Myths and truths about copywriting

After some 20 years of copywriting for agencies, big brands, the public sector, start-ups and pretty much everyone else, I feel like I’ve heard all the myths about copywriting… then a new one pops up and leaves me speechless.

When people carry around myths and assumptions, it hampers business and organisational success. When it comes to writing, these myths make our online, and offline, experiences painful and arduous. They add stress for everyone.

Here are some of the Greatest Hits, and why we should dump them and move on to better writing.

1. Everyone should be a good writer. It’s taught in schools.

False. Expecting employees at any level in an organisation to write copy to a high standard, when they’re not trained or experienced, is like asking an electrician to design your website or your child’s school principal to build your house.

Copywriting skills are rarely taught in schools and universities. Students are rewarded for writing at length, using wide vocabulary and developing the most complex ideas.

As copywriters, we have unlearned school-taught habits, and learned to say only what’s needed, in the simplest and smallest number of words.

Hire a professional copywriter for all your organisation or business writing. You’ll find it saves time and money, and relieves stress.

At the very least, train one or many employees in writing. Plain Language consultancy Write are known for their excellent, engaging training.

2. Avid readers are the best writers.

Not always. Reading widely is often helpful for copywriters, but the best copywriters can be people who rarely read for pleasure. A few well-known copywriters even have dyslexia.

People who read avidly may more easily form habits and make assumptions that stand in the way of good copywriting. For example, they may assume the average person’s vocabulary is wider than it is.

One thing copywriters do need to read avidly is the brief.

3. Proofreading, editing and copywriting are the same.

False. Proofreading, editing and copywriting are three different roles. If you take a course in copywriting, you’ll almost always be told, ask someone else to proofread your work whenever possible.

Even the best writers, with the best attention to detail, will miss errors in their own work they’d see in another person’s. We’re too close to it. We’ve read it too many times.

I sub-contract two proofreaders, one in the US and one in the UK. Because they’re in different time zones, it adds little or no time to the job.

Proofreading isn’t valued as much as it once was. If you were around 20 years ago, you’ll have noticed newspapers and magazines today have more errors. They don’t have the budgets they once had, and have cut staff costs by losing the proofreaders.

It’s all well and good to ask writers and editors to check their work, but proofreaders always do it better. That’s why the career was invented.

4. Copy needs to be at least so long.

False. Many people have been told a web page must be at least 300 words and a blog post must be at least 1,000 — or some other number of words. Another popular myth is paragraphs must have at least three sentences.

Good writing is as long as it needs to be, and no longer.

Longer copy gives some SEO (search engine optimisation) advantages, but readers enjoy it less, so sharing and interaction reduce. If it’s long, it should be saying a lot, not the same thing repeated in different words.

Question your assumptions

Questioning received wisdom is always a good thing. If UK comedy panel show QI has something profound to say, it’s that received wisdom is often wrong and the truth is frequently far stranger.

I’ll add more myths as I’m reminded of them, or come across new ones. Feel free to contribute.

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