Rebel Against These Bad Copywriting Habits to Achieve Autonomy

Rebel Against These Bad Copywriting Habits to Achieve Autonomy
Photo by Natalia Y / Unsplash

Autonomy – the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision.

Now that’s the definition cleared up, who wants to learn how to achieve this state of enlightened behaviour? Sorry, but there’s no simple answer. It’d be dishonest to claim I was invulnerable to psychological coercion myself.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we should avoid improving ourselves – quite the opposite. Achieving more autonomy over your actions can be empowering and confidence-boosting. This is advice that may stretch beyond the scope of copywriting in some instances.

Following rules

If you want to follow the rules, become an accountant. If you want to break them, become a copywriter. Are there really any rules in copywriting? Not many – you should be willing to get experimental. If you want some kind of framework to your processes, look to behavioural science for inspiration. Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chair of Ogilvy UK, alludes to thinking illogically as a reminder that human behaviour often makes no logical sense. If you make the base assumption that people are irrational, following the rules doesn’t always work.

Relying on influencers

Soulless ‘grifters’ have influenced millions of followers into a black hole of mindless belief, and bad – even dangerous – misinformation through social media. To a lesser extent, the same kind of thing infects anything where there’s money to be made. That goes for copywriting, where there are plenty of influencers peddling copywriting courses, despite all the best information being available for free, or available to read in consumer research journals.

If there was ever a time to employ skepticism and adopt critical thinking, it’s now. You should question everything, even the strength of your own beliefs.

“Dare to be wise / dare to know” – Kant.

Immanuel Kant had this idea known as intellectual autonomy. Put simply, he believed it was a sign of immaturity to depend on others for guidance rather than using your own understanding. By all means, take advice, but don’t mindlessly believe.

Having a weak process

What does a client expect from someone who calls themselves an SEO copywriter? You build your process upon the expectations held by yourself and by clients. The problem is, there’s no bar of entry for a freelancer to adopt any title they choose. The difference between one freelancer and another can be radical. Expectations vary wildly between both copywriters and clients.

Let’s take a scenario:

Imagine a business that’s only dealt with freelance copywriter A. Freelance copywriter A does a video consultation, detailed briefing session, SEO-friendly and engaging copy, proofread, edited, and revised twice.

Now imagine the business hires a new copywriter, freelance copywriter B, who does half of that for the same price because their previous clients have been happy with the results. Freelance copywriter B has been operating on a different level to what’s expected by this new client.

How do you solve this problem?

This is what I’d call a golden opportunity to patch up your process, and get better clients as a result. You should:

  • Communicate your process clearly before any agreement.
  • Actively improve your process as you gain more experience.
  • Develop a process that covers high expectations.
  • Think ahead to create a barrier against unexpected situations.

Overusing passive voice

Here’s a great explanation of passive voice if you’re unfamiliar with it. The page reduces passive voice to a simple formula: “form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

To make sense of passive voice, and the issues with it, let’s take this sentence:

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

and reword it in the passive voice:

“Why was the road crossed by the chicken?”

In the passive voice example, it’s not immediately clear because the subject (the chicken), isn’t where you expect it to be. In a basic sense, it hurts to read it.

Having said that, it isn’t a hard rule to never speak passively. We all use passive voice sometimes and some sentences work better that way. Once you understand passive voice, you’ll be able to identify it more frequently in your copy, and adjust the sentence if there’s a better way to word it.

Adjective and adverb carnage

Using adjectives and adverbs can be a seductively bad copywriting habit. They add energy, life, and feeling to otherwise boring copy. They offer a less extreme to superlatives, which are often forbidden (i.e. we’re the best company, we have the largest selection of products…roll eyes). But before you know it, your copy has started to exaggerate the product or service you’re selling.

This is particularly true of appearance and size modifiers that exaggerate the magnitude of a product. Appearance adverbs could be “gorgeously” or “beautifully”, but size modifiers like “incredibly, stupendously, mammoth, gargantuan” seem to be more annoying. Most of the time, it’s unnecessary to use these words, but adjectives and adverbs are a handy descriptive tool to use in moderation like anything else. Become aware of your adjective and adverb usage and chill!

Making false claims

Who? Not me? I’d never make a false claim. Or would I? Researching the topic deeply to portray expertise and authority is a must to ensure you don’t make fallible claims, undermining supposed expertise and authority. It’s surprisingly easy to say something that isn’t true about a product, whether intentional or not.

You need only look to the countless false advertising scandals by corporations to see how easy it is. After all, these things are supposedly sense-checked by various high-level executives before being printed and distributed.

Take the 35-million dollar lawsuit Activia was slapped with after making false claims about the health benefits of their yoghurts in 2010.

Or perhaps the New Balance trainers that help you burn calories, or a brain-games app that allegedly cures dementia… You get the idea. Misinformation happens, it’s easy to do, overlooked by editors and execs, and can cost millions to a company.

Appealing to the wrong person

Not only does a lack of research lead to false claims, it can lead you down a drastically incorrect path. As a copywriter, it’s mission-critical you understand who you’re selling to. You learn the demographic and market segments through research to correctly identify pain-points and solutions. If you get that part wrong, unless by fluke you succeed, the project collapses at its foundation.

A glaringly obvious example of this kind of mistargeting happened when Gerber’s released baby food in Africa. Gerber’s baby food features the image of a baby on the outer packaging. Seems normal, right?

Not quite. See, in Africa they put an image of the product on the outer packaging for people who can’t read. So what’s in the packaging? Babies?

It’s such a pitch-perfect example of failed targeting that it’s frequently used as a case study for improper targeting. A moment of precursory research could have prevented a lot of confusion. Research your target market, gather all the intel available to avoid retrospectively painful blindspots.

Who needs autonomy – hire a copywriter

If you haven’t got the time to do all of this independent self-discovery nonsense, you might want to consider the easy route: Hire the copywriter who wrote this piece – me. I provide copywriting for agencies and SME’s who want clear & compelling copy, website messaging, brand positioning, blogs and more. Send me a message and I’m sure we can work something out.