So how do you recognize marketing-speak? It’s not easy because marketing cliches are embedded in so many of our conversations that it’s common to mistake them for real, honest content. The best way to find and identify meaningless language is to edit your work with a mind to getting rid of anything that isn’t central to understanding, anything that you’ve heard or used before more than twice or anything that tells your reader nothing tangible. Some examples:
- Thinking outside the box
- Value added
- Best practice
- At the end of the day
- For all intents and purposes
- Touch base
- Quite frankly
- Truth be told
There are hundreds of these terms that regularly creep into our writing and conversations. Read your work and find out which ones you use as a crutch and make it a priority to stop. You don’t need a crutch. Crutches don’t make for great copy.
I am guilty of this one. When pulling together copy, especially about a product or service you’re genuinely excited about, it’s easy to write content that’s overenthusiastic and as a result it can read as false. The exclamation mark is one example of something that should always be approached with a great deal of caution and should never be doubled up (!!) in anything you wish others to read with any level of seriousness.
A more subtle use of overemphasis is the use of too many ‘verys’, ‘manys’, ‘muchs’, ‘absolutelys’ and ‘amazings’. Whenever you see one of these words in your copy ask yourself if you really mean it. Is it really amazing? Amazing is pretty special, are you sure you want to use it in this particular piece of writing? If you keep it in and the reality falls flat, you risk that the word will not have an impact with your readers the next time you have something truly amazing to share. Use the Find feature of your word processing program to look up all the instances you’ve used the above words and reconsider each application.
Know Yourself and Your Brand
Not everyone likes to write but regardless of this, many of us still need to plod through and create copy. If writing is part of your job, decide up front what kind of voice you want to have and how the brand you are representing will mesh with this. Whether you like it or not, your copy, especially when accompanied by your byline, is a reflection of who you are as a person. Are you someone who uses superfluous exclamation marks and thinks everything is very amazing? What’s important to you? How can you bring a piece of that identity to impassion your content? I honestly believe that the most powerful marketing copy is borne from the union of a writer who is true to his or her voice and finds a way to connect that identity to the message of the brand or organization they are working for. If you can determine why something might be important to you, it will be easier to write copy that will resonate with your readers.
Read your copy out loud and imagine that a roomful of your friends and family are listening. How does it feel? Does it sound like you? Does anything feel forced or untrue? If it does, change it or cut it out.
Everything Will Be Alright
My youngest sister is taking an English class for the first time in about five years and she hates it. She’s always been the athletic one and I’ve always been the nerd in our family. A few weeks ago she was working on an essay for her class and asked my mother to edit it before me because she said, “Amy will make fun of all my mistakes and bad writing.” This was kind of an important thing for me to hear because, although I’d like to think that I wouldn’t belittle my sister, I am guilty of doing this same thing (in my head at least) to people who are trying their best, sometimes under difficult circumstances to write copy.
Initially this post was going to be about marketing jargon that bugs me, inspired by a guy who follows me on Twitter and does nothing but tweet marketing 101 proverbs. But then I thought about my sister. When I did eventually read her essay I was expecting it to be really badly written. I was wrong. There were a few mistakes but throughout the entire thing, it sounded like her. Out of a crappy, boring assignment she had no interest in doing, she wrote something that was real and honest. And that made me want to keep reading.
Of course you should spell and grammar check your work and take the time to edit things and take the writing process seriously. But if you manage to do nothing else: write something genuine, get rid of the filler and find something that you care about to put into your work. Don’t worry about the language snobs because chances are, we’re not your audience anyway.
You’re doing a lot with a little. Don’t give up because even if you have no desire to be a writer, you most certainly have something to say that will connect with your users and end up building your brand.
Everything will be alright. Really.