Common copywriting mistakes businesses make, and how you can write better.
By Tayllor Henczel, full-time freelance copywriter 14 August 2020 10 min read
A well-designed logo. Mind blowing videos. Beautiful images for social media content. This is where many business owners arrive and stop when it comes to creating a brand. But building a brand isn’t just about how your business looks—how it sounds is just as important. Hello, copywriting.
No, copywriting isn’t the same as getting a copyright to something—copywriting is writing text for a business to tell their brand story. This can include something as small as a single tweet to all of the text on a website.
The thing is, writing tends to scare off a lot of people. Whether you’re the one writing as the business owner, you have a copywriter on staff, or you’re looking to hire, here are some blunders big and small that I’d love to help you avoid—and hopefully learn from—before they happen to you.
Mistake #1: Writing like you wrote an english paper in high school
I know I may sound contradictory here, but hear me out. Your english classes in high school and university had a purpose: to teach you the basic rules of writing, such as grammar, spelling and flow, that would give you the foundations to writing. But that’s just what those classes taught you: foundations.
Like with any creative practice, you first must know the rules of writing, then “break them” or at least learn how to experiment within them to give your writing personality. Feeling uneasy? Here’s an example:
#1: We will give you the best service, guaranteed.
#2: Our promise is to serve you like it’s our job because, well, it is!
These two statements say the same thing, but different. While the first example is grammatically correct, it’s also boring. How many companies have you heard saying this exact same line? Meanwhile, the second example has a fun, playful tone, making it distinct. Which example do you think readers would remember?
If your audience uses slang, use it (but never force it). Use humour if it’s appropriate. Talk like a person, not a robot—no matter what profession you’re in, people want to feel like they’re talking to a real human on the other side of your brand.
The goal is not to just sound like every other writer and brand out there. It’s important that you develop your voice as a brand, and as a writer. People should read your words and think, “this is SO [your brand name].”
Mistake #2: Using an incredible, over-the-top, excessive amount of adjectives (see what I did there?)
Actions speak louder than words, so use your words wisely. Avoid using “best”, “incredible” and other superlatives to describe your business. Claiming that you’re the best doesn’t make you the best. Instead, explain what it is you do, and let the readers make their own judgement on whether you’re the best. No one likes to be told what to think. Let’s take a look at some more examples:
#1: We’ve been providing the best dental experience in Calgary since 2011.
#2: We know that going to the dentist can be scary—but it doesn’t have to be. Our dental hygienists are gentle on your teeth and gums. We’ve invested in the top-of-the-line equipment, so surgeries are less painful and we can catch cavities before you need a filling. Together, we can make dental checkups more enjoyable.
There’s an overused saying in the writing world: “show, don’t tell.” While this often applies to writing novels, it applies when you’re telling your business’s story. Saying that you have the best dental experience doesn’t actually explain what you do to make the experience the best. But explaining that your dental hygienists are gentle and that you have new equipment shows, doesn’t tell, that a patient’s experience with you could very well be the best.
Note: always take context into consideration when copywriting. In a short tagline, or subject line, you can’t say everything and shouldn’t try. The key here is to not rely on superlatives to tell your brand story, since they tend to be generic and overused.
Adjectives in general can be helpful in small doses, but we challenge you to try to write your copy without adjectives at all—does it still convey your business? You should never rely on adjectives to tell your business’s story. Let’s contrast some examples:
#1: We love to provide the cutest outfits to help young, professional women in Edmonton feel incredibly confident and powerful in their different workplaces.
#2: We love providing outfits that help women in Edmonton feel confident and powerful in the workplace.
See how the first statement feels clunky and fluffy? While it may be important to narrow in on your audience—in the example above, that would be young professional women in Edmonton—we’d actually say that the added words made the copy harder to read.
By keeping “workplace” in the statement, we by default assume that the women are professionals, and the fact that this business is serving younger women can be supported in the visual elements, which media channels they’re using, etc. Your words don’t have to say everything—keep it simple, and allow the other elements of marketing and storytelling to speak as well.
Mistake #3: Writing to sell, not storytell
While you need sales, no one wants to buy anything because they’re told to. Instead, write to create an experience, a lifestyle, a vision—something that your audience would want to participate in. For example:
#1: Before you find yourself at the mercy of the elements, get our outdoor first aid kit.
#2: Wind whips through the alpine slopes, reducing visibility to zero and increasing risk of injury. A misplaced foothold on your most challenging route of the day leaves you with a nasty fall. Chopping firewood gives you an unexpected cut and new scar. While you can’t predict the elements, you can prepare for them. With a waterproof case, LED flashlight, flare, along with two days worth of medical supplies for the backcountry, our outdoor first aid kit is here for you when other help is far away.
