Kate Waddon Copywriting

We all need words. Let me help you find the right ones.

In praise, admiration, honour, tribute and exaltation of the thesaurus.

Am I alone in thinking that I’ve failed if I reach for the thesaurus?  Why do I feel that? It’s not cheating to use a tool in most tasks. A reference work that groups similar words together so you can pick the best one is surely a fantastic assistant for any copywriter.

However, I rarely use it for work. This is probably due to a mixture of professional pride, genuinely not needing it, and the knowledge that if I pick up my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, I will spend the next two nerdy hours squealing with delight over the loveliness of words. Not productive.

To save time, occasionally I click on Mr Gates’ quick fix version. This is mainly when I run out of adjectives (see Making a Meal of Adjectives. Catalogue copy consumes more adjectives than my car does petrol). It’s OK, it does the job – but it’s not a thing of beauty like a proper, real thesaurus.

The modern thesaurus first hit the shelves in the mid nineteenth-century, compiled by Peter Mark Roget. I’ve always used a Roget – it’s a kind of geeky brand loyalty I suppose. Other editions are available etc, but he started it, so thesaurus-wise, he’s the daddy.

What sort of person compiles lengthy lists of synonyms and antonyms, and groups them thematically? Bless Wikipedia. I learned that the poor chap came from a family cursed with untimely deaths, and that Roget himself struggled with depression, using his list-writing from childhood to help him cope with the world (I was pleased to read that he lived far longer than most of his relatives, dying at ninety, and that his son carried on his work. He also designed a pocket chessboard).  It’s odd to think that one man’s coping mechanism has resulted in one of the key language reference works – and it probably makes me appreciate it more.

And anyway, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of assistance every now and then. There are a lot of words in the English language, and it’s nigh on impossible to call the right one to mind every time. So dust off the thesaurus and use it: it is the perfect reference book to inspire and guide. Unless you’re Susie Dent. She probably doesn’t need a thesaurus.

Making a meal of adjectives

I was reading the packaging of my naan bread last night (a copywriter gets her kicks where she can). The naan bread was described as “vibrant”. Vibrant? Well, pretty tasty, but hardly full of the energy, life, colour and pizzazz we expect from such an adjective.

So inspired by this, I set off to look around the kitchen in search of other tasty adjectives. I’ve written some package copy in the past and know that there are few branches of writing where every single word carries such weight. I’m also writing catalogue copy at the moment, a similarly space-tight exercise, and one of the main things I have to do here is watch my use of over-enthusiastic adjectives. Trawling the food cupboards seemed like a helpful thing to do.

Firstly, the spice shelf. I’m not going to name names, but The Same Large Retailer responsible for the naan bread also offered me “potent” cayenne pepper and “earthy” nigella seed (no comment).  I agree with their “lively” sumac, but draw the line at the oregano being “pungent”. I don’t see this as a particularly positive word, scent-wise, especially since its recent use in Frozen to describe a man who smells of reindeer.

A trip to the fridge was disappointing, apart from the “ultimate” sausages which brought a certain Top Gear-style intonation to my reading.  The freezer was downright dull. Seems that chips are chips.

On to the cupboard. I forgave my coffee beans for being “zesty and buttery”. After all, coffee is one of those things, like wine, that has its own rich lexicon of descriptions; and have a look at Wogan Coffee –  I’ve added spoonfuls of adjectives to coffee myself.

Again I accepted the toasty, fruity, spicy etc nature of my wines. I remember watching Food and Drink in the late 1980s, and hearing Jilly Goolden describe a wine as tasting like the felt inside the cutlery drawer of an old sideboard. What? Crazy lady. This was a whole new way of talking about flavours, for most of us plebs anyway. We all laughed as her descriptions got crazier and crazier, but wow, was she right! I can still taste that felt. I loved her vocabulary; and the fact she started out as a freelance writer certainly will have helped…

Apart from a rumbling tummy and a desire for a pre-wine o’clock glass of blackberryish red, what did I get from my trip around the kitchen? Mainly, watch those little describing words. Don’t shove them in for the sake of it. The more foody and fancy, and let’s face it, “middle class” the food was, the more likely it was to be packaged in adjectives. You could argue that if a food is consumed less frequently, it needs more of a description for us ignorant little eaters. However, “potent” doesn’t get me much closer to an understanding of cayenne pepper. Good, honest “hot” does.

