6 Rules for Better Copywriting (according to some word wizard called George)

Copywriting. A word to bring sweat to the brow of most mere mortals, especially one who trained as an art director instead of a copywriter...

This month our focus at Sogol is copywriting. Having wiped away the metaphorical (or perhaps very real) sweat, I’ve dug into books and found 6 rules for better writing from no other than George Orwell. If, like most non-wordies (myself included), you have very little idea who this chap is, you probably know he gets this writing thing.


I’ve been reading a book on copy called ‘Read Me. 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy’. One chapter is dedicated to an article by Mr Orwell titled, ‘Politics and the English Language’. Ironically not the most catchy sounding title for an essay on writing. Stay with me/him.



In his mercifully short essay Orwell covers 6 points towards the end of his essay that will help us to avoid showing our true writing colours.


Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

That wasn’t too painful but we ended in nervous territory. Barbarous. Barbers? Barbaric? Barbosa? Ba ba ba ba Barbara Ann? Huh? Just kidding, it clearly means extremely brutal or primitive. Duh. Thanks Google.


It doesn’t take a genius to see Orwell’s logic in these short six points. How many times do we get lost in text on a website or brochure because someone is trying to prove they know what they are talking about, like our good friend Baby Kangaroo and his full-sized aortic pump.


Let’s break down these points.


Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.


Good writing avoids the common and gets attention. Stop saying over used catchphrases and start saying things that are different and honest. Video didn’t actually kill the Radio Star but studies show that people offer a mere 15 seconds of attention to your website and potentially only 24% bother to scroll on a page at all. That being said, we need people to stick around and something that they have seen before won’t get your viewers into your customer bucket any time soon. Have something to say that speaks to the customer and say it fast.


Never use a long word where a short one will do.


Ok?


If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.


https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/volkswagen_money


A lovely ad that gets away with both. Shame it’s been done and you’ll have to be more courageous and just say the minimum.


We’re taught to write longer sentences and use big words from a young age but good writers are smart enough to know what not to say too. Are there things that you are saying to your customers that fluff the pillows a little too much? Did I just break rule 1? Yes (notice the use of rule 2 though).


Never use the passive where you can use the active.


For those of you who read that and pretended to understand it I’ll give you a snippet from ‘Read Me’ so you can pretend like you knew what it meant when you show it to someone else.

‘Verbs come in two basic forms - active and passive. In the active form it’s immediately clear who’s performing the action mentioned in the sentence. Take the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ - the very first word makes it clear who’s doing the hearing. In the passive version - ‘The grapevine was where I hear it’ - we don’t find out who’s doing what until far later. While that’s not the end of the world, passive verbs soon make a piece of writing feel flabby and vague.’

Basically, don’t speak like Yoda. Another example could be, ‘Mary had a little lamb’ vs ‘The little lamb was had by Mary’. Do note that in this example Mary has now birthed the lamb herself rather than had it in possession.


Quick test. Which is better?


‘The man cut down the tree’, or, ‘The tree was cut down by the man’.


It’s the first one. It’s clearer in the long run and although your customers wont be able to tell you why they understood your content better, they will have at least understood what you were saying.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.


Just to be clear, this is not saying that words should not be used correctly. A cardiac arrest is different to a heart attack and thankfully our doctors know the difference. It’s saying that if you can find a clearer word then do so. Unless you're trying to hide something, sound arrogantly smart, or talking to someone who understands your jargon, it’s probably best to speak human to human.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


Ah, the classic caveat to all rules. Break them if needed. Fair enough. Sometimes extended terminology provides convivial gatherings that I always definitely attend at the drop of a hat.

I think George was onto something.

Want to know more about copywriting? Why not start with ‘Read Me’?


Don’t have the time or patience? Feel free to contact Sogol at contact@sogol-design.com and we’ll put you in Charlotte’s capable hands who studied words and got a first at Lancaster University. But since this blog is primarily is about learning she can go draw a picture.

September is all about copywriting. Subscribe to our blog to find out when the next post is up. At the end of the month we’ll create a conclusion of all our wanderings, wonderings, and findings. Next month we’ll study Calligraphy. See you soon.


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