Learning to spot a few common mistakes in your copy can help it to become much more effective at engaging your target market and creating a response.
People need to be able to read your copy before they can be inspired, educated, or converted. Copy that isn’t easily digestible for the eyes and brain is a complete waste of space. It’s like buying an expensive sports car without any wheels. All your copy will do is sit on the metaphorical driveway.
Is your copy putting readers off? Here are some of the most common mistakes which kill readability.
You haven’t finished making your point
This is probably the most common error I see on my trawls through the internet. Web copy can sometimes read like the ramblings of an overexcited child:
When you come to us you can expect to get a great level of service no matter what in our showroom we have a range of different products with free delivery… take a rest in our café.
Make sure you start with a premise and end with a conclusion. Reading a sentence with too many points in it is like trying to watch three tennis matches simultaneously. Your target market will get confused, frustrated, and motivated to go somewhere else.
You’ve crammed too much into one sentence
This is often the cause of the point above. While you should aim to get a good mix of sentence lengths in your copy, as a general rule you want to keep them short. You should think very hard if a single sentence runs to more than 25 words:
Usually the problem is simply that you are including too much information, which can be solved (like in this sentence – yes, I’ve done this one deliberately to prove my point) by separating out individual points, of which there are probably several, into their own sentences.
Does one of your sentences take up a whole paragraph? If so, you probably need some full stops in there.
You’ve used too many exclamation marks
On most occasions one exclamation mark counts as too many. Like fake tan or DFS sales they are overused.
An exclamation mark – as the name suggests – is used to mark an exclamation. They are for rare occasions when you say something that merits emphasis. We don’t exclaim everything, do we? People that do tend to get avoided at networking events.
I’m wearing socks! Our showroom is in Truro! Our customers are from all kinds of industries! I sound like a crazy person!
Exclamation marks make a lot of people cringe. Some content agencies even ban their writers from using them, and with good reason. They’ve become so overused that it is hard to include them in your copy. If you really can’t help yourself, try Time’s guide to exclamation mark alternatives (although tread lightly, and ignore #1).
You didn’t read it back aloud
Once you’ve finished your post, give it a few minutes (at least), a few hours (preferably), or a few days (ideally) to allow you to completely forget it. If you read it back straight away you won’t be able to be as objective. When you do read it back, read it out loud.
Our brains can do amazing things. They can also do stupid ones, such as automatically correcting information from your eyes when it thinks it’s wrong. Which is why you might read ‘He ate donut the’, yet process it as ‘He ate the donut’ without realising the error.
Reading aloud means the information has to go through more checkpoints – from eyes to brain to speech to ears to brain. I think this is why you have more chance of catching those mistakes. It also helps you to gauge the flow of the piece. If you find yourself having an asthma attack, you probably need shorter sentences. Or at least some more commas in there.
You’ve used the passive voice
This one is a little tricky. I don’t go in for explaining the components of a sentence with fancy terms, or reciting grammar rules to people like a policeman reading a suspect the Miranda rights. Passive voice is when the sentence is built around the wrong element. For instance:
You read the book – active voice.
The book was read by you – passive voice.
You can tell this isn’t a good way to express this information without getting bogged down in grammar rules. Nevertheless, Your Dictionary has a ton of useful examples.
Passive voice kills readability. It turns your copy into a sluggish ramble, rather than the irresistible ‘slippery slide’ described by copywriting legend Joe Sugarman. Or, to put it passively: A sluggish ramble, rather than a slippery slide, is what your copy becomes.
‘How am I meant to know if I’m writing in the passive voice?’ I don’t hear you ask. Simply follow these instructions to enable readability statistics in Microsoft Word. From now on when you run a spellcheck (after correcting all the spelling and grammar mistakes that are highlighted) you’ll see a box that tells you the number of passive sentences in the document.
Better copy, with a pinch of salt
These issues all make it a chore to read your web copy, brochures, or blog posts. You won’t need to worry about whether or not your copy is boring – people won’t get far enough to find out.
It is true that there are exceptions to these rules, so don’t adhere to them verbatim. For instance, there are occasions where passive voice helps you present information in a more logical way. Use these tips as guidelines, and ultimately do whatever feels right.
It’s your responsibility to ensure that everything you write is as slick as an oil spill on a frozen book of Oscar Wilde quotes. If you catch yourself making these mistakes, a little editing can go a long way towards creating copy that doesn’t fall at the first hurdle: getting read.