It’s impossible for copywriters to avoid clichés and stock phrases altogether, especially when writing short copy. But we should at least challenge ourselves to be original and sincere when we can.
Tempted to call that event a “great day out with something for all the family”? Itching to ask people to “simply” phone or email? Or are you “rallying the troops” by inviting them to “push the boundaries”, “raise the bar” and “go the extra mile”?
Regardless of how they ended up in there, at their best, overused words and phrases add nothing to our copy. At their worst, they kill it.
Here, therefore, are seven ways to help you write less cringeworthy copy.
1. Recognise you’re doing it (by saying the opposite)
In fairness, you might not realise you are writing clichés.
You might think you came up with “blue sky thinking”, “content is king” and “results driven” all by yourself. You might indeed have a “burning question”. Or your client might even be a “force to be reckoned with”.
If words and phrases pour out of you like a burst pipe in a drought, ask yourself why it was so easy. Good, original writing takes time and effort.
Then say the opposite.
“We’re committed to excellence.” “We put people at the heart of the business.” “We’re delighted to have won.”
Huh? As if any business would claim to be committed to mediocrity, not give a shit about people and pretty pissed off to have won a major award.
2. Establish the reason
Once you’ve accepted you write clichés, ask yourself why you’re doing it.
- You’ve seen them so often, you think that’s how copywriters are supposed to write?
- You get lousy briefs?
- You’re too busy to do anything else?
- You were taught/encouraged to write that way?
- Your client thinks authentic copy doesn’t sound sexy enough?
Whatever, the reason, you need to know why so you can do something to stop it.
Demand better briefs or write them yourself. Stop procrastinating and do the tough jobs first. (You can reward yourself with the easy stuff afterwards.) Remind clients that they hired you for your skills and ask them to trust you. Then do the following.
3. Challenge the use of adjectives
I appreciate that cliché-ridden copy didn’t always start out that way. I’ve written many a decent piece only for it to come back from the client stuffed full of useless and/or unsubstantiated adjectives such as “unique”, “exciting” or “world-leading”.
Some adjectives (describing words) can be very useful indeed. They can differentiate one thing from another.
For example, if I were interested in signing up for a training course, knowing whether it was a “full-day” or a “half-day”, “on-site” or “off-site” and “free” or “paid-for” would be useful information. Telling me it’s an “exciting” new course is useless.
Using empty adjectives smacks of trying too hard. If something is genuinely exciting, you shouldn’t need to say it’s exciting.
If clients insist on calling their goods or services “exciting” (or any of its overused derivatives), ask them what makes them exciting. How will they excite people? What will they do? What benefits will they bring? What’s new? What’s different? What problems will they solve? Then use the answers to write something real.
4. Switch to verbs
Any good writer will tell you that the best way to describe something or someone is to use verbs (doing words) not adjectives.
For example, in the sentence “Little Red Riding Hood walked through the woods to her grandmother’s house”, we don’t learn very much about LRRH’s state of mind.
But if we write “Little Red Riding Hood danced through the woods to her grandmother’s house”, we picture something very different. How about raced, jogged, teleported, ambled, waltzed, snuck, tiptoed, galloped, stole, snow-boarded, floated, flew or stomped?
There are at least 100 verbs to describe how LRRH travelled – each one conveys a totally different impression.
Focusing on verbs, asking yourself what something or someone does, provides detailed information and avoids generalisations.
Compare the following.
Our software is fast, intelligent and insightful.
Our software transfers your data at 100,000 terabytes per second, auto-deletes duplicate files and predicts potential conflicts of interest based on your previous operations.
The innovative, new Free Time kettle is super-fast, super-clean and super-friendly.
The Free Time kettle boils a litre of water is less than 5 seconds, keeps it hot for an hour to save re-boiling, descales itself weekly and switches itself on at the time you set.
You don’t need to use all your verb-induced copy. Just pick the best statements, work your copy around those and ditch the rest.
5. Change the voice
Good copywriters write copy in the brand/company/client tone of voice. Which is fine. Most of the time.
But, if you’ve been writing about the same subject for a while and everything is beginning to sound a bit ‘samey’, you can breathe new life into clichés by writing your copy from another point of view.
How would your company’s/client’s competitors speak? How would a company from a totally different market speak? Or a character from a film or TV? Or a famous person living or dead?
Imagine Donald Trump, Jo Brand, Jane Austen, Queen Elizabeth I and Gordon Ramsay writing a complaint letter. How would their styles differ?
By forcing yourself to adopt a different voice, you might find a more interesting way to say the same thing.
6. Give yourself limitations
If changing the voice doesn’t help you freshen up your copy or adopt a different style, try giving yourself style limitations.
For example, writing in five-word sentences will force you to break up long sentences, lose a few words or search for a different way of saying something.
Or try alphabetical sentences, where the next sentence starts with the next letter of the alphabet. (You don’t have to start at A.)
Or ask someone to give you a word – any word, the more random the better – and find a way of weaving it into your copy.
Or restrict yourself to writing words that don’t contain a certain letter. (You might want to hang on to E – it’s the most commonly used letter in the alphabet.)
Like the different tone of voice, the above exercises are designed to inspire you to try something different, play with words and be more creative.
You probably won’t use the ‘forced’ copy as it is, but there might be bits of it you like and bits that inspire the final copy.
Have a go. The more limitations you set yourself, the more creative you must be to overcome them.
7. Tell it like it is
Not everything in business is revolutionary, ground-breaking or pioneering.
Sometimes a new product is just a tad bigger, cheaper or shinier than the previous one. Sometimes you are just extending your opening hours, offering same-day delivery or price-matching competitors.
And that’s all fine.
People are perfectly happy with slight improvements. What they’re not happy with is being misled. If all you’ve done is put your vinegar is a nicely-shaped bottle, say it. People like nicely-shaped bottles.
However, the Best Use of Clichés award has to go to press release quotes. If you want to stop writing “we’re delighted” have a look at How to stop writing bland quotes in press releases.
Writing the obvious isn’t always wrong. Far from it. Saying ‘value-driven transport experiences’ when you mean ‘cheap flights’ is stupid and misleading. But writing clichés and stating the obvious is.
Aim for authenticity. If you can also add a bit of creative flair too, so much the better.