I bet you’ll be reading your food packaging this evening. May your meal be zesty, vivid, warming, comforting, intense and lively.

 

SEO copywriting: don’t lose sight of good writing.

Today I have been mostly writing – SEO copy. SEO, search engine optimisation, is the means of getting traffic to your website from the search results on search engines – “naturally”, as they say, i.e. without paying. Writing content that contains frequently-searched keywords is a way of increasing traffic.

However, this process can throw up some interesting writing styles…Few things make me wince as much as badly-written SEO copy.

A problem of focussing too much on keywords is that sometimes the reader gets lost in the process. It’s no good ranking highly on Google and the other search engines if readers are then turned off your website because it is, frankly, unreadable. By the time someone has found your website, they deserve to be able to read it.  SEO copy can be clunky and cumbersome, with keywords painfully grafted on to the text.

Here’s a made-up example to illustrate my point. This is the home page for Ye Olde Pub*, a tavern hoping to raise its profile as a place for dining in York:

“Welcome to Ye Old Pub restaurant in York. We offer a great food, a range of beers and the best welcome in restaurant in York. If you’re looking for a great place for a meal out restaurant in York, then Ye Olde Pub is the perfect restaurant in York for you.”

See what I mean?

What can a copywriter do to help? I don’t pretend to be an expert in SEO. I leave all the technical stuff and keyword research to the experts. What I can do is ensure that any SEO terms you or your techy people choose to use become part of the text, not uncomfortable add-ons. It is also possible to “retro-fit” the SEO terms into existing copy – again, taking care that they become a seamless part of the text.

It’s not difficult to tweak Ye Olde Pub’s opening paragraph:

“Welcome to Ye Olde Pub, a warm and welcoming pub and restaurant in York, in the heart of the old city. We serve great food, have a wide range of beers and ales – and we feel that we offer the best welcome of any restaurant in York!”

So, driving traffic to your website is good – just make sure that when the traffic arrives, poor copy doesn’t make it want to reverse straight out again.

 

*Entirely my invention. The fact I chose pub grub as my example is an indication of where my head’s at today.

Dos and Don’ts of Writing

Having settled the matter of punctuation, I couldn’t resist compiling my own list of dos and don’ts. Because, ooooh we all love a list these days.

There are lots of lists out there giving copywriting advice. Many of them are very good. However my list is rather more random than that, and should probably be titled “Various Bits of General Writing Advice I’ve Been Given Over the Years”. So from school onwards, here are the wise words that have stuck with me. I don’t abide by them, or even agree with all of them – but I do remember them, which says something.

 

Never write a line you would be ashamed to read at your own funeral

I read this years ago in L M Montgomery’s marvellous Anne of the Island. Our heroine is given this advice by wise old Aunt Jamesina on the occasion of Anne’s first published article. I rather like it. However if the best they can come up with at my funeral is quoting from my manifestation dots piece, much as I love the dots, my life has probably taken a wrong turn somewhere.

 

If you’re really proud of a line, take it out

I can’t remember where I first heard this one. But come on – if I’m really proud of a line, why should I remove it? Just remember that there is a difference between feeling pleased with your efforts and needing to get over yourself.

 

The Mom Rule

This is a safety-net rule that I came across recently. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your “mom” to read.

Since my mum joined Facebook, I’m aware that my updates have been rather less grumpy and cynical. Mums have an influence. And my mum is particularly scary as she is a demon proofreader who homes in on typos like a gull on a pasty (Cornish copywriter simile).  I still get nervous when she reads my work.

I’ve also heard of the Mom Rule being used as a way to get a conversational style going. Imagine your writing starts with “Hey Mom” – it reminds you to keep your tone lively and engaging.  Missing the point I feel. However much writers love their parents, there’s a lot more creative freedom if you don’t imagine your mother reading it. Ever.

