In advertising and PR, there are a million ways to say, “Write it better.” Advertisers, creative directors, and advertising instructors all have different ways of saying it. Some of my favorites include: “Punch up the copy,” “Not on strategy,” and, “Needs a rethink.”
Virtually no one says, “This writing sucks.” Instead they say, “It’s good, but we have issues and concerns.”
In the general sense, this could mean, “Oh, boy. We need to start from scratch here.” In the specific sense, it might refer to having a great idea for an ad, but writing it so that some of the lines don’t ring true, are contrived, or aren’t on strategy.
When I give feedback, I’m conscious of walking a fine line between saying too much and saying too little. On one hand, it’s easy to pick apart writing and offer ways to make it better. On the other, you can really crush someone’s creativity by giving too much advice, praise, or criticism.
Whether it has meaning to the person getting the feedback probably depends on his or her willingness and ability to listen, take it in, and respond accordingly; that’s probably why one of the biggest ad agencies in the U.S. puts “error-free writing,” “ability to take criticism,” and “rewriting” at the top of its wish list for new hires.
In my experience, “punch up the writing” almost always means one or more of the following things:
1. Make it active, not passive.
People who avoid responsibility speak in passive sentences: “Mistakes were made.” “I made mistakes” is active, because it assigns responsibility. Passive sentences aren’t grammatically incorrect, just boring, evasive, and not as accurate as active sentences.
2. Get rid of spelling mistakes.
3. Don’t be boring, and don’t write copy that wouldn’t work on you.
Write something that you would find interesting to read. If it sounds like dull ad copy that repeats things you see in every ad (“We strive to be the best department store in the tri-state area…blah blah blah”), then it won’t work in yours. Also see: “win-win scenario,” “refreshments will be served,” “ample parking,” or “from (blank) to (blank), we have it all.” Sigh.
If you’ve heard it before, that doesn’t make it good. And if it’s your first idea, it’s probably your worst idea.
4. Aim for an economy of words.
If you can say it in three words, don’t use 25 words to do it.
5. Make sure every piece of what you write is “on strategy.”
All parts of your ad (or whatever it is you’re writing) should point in the same direction and accomplish the same goal.
6. Be consistent.
Use a style guide, so that your writing is always consistent. This is what makes you a professional writer over someone who, though he or she “speaks English,” doesn’t write professionally because he or she isn’t familiar with the rules.
7. Have a distinct tone or point of view.
Your copy should always sound like you, not a machine, wrote it. Inject your humanity into your writing, so people relate to your words just as they would to you as a person.
To see some great examples, go online and see how Tom Shales wrote TV reviews, Roger Ebert wrote movie reviews, Maureen Dowd writes columns, or David Sedaris, Stephen King, and (insert your favorite writer here) write books.
8. Know your audience, and write in its language.
9. Spell check, edit, proofread, edit, proofread, edit, proofread, spell check. Repeat.
Print out two copies of your writing. You read it out loud while someone else follows along. It’s the only way to catch mistakes.