My favorite stupid things people say about copywriting

1. No one ever reads copy. This one is a favorite of verbally impaired individuals that too often find jobs in advertising. But like many dangerous assumptions, there is an element of truth to the claim. It is true that most people don't read most copy. Or pay attention to most broadcast spots or billboards for that matter. Who would have time? Where writing is really critical is at that point where you have successfully honed in on an audience, captured attention and are, at last, to the stage where you can make the sale. It's only when the communications is well timed, well targeted and right in front of a potential customer that copy is important. And it is then that your case has to be well made. Make it poorly, and the reader (or viewer or listener) keeps his mind open to your competitors.

Still, people who say that no one ever reads the copy generally are being truthful because no one is reading their copy.

2. The shorter the better. "Brevity is the soul of wit," as Shakespeare liked to say. And this overused quote is often the underpinning of the notion that an ad or any other printed communications is no good unless it is a two sentences or less. Like point #1 above, this kind of thinking is propagated by account managers who can't read or copywriters who can't write. These people would prefer to slap a brief platitude on a pretty visual and call it communications. And sometimes, these ads have enough other support from PR, sales promotion and other communications that they don't really need to work. A short copy approach is great where the key objective is awareness and only awareness. But if you look at any ad or direct mail piece where the advertiser has to make the sale and you will find long copy--almost too much information. And no, people do not read it all. But the structure of the copy, proper use of visuals and subheads and clever payoff of the selling concept assure that even those who only read 20 or 30 percent of all the verbiage are often reaching for a credit card or phone by the time they come to the end of the ad.

3. Never shift tenses when you write. This is a classic criticism and it actually makes zero sense. Some maintain that the copy for any ad should be always in a present tense. The idea is to keep the copy active, current, immediate. Problem is, this kind of writing leads to writing that is clumsy and inaccurate. Consider "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved before." This sentence combines both the present and the past perfect and it sounds fine. Imagine if it were written "Tis better to love and to lose than to not love and never lose." Just not as interesting. Plus it misses the clear purpose of the original sentence--that love is beneficial to the human condition, even when it fails.

4. Ellipses...they're a great way to create exciting copy. Wrong. They're just an utterance to put down when you don't have anything to say. Ellipses are the written equivalent of "uhhhhhhh uhhhhhhm". Who wants to read that?

5. It's best to write in (•) bullet points. This is a favorite ridiculous notion of mine because it is so widespread and seems to be growing in popularity. Unfortunately it is a crutch used too often by people who are too lazy to actually write. Or by those who feel that communicating is simply an articulation of facts. Bullets are only useful for listings. Put them in spec sheets, menus, posters, train departure listings and similar communications. Use bullet points to list your three different addresses. Or maybe listing different colors the Kia comes in. Don't use bullet copy to make ads. Bullets are a clumsy way to make a sales case. It is difficult for consumers to "connect the dots" when they're confronted by a shitpile of bullets. Ask yourself: have you've ever read an article in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times that was written in bullets? You haven't

6. Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. A good rule for speech writing and limited broadcast and video application. But using this as a rule can be potentially wordy. Endlessly setting up and "paying off" your points creates a real snoozer of a read.

7. Never repeat anything. Just as illogical as the opposite approach advocated in #6. If you have a multi page brochure, a long sales letter or anything in a longer writing format, intelligent repetition or reiteration is usually necessary.

8. You've split the infinitive, dumbass. This is a rule which old Latin teachers used to gripe about to their wretched English teacher friends. Infinitives of course are the "To" forms of verbs. To run. To love. To advertise. In foreign languages like Latin, Spanish and English the verb forms are expressed with the whole "to" idea inherent. Avoire means "to have" in French. There is no quick easy way to split the many forms that flow from avoire. But thankfully English is built for such splits and it gives the writer tremendous flexibility. Spinster Latin teachers be damned. Split the infinitive when it sounds right.

9. Never start a sentence with "And." English teachers seem to be responsible for this one. And I vaguely remember one of my own high school English teachers admonishing me to never start a sentence with a conjunction. Unfortunately the human language is not just a single sentence.

Every utterance needs to connect. "And" is what we always say when we are connecting thoughts. And is the most frequently used conjunction. You will probably start more spoken sentences with the word "And" during the rest of this day than any other word. Beginning a sentence with "And" can be perfectly acceptable in almost any kind of writing. But don't take my word for it. Pick up Hemmingway or Faulkner or Updike and you'll find bucket loads sentences that start with "And." In the King James Bible, you can turn to virtually any page and find at least a half dozen sentences that start with "And." And I'm almost willing to bet my soul on it.

10. Exclamation marks make what you are saying more exciting. If the copy wasn't exciting when it was written why would the "screamer" (!) make it more interesting, especially since it comes after the boring words?