7 Ways to Write Damn Bad Copy

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It’s obvious that creativity is an essential part of being a remarkable writer.

But when a results-oriented writer says “creative” and an image-oriented writer says “creative” you have to understand that they are talking about two completely different things.

The results-oriented writer emphasizes problem solving with clear, concise, and compelling copy (for example: How do I demonstrate that our product will solve our target customer’s problem?).

The image-oriented writer puts an emphasis on artistic, clever, or humorous copy (for example: How can I demonstrate how entertaining and crafty I am?).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a few ways to write good copy that sells. Now, I’d like to take a few minutes to show you at least seven kinds of copy you need to avoid (with a little help from legendary copywriter John Caples).

Copywriters (and those who hire them) beware …

1. Lyrical

This is the type of copy that you see from someone who loves words. Long words in particular.

Words like jentacular (pertaining to breakfast), slubberdegullion (a filthy slobbering person), and recumbentitbus (a knockdown blow).

This is the person whose grandmother squeezed her cheeks and said, “You are our little wordsmith.” Whose English Literature cronies would stroke their soul patches and say, “I think you’re on to something. Not sure what, but you’re on to it.”

Let’s imagine she works for Black & Decker. She is asked to write sales copy for a cordless drill. It might look like this:

Wanted: a hollow place in a solid mass of hard, fibrous substance
Carpenters, with one little boring unit made from the 22nd element of the periodic table you can create a precise aperture in any piece of wood. And, behold, with the ergonomic grip zone constraining is done with amenity and gratification. Visit any one of our facilities if you are predisposed to acquiring a unit.

The only problem is this is a painful piece to read. Nobody knows what you are talking about. It is a guessing game — and your audience doesn’t have the patience to guess.

2. Sentimental

Next in line is the type of copy that sounds like it was written by a college student. One moved by sunsets. Charmed by foreign films. In love with candles, incense, and long bubble baths.

He is a copywriter with a single and solitary goal: to make you “feel” the copy. If you don’t feel the copy, then he’s failed.

Rebirth that dying relationship
He stands in the door way — a tear hangs like a sapphire from his eyelash, ready to plunge into the depths of his lonely and loveless heart. You are drinking from the cup of the dark night, confused by the decaying shadow of his love, dazed by the breath of a broken promise. When he lowers the veil on your heart, you will fling yourself into the depths of hunger and death.

Know what he’s trying to sell? Me neither.

That might work for a Nicholas Sparks novel, but never in advertising. Shoot for the straight and the simple.

3. Outlandish

This is your garden variety snake-oil salesman. The product that promises to …

… eliminate $45,000 in debt in less than 45 days …

… the DVD that swears you can look like a Russian body builder with nothing more than a chair and four minutes a day …

… the stock that — once it soars right after Groundhog Day — will make Google’s stock price look like a steal.

It’s the world of yellow highlight markers, images of jaw-dropping tax returns and promises of endless freedom to indulge in every whim.

But it’s also a world of broken dreams where you might make a mint in the short term but over time your reputation will sour.

This type of advertising betrays confidence. It does harm. It stings, and leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Sonia calls this the troll under the bridge — and it’s a sure fire way to kill conversions.

It appears when we are young and suckered into the milk-can con job at the traveling carnival. Or the Sea-Monkey hoax where you are lead to believe you will spawn little people in an aquarium — but what you end up with is just cheap fish food.

You feel stupid for falling for such tricks. You vow never to fall again. You grow a thick skin to advertising. And every honest salesman and every sincere sales page that crosses your path is viewed as a fraud.

There is a limit to credibility. A limit to what people will believe. If you cross that invisible line in your sales copy, people will shut you down.

Better to make a promise that you know your audience will believe without having to stretch their judgment. Better yet, tell the ugly truth . And then what you say after that will be easier to swallow.

4. Humorous

The problem with humorous copy is that humor is fickle. It’s a minefield. For every person who laughs at a blonde joke, you have one person who hates you for it.

Some people like deadpan humor. Others like dark humor. Some like slapstick. Still others like sarcasm. Many like bathroom humor while others want the highbrow sort.

Unless you are absolutely certain that a majority of your paying customers like dark humor, then don’t use it.

What you find funny is likely insulting to others — and that will damage the effectiveness of your copy. That’s not a risk you should be willing to take.

