Context is all

Digital technology may have opened up new possibilities for the writer of promotional copy, but there are still certain basic rules. Keep it simple, don’t waste the reader’s time and try to work within the constraints of whatever medium you find yourself

One moment you might be deftly crafting back-of-pack copy for organic pork scratchings, the next moment you’re ploughing through a chunky website for an offshore law firm.

As a writer for hire in the design industry, you need to be able to turn your hand to anything that comes your way, quickly getting to grips with different styles and subjects, as well as forms and conventions. What’s more, the shifting creative and technological landscape means you’re constantly having to reassess the role of words in their various different contexts – but, hey, that’s what makes life interesting.

The very first thing you have to get your head around is that sponsored words are rarely read. Unlike a novel or a newspaper, which people actively choose to consume, commercial copy is seen as something of an imposition, so there’s always the chance it will be swatted away like an irritating fly. Because you don’t have goodwill to start with, your words need to work that bit harder – at the very least they should be inviting and easy to follow, but if they’re really doing their job, they should inform and entertain, too.

Fortunately, the words of the ‘writer for design’ don’t stand or fall entirely on their own. They’re part of a package, working in tandem with graphics, amplified by illustration, photography, layout and typography. But if the visuals provide the hook, it’s up to the words to reel the reader in further, until – you hope – they’re well and truly caught up in what you have to say.

Every job has its own particular slant – the way you write depends primarily on the client or brand, but also the strategy and the nature of the communication. For example, you’d approach a quick-and-dirty tactical ad quite differently from an annual report. Your tone for Penhaligons would be nothing like a message from the National Lottery.

‘It’s important to get into the mindset of the person who’s reading it,’ says Nick Asbury, who provides a broad range of copy for design groups. ‘The context in which it appears is one of half a dozen factors that will determine your style.’ Having said that, there are certain received ‘dos and don’ts’ when it comes to writing for different media.

For online writing, there’s no time for niceties – you need to get straight to the point. Generally, people use the Internet to retrieve information, so you need to create a precise hierarchy, with the important nuggets at the top, and further details underneath, or as click-through sections. This actually derives from a well-established newspaper technique, putting the vital points in the first paragraph and the older, less relevant stuff down the bottom.

Certain clients are obsessed with search engine optimisation and keywords. This means if you are writing for a manufacturer of jam, you need to use the words ‘jam’, ‘spread’, ‘bread’ and ‘marmalade’ a lot – but particularly ‘jam’ – so that the Mr Jam site comes up high on the list when you Google it. Most writers take umbrage at this, as it goes against their natural instinct for verve and variety. But the trick is to use this repetition to your advantage, to create rhythm and emphasis – after all, repetition is one of the poet’s key tools.

Even this scant guidance needs to be approached with a pinch of salt. The emergence of blogs has seen a much freer, more expansive style emerge online. We’re now happy to read ‘newspapers’ on our computers, and the digital book has become a reality. Brevity and precision are no longer the be-all and end-all of online writing.

However, for pack copy, space really is at a premium. Which can be a tad frustrating, because often – apart from with no-nonsense products like lard and white spirit – you’re trying to create mood and character, for which your best adjectives are required. Copy must be distilled right down, yet still convey a sense of wonder and promise. Truly, pack copy is the haiku of copywriting.

Constrained by space and time, advertising copy, too, needs to be pithy and punchy. There are certain given rules – poster headlines should be no more than nine words long, for example. But you only really need to be aware of these in deciding whether to break them or not. Currently, the favoured style for body copy tends to be staccato. Lots. Of short. Sentences. Like this. But there’s no evidence this holds the attention any more than a well-balanced, expertly punctuated sentence of a line or more.

Depending on the format, of course, print and promotional literature is where the writer can really cut loose. Rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. There’s still an appetite for words on paper – tactility and familiarity mean it continues to appeal to readers and designers. It also offers the space for writing to shine – for nuance and storytelling, character development and colour.

If print’s the place for ambition and erudition, scripts and speeches need to be written in a flowing, conversational style. If possible, the cadences of the sentences should mimic the speaker’s natural speech patterns. You should go easy on the wordplay, and avoid words that are difficult to say, as they might cause a stumble.

In the end, though, while there are certain subtleties to watch out for, the way commercial writers approach different media is broadly similar. If their natural writing style is the base paint, the specific medium and various other considerations provide the shades and tones that are squirted in on top. Lindsay Camp, author of Can I Change Your Mind – The Craft and Art of Persuasive Writing, says, ‘We’re using universally applicable skills. People tend to exaggerate the differences. You’ve just got to keep things engaging and interesting, and not waste people’s time.’

Which might just be a fitting point to draw this article to a close.



Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.