To Be or Not to Be?

Copywriting 101

Now that’s a question.

The first six words of Hamlet’s Act III, Scene 1 soliloquy are without doubt the most famous line William Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s also one of the most recognizable quotes in the English-speaking world.

And not a single word over three letters long.

The lesson? Keep it simple. Good copy is written in clear, concise, simple words that get your point across. It’s conversational.

You can fracture the occasional rule of grammar too, if it helps to make your writing more digestible. Sentence fragments, one-sentence paragraphs, beginning with conjunctions and ending in prepositions are all fine, even desirable.

And don’t forget to use plenty of bullets and numbered lists.

Think your audience is too sophisticated for this? Don’t be so sure.

Studies have shown that more than 50 percent of students at four-year universities and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges in the United States could not:

  • interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure;
  • understand the arguments of newspaper editorials; or
  • compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees.

The bad news is that these kids are more literate than the average US adult, which is not that surprising considering that the vast majority of US adults have less education.

So … keep it simple and clear. No one will ever complain that your writing is too easy to understand.

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Reader Comments (11)

  1. says

    Simple writing is really a paradoxical thing, because it’s oftentimes the hardest to produce

    True. Hemingway was once asked how short a story he could write. “Six words,” he said. “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Sheer brilliance.

  2. says

    “No one will ever complain that your writing is too easy to understand.”

    I love the article. There might be an exception to your “too easy to understand” rule. I think in ad writing, there’s room to make something that lots of people don’t understand. A joke that not everyone gets. It’s like a secret handshake. It’s a way to connect with your intended audience more closely (they’re in the club, ’cause they get the joke). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    I always love to hear points of view from people who get it. Thanks for sharing such good stuff.

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