Of course, there are the rare exceptions like the eBay wet suit ad or the used car on Craigslist.

They went the absurd, clever, humorous route, and it paid off.

Your chances, however, are much better if you stick to clear, concise, and compelling copy. Or at the very least, avoid humor until you’re certain you are actually funny.

5. Short

Short copy — so brief that the entire advertisement could fit on the back of a business card — is bliss for those who use it.

Think cologne producers or financial institutions. Sometimes an entire page in a magazine is devoted to the name of the product, plus an alluring slogan: “Seduction is essential” or “Your money is your money.”

Nobody knows what those slogans mean. Not even the marketing director. But it’s that mystery we love.

Unfortunately, mysterious copy does not pay the bills.

It goes against the grain of tested advertising methods that have proven longer copy will virtually always outsell short copy.

A few years ago this lesson was drilled home to me during a short email exchange with John Carlton.

I had the opportunity to get a few minutes of John’s time to review a short ad I’d written.

It was an email promoting a conference. It was less than 200 words. It was a disaster — and John let me know.

He scolded me for being lazy and missing a glorious opportunity to sell the product. It was at that point that I understood what is meant when someone says, “It’s not a question of how long the copy is — but how interesting.”

6. Clever

Clever is what you get when you have a writer who thinks he is smart — smarter than the average reader — and he’s out to prove how smart he is.

So he writes the clever ad.

Clever is also what you get when you don’t have a marketing clue. Let’s say you’re an architect selling the benefits of your firm, and you write this headline:

We will make sure that your house is not square.

You meant “not cool” but, hey, look at you — you said it in a clever way! Word play! Everyone in your firm thinks you are a genius!

Unfortunately, everyone else will think you are a moron for trying to sell them a house that will one day flop over.

Few people actually read clever advertisements. They are confused by the headline, and the few who do read recognize what you are trying (and failing) to do.

If your job rides upon effective advertising, then make sure it accomplishes these four things:

  • Promises to solve a meaningful problem.
  • Paints a picture of what your life will be like if that problem is solved.
  • Proves that you will deliver on your promise.
  • Pushes the prospect to subscribe, download, donate, share or buy.

Effective content marketing builds upon the self-interest of your customer.

And when you give them the kind of content that they don’t want to delete—you won’t need clever advertising.

7. Advertorial

Once a popular and effective approach — used by some of the best copywriters in the land — the advertorial is now overused, if not flat out abused.

What exactly is an advertorial? Nothing more than an advertisement dressed up to look like a piece of news.

Here’s what I see at the bottom of an article on my local news website:

In a box clearly marked “Advertisement” there is a handful of ads that are supposed to be “news”: “Weird Illinois Loophole” or “New Policy in Illinois.”

But what looks like an editorial news piece is clearly an ad:

In the lead you have loaded language like “scammed” and “overpaying” to hit those hot buttons—so even if you miss the word ADVERTISEMENT close readers should sense this is not really meant to inform them, but persuade.

I find this approach misleading — almost sleazy — and not unlike the outlandish approach [see: Example #1 above], and I can’t recommend it.

But here’s the thing — these ads have been running for a very long time. That tells me two things:

  1. They are getting great click-throughs
  2. They are making money

The question becomes: is there a better way to be profitable? I think there is. It’s called content marketing.

Focus on your audience …

There’s one thing that all of the examples above share — a complete lack of concern for the audience they intend to reach. In each example the spotlight is put on the writer:

Look at me, I am a poet. I am funny. Clever. Mysterious!

Good copywriters, good advertising copy, and good content marketing, however, put the focus on the audience, the prospective customer. If you truly take care of your audience, they will eventually take care of you.

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Reader Comments (39)

  1. says

    Good post. I understand this concept, but I’m essentially a poet/songwriter/novelist. My intent is to share my work and gain an audience. I don’t advertise and my posts vary from examples of my work to how-to posts. I’m not sure how else I could blog to gain more followers, other than write in this style.

    • says

      Writing with style, or in your own voice, is not the same thing as writing sentimental or clever … however, even if that is what you do, there are always going to be exceptions to the rule. But those exceptions are rare. I looked at your blog and I get your voice/style … it’s good.