The second statement draws the reader into situations where they’d want and need a first aid kit—these vivid descriptions are far more compelling than just telling someone that they should get the first aid kit.
Mistake #4: Copywriting is an afterthought in your marketing strategy
While every single aspect of your business can’t be top priority, your copywriting shouldn’t be thrown together last minute while your graphic designer, videographer, and marketing strategist have already been working together. Telling a story is a collaborative process, and relies on all of the branding elements working together to be cohesive.
Like your visual elements (usually the exciting parts for most business owners), your written elements need to adhere to and create your brand. That involves first, knowing your brand voice and company culture, and second, making sure your copywriter is involved from the beginning to make sure that your brand story is being told accurately through words and visuals.
Mistake #5: Hiring a copywriter who has a degree, but no writing samples or portfolio (or if you’re the copywriter: assuming your degree is enough)
While formal education can give you the foundation to develop writing skills, it’s the absolute baseline—education teaches you the rules, while experience allows you to problem solve, develop a voice, create a signature style, work with teams, and understand how to convey and take on a brand voice.
Now before you start writing off (no pun intended) all of your candidates, business owners— “professional” experience isn’t necessarily what you need to hone in on. This could be your copywriter’s first official job, especially if they’re applying for a Junior Copywriter role or you’re running a startup.
The kind of experience we’re talking about is the self-starter kind: have they contributed to any online publications? Do they blog, on their own site or for others? Have they written for magazines or newspapers? Do they have experience writing video scripts? Have they conducted interviews before? Have they managed social media accounts, or written posts/captions consistently? These are the experiences that prove invaluable in being both a competent and creative copywriter.
Copywriters, take note. Pursue opportunities to create content—this gives you work to put in your portfolio, and real-life experience that you can bring to the table. Plus, it shows that you’re an initiator, a trait that you’ll need to be a writer in any industry or job position. Like any creative profession, you can’t rely on your degree to land you a job—you need to create.
Not sure where to start? Here are some suggestions to help you put yourself out there:
- Start building your presence as a writer on social media: share your writings as captions, maybe try integrating them into your visuals. You’d be amazed by how many online magazines or blogs will reach out over Instagram to ask you to contribute if they like your writing style.
- Research online magazines and blogs to contribute to: comb through social media and online for digital publications you resonate with. Oftentimes, small to midsize magazines and blogs allow for (and welcome!) contributions if you pitch a concept.
- Take on some unpaid work in the beginning: offer to help a friend with their new website, become a monthly contributor to a magazine, intern with a brand you love. Now, I bet that you probably don’t want to do unpaid work forever, but every creative needs to put their time in before they get paid jobs. Here’s how I put in mine. I started writing for my university’s magazine and newspaper, then I got a social media and marketing internship during my last year of university with 31 Bits—a socially conscious jewelry company based in Southern California. All this time, I wrote for an Australian lifestyle blog called The Free Woman (who reached out to me via Instagram), and post-grad, I wrote unpaid for two years as a regular contributor to Local Wolves, an LA-based art, lifestyle and culture magazine. While I didn’t get paid for any of these jobs, it allowed me to build up a portfolio that opened the door to my first paid copywriting position.
- Write about what you love, and write often: there’s no better way to develop your voice then by writing about your passions. Even if all of these pieces never get shared, they’re essential practice. If you want to be a writer, I recommend that you write daily—any creative pursuit needs hours upon hours of practice in order to be improved upon, and for you to find your style.
Mistake #6: Using repetitive language
This simple mistake can be avoided by doing a little bit of proofreading. For example, written in an article I just read was the phrase, “you should consider these considerations.” Sentences made awkward through repetition immediately make your audience stop reading, and the copy ends up coming across as inexperienced.
Mistake #7: Using vague terms and language
A simple rule: avoid using business jargon. Many businesses love to use the words “innovation” and “diversity” in their copy. While these are good things, the terms means nothing unless you explain what innovations you’re doing, or how you’re diversifying.
Vague terms end up coming across as jargon, and make the average reader tune out, since they’re still confused about what you do and why you’re doing it.
It ends up leading to assumption. What you mean by “diversity” can be completely different from what others think you mean. Do you prioritize diversity in your team? Or do you serve diverse markets? Or do you provide a diverse selection of products and services? Unless you’re specific, there’s bound to be misinterpretation between you and your audience.
Also, these generic terms are boring to read, and typically don’t set you apart from your competition. Most businesses are innovating. Most businesses are diversifying. But how are you doing it? Focus on that in your writing to tell your brand story well.
In summary, writing correctly is only the beginning of writing well. Take the time to develop your own voice, cut the fluff, and get specific about what makes your brand distinct, and you’ll be well on your way to improving your copywriting.