I wonder, did E L James worry about elderly relatives…?

 

Elmore Leonard – if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it

That’s just one of the many sound bits of advice from Elmore Leonard. His 2001 10 Rules of Writing is probably the definitive list and just makes such perfect sense.  Remember – “said” is your friend, adverbs your avowed enemies; and exclamation marks should be used only at moments of extreme crisis.

 

Write drunk, edit sober

Usually attributed to Hemingway. Great for the louche-drinking-absinthe-in-the-attic school of writing. Doesn’t work for flat roof websites. Don’t go there.

 

George Orwell – never use a long word where a short one will do, and if it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out

Yes yes yes. We were all told this at uni. And ignored it, obviously. We Eng Lit students adopted the mantra “Be as overblown as possible”. (Our tutors must have winced as each freshers’ week brought a new influx of long-skirted girls idolising Angela Carter.) Age and experience have taught me that this is the best piece of advice ever for writers – if you actually want your readers to understand you, that is. As an Eng Lit undergraduate, you’re probably hoping for the opposite.

 

Feel free to break the rules

Mr Orwell again. Whatever the plethora of how-to lists tell you, nothing is prescribed. I am off to have half a bottle of La Fee then overuse some very long adjectives.

 

The Dos and Don’ts of Do’s and Don’ts.

It had to happen. I knew I’d end up blogging about the apostrophe sooner or later. Today – the vexed question of do’s and don’ts. Or dos and don’ts.  Or just “do’s”.

I first remember pondering this a few years ago, after reading a salon sign that offered “ Hairdo’s”. First thought – has anyone actually had a “hairdo” since the 1960s? Second thought – hum, apostrophe. Shortly afterwards I saw a catering van offering “food and beverages to suit do’s of all sizes”. My gut reaction was typical – is it acceptable to apply Tipp-Ex to someone else’s property in the name of correct punctuation?

But some innate sixth sense of pedantry told me that it wasn’t that straightforward , so I spoke with my Grammar Guru (everyone should have one).  “Do’s has to have an apostrophe”, said The Wise One. “Otherwise readers wouldn’t be able to make sense of it or pronounce it, and that catering van would be offering food to a Microsoft disc operating system, which would just be weird.”

So, lesson learned – I could write “I have been to a lot of hen do’s this summer” and be absolutely correct (although the statement itself is disappointingly untrue). But it did feel dirty.

However, ten short years later and the do’s and don’ts of dos and don’ts has changed (don’t say that the world of grammar and punctuation is a staid and boring place – it’s fast-paced! It moves forward!). There’s a lot of debate on this.

I’m not sure if I’d go to The Guardian for spelling advice; however its Style Guide is splendid, and they say “dos and don’ts”. (Quick aside – while looking into this, I learned that the correct way of writing Homer Simpson’s famous uttering is “D’oh!”) The Oxford Style Guide uses the “dos” version. However, that doesn’t mean that “do’s” has become a Tipp-Ex case: the University of Central Lancashire’s journalism website comments that “probably the only legitimate reason for using an apostrophe to form a plural is in dealing with lower-case letters, as in mind your p’s and q’s or in referring to do’s and don’ts.”

By the time I’d scrolled down my second Google page, even I was bored. Yes, I am one of the anal breed who care about apostrophes. A single misplaced apostrophe can destroy professional credibility with one simple hit of a key. But – it’s not worth losing sleep or wasting time over. If you’re not sure, stick to a style guide that you trust and refer back to it to double-check your writing. If the BBC and The Times are using certain conventions, they are probably safe. The Guardian’s Style Guide is good, as I mentioned above. Or, just employ a good proof-reader (smiles winningly).

So, both versions are acceptable, but I’ve decided to go with “dos” as the preferred contemporary option. This is a rare occasion where you can follow your heart apostrophe-wise – just be consistent (and consistency is definitely on my list of dos and don’ts).