  2. says

    The problem with spending hours trying to write perfect copy is that you can die from paralysis of analysis. Sometimes you have to just write and put it out there so that you can see what works for your audience and what doesn’t.

    You are never going to please everyone, short copy, long copy, funny, sad or whatever. It is useful to keep these things in mind and to always chase perfection but sometimes good enough works really well.

  3. says

    “There is a limit to credibility. A limit to what people will believe. If you cross that invisible line in your sales copy, people will shut you down. ”

    Even if you really, truly can give customers a Russian bodybuilder body in just 10 days your audience has been trained to not trust claims like that! As you mentioned, people have been burned one too many times and now honest companies have to fight an even harder uphill battle to earn business and respect and trust from their target audience.

  4. says

    Excellent points! As an editor, I can relate to all of these, but humor stands out the most. It’s true that everyone has a different sense of humor, and it’s also true that delivery can play a major role in how a joke comes across. It can be tricky to deliver humor in professional copy. So, it’s best to just avoid it altogether. The same can be said of clever copy. I’ve found that the writers who most often write “clever” copy miss the mark entirely. It’s hard to delete a sentence that you know that writer was probably really proud of, but when it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work.

  5. says

    I’m a huge fan of works that entertain me as I learn something. This packed a big one-two punch that included several belly laughs and a mouthful of tea splattered over my screen. Well done, Demian. CC

  6. says

    Love the ‘Sentimental’ example. Classic. Great post, Demian! I like how you took the principles of the old school direct response and tied them in with content marketing. Thanks!

  7. says

    Demian – Thanks for the post, it will serve as a good reference that I can drop in front of my clients whenever they ask for one or more of these (and they usually do).

    The most frequent direction they want to go is Clever because the think it makes them look smart while failing to realize it makes their message confusing and far less likely to engage a customer.

  8. Elwin says

    Hi Demian,

    Very interesting piece.. I liked it!
    I am also very interested in the e-mail exchange which you had with John Carlton..
    Could be awesome if you could show us the draft you made and his comments!

    I’m always on the look out to learn from the best copywriters!

    Again, awesome piece.

  9. says

    I’d add “#8 – Long” to the list. I’m totally guilty of using 100 words to say what could be summed up in 20 (but hey, recognizing the problem is half the battle, right??). Definitely something to work with, along with all the other types of bad copy you have listed here.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      Sarah, yeah, we are all guilty of spilling out copy and not taking the time to clean it up. I’ve found it’s just a matter of pencilling in enough time to edit ruthlessly.

      • says

        Sonia is right, long and wordy are not the same thing. We’ll read 8,000 words if it’s interesting. Wordiness is when you repeat the same thing over or don’t omit unnecessary words and sentences (making Strunk and White roll over in their graves) for the sake of being long. That needs to be avoided.

    • says

      Sarah, I could not agree more. This is the #1 area I am working on in my own writing: saying what I mean — and being compelling and informative while doing so — in the fewest words possible. It’s something the vast majority of us can and should get much more adept at doing.

  10. says

    I agree with Sarah – too long should be added to the list. One thing that keeps me reading is bolded points, short paragraphs, and not too long – oh and also not too small of a font. A tiny font with no end in sight of the article makes me go “click” and I’m out of there! These points are really good though. Loved the example of the “too sentimental” one.

  11. Jessica says

    This might be my favorite post ever! It validates my decision to decline jobs that ask me to be their “wordsmith.” I just can’t do it– if they want someone to write copy like the example in #1, I am not your girl. I write normal things, words people understand. I just happen to pull all the thoughts, notes and words together a little better than the average Joe.

    I also LOVE #6. I believe marketing “experts” take too much liberty with the “I heart” stuff. My favorite example, a billboard that said, “I (picture of the home building company’s elephant logo) my new house.” Takes way too long to figure out what they’re trying to say. It’s the classic “I heart NYC” to extremes. Keep it simple.

    Thanks for a fabulous post!

    • says

      Jessica, would you turn down work if you were just starting as a freelance writer? On the one hand, I understand you may not want to be associated with poor copy even if it’s what the client wants, on the other hand fledgling writers need to get started and may need the money.
      I’m not suggesting either is right or wrong, it’s just another angle.

  12. says

    Great post – Sometimes looking at bad copy can be inspiring to write better copy! Completely agree that the advertorial is overused – and confusing to readers. Far too often inexperienced readers feel advertorial content is “trusted” and an extension of a site.

  13. Andy says

    Great post, Demian. I think another important characteristic of the results-oriented copywriter is that he or she isn’t afraid to ask questions. “Why do you think shorter copy is better?” “Why do you feel headline A is more compelling than headline B?” And so on. Good copywriters always want to get at the heart of the why so they can better understand the message their copy needs to convey and the goal it should achieve. The image-oriented copywriter really has no understanding of basic copywriting or marketing principles, thinks it’s all just subjective, and can’t reasonably explain or defend the copy choices they make.

  14. Eva says

    I was thinking to train as a webcopy writer, I’m reading books, practising writing but I have a major problem with this whole thing.
    If I see the internet marketing from the buyer’s view-
    You can sugarcoat it “it’s not an ad, it’s an editorial” Your copy should look like an article, you want to solve people’s problem etc.
    But every time when I see something like a webcopy, a landing page I immediately know that somebody wants me to buy something. So in case I was looking for that product and that’s howI found that page I just scroll down to see the price, I don’t have the patience to read endless blabbering and I have a very well developed attention span too so if the price is okay, I will order it. But I’m not going to read it!
    Same applies for landing pages with videos where they promise to share some information, I watch like 15 minutes of talking for nothing. Nowadays I immediately click away, don’t even care what they try to tell me.

    • says

      The real-life examples of webcopy that frustrated you will probably teach you more valuable, relevant lessons that most of the books you bought. Take those opportunities to figure out why things don’t work and what you’d do differently. If your writing approach is end-user focused and it’s also formatted for ease of access and comprehension, you will find greater successes during your training. And we are always learning ways to improve our writing skills. One topic at a time.

  15. Andrew Kelly says

    You are right about using humor, it should be used keeping the audience in mind. There are dozens of examples where humorous advertisements have gone really bad. I remember this McDonalds ad that said “I’d hit that!”; it was used in india and the people of India didi not like what the phrases alluded to and this ad was highly criticized and result in a very bad mark on McDonald’s reputation. Sometimes even the smartest of people make such silly mistakes. Great post by the way.

    • says

      I’m from Wisconsin and I didn’t like that McDonald’s ad either. Sounded too gangsta’. If the Mac is about being in your happy place, why talk about hitting? Someone on their staff trying to be too clever. Just like Demian points out.

  16. says

    Sometimes writers focus on themselves rather than communicating to their audience, as such their writing will have no relevance at all

  17. says

    Just looking for an opinion. I was in a marketing meeting today which was focused on creating some copy for three different type of software users. One of the users is a carrier for auto transport. After writing down all the pain points of needing to keep the trailer loaded, stopping constant phone calls, ect He came up with the slogan “Make More Money”. I mentioned that yes that is important, but it sounded a tad like spam. He then asked how old I was and if I had kids. He then said if I did then I would understand that I would want more money.

    My thought was to create a message about “Load Your Trailer More Often” which to me equals making more money. He said continued to argue with me. I was just curious anyones thoughts on the message… “Make More Money” and the Call-To-Action “Show Me” as a link

  18. says

    Hi Demian. The Ebay ad link under item #5 doesn’t help convey your thoughts any more. The auction item is closed and pictures are unavailable. Unless it’s my phone not showing the images.

  19. says

    All these approaches will work in the hands of a skilled writer. Mark Twain was very clever, didn’t keep it a secret, and endeared himself to millions to become the first stand-up comic. I notice most of the “advertorials” have photos of pretty girls, which can beat even Mark Twain.

  20. Christopher Awuku says

    IMO, good copy merely meets what the target market wants, desires and expects.

    Some copywriters say to never use complex or advanced wording in adverts. I say this ultimately depends on the target market. For instance, if a firm makes computers and sells them to IT equipment distributors, then technical jargon used in the ICT industry has to apply here. If the same firm sells computers direct to consumers, then obviously jargon cannot be used to the same extent. Writing sales copy is not like writing technical manuals, academic papers, or other specialised formats. One really has to tailor the writing style to suit the target market’s needs.

    Your example concerning the power drill was a good one. Not to say that persons who buy/use drills are silly, nonetheless I doubt many of them will take that sales copy seriously lol..

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