How to turn mediocre copy into tantalizing content

OK handWe’ve all been there.

You write the best blog post, ad, white paper, story or (fill in the blank) ever. And then someone dumps all over it. The red sea of edits and corrections makes you wonder what went wrong.

The thrill is gone.

But you can bring it back. Here’s how …

Know the five signs of copy drivel and avoid them like the bubonic plague. They’re content killers and they’ll take you down every time.

  1. Long sentences
  2. Wordiness
  3. Jargon
  4. Passive voice
  5. Random capitalization

Let’s explore these in-depth so that you’ll be able to recognize and fix them in your own writing.

#1: Long sentences

The shorter your sentences, the more readable they are. Aim for a maximum of 15 words per sentence, but don’t be obsessive about it. Look for opportunities to cut when you can. This sentence from a daily writing tips blog (for real) screams for hedge clippers:

“Although variety of sentence length occurs naturally, it’s a good idea, when it’s feasible, to recite your writing aloud to ensure that stacks of sentences of repetitively equal or nearly equal length aren’t slipping through.”

Whoa! I dare you to get through that without stopping for a breath.

How to fix it

Short sentences pack a punch. Use them liberally. You can even write one-sentence paragraphs to help readers breeze through your content.

Push yourself to trim your word count. Turn a 100-word e-blast into 50 words and then slash it to 25. If you’re feeling brave, cut another 10 words.

Now, let’s rewrite the tip above:

“Vary sentence length to grab readers’ attention. Read your copy out loud and then rewrite any monotonous sections to spice it up.”

Got it? OK, let’s move to the next sign.

#2: Wordiness

You can’t help yourself.

You fall prey to deadwood like “in order to,” “in need of” and “at the present time.”

Does this look familiar?

“If you’re in need of a refund, please contact the corporate office immediately in order to get your money back. The local branch is closed for repairs at the present time.”

How to fix it

Resist the temptation to use three or more words when one will do. Trim wordy phrases and your readers will thank you.

Use this cheat sheet to get started:

Avoid Replace it with
As a result of Because
At the present time Now
At that point in time Then
At this point in time Now
Due to the fact Because
In close proximity Near
In need of Need
In order to To
In the event that If
Make use of Use
Subsequent to After

Prune as many words from your copy as you can. It becomes easier the more you do it.

Ready for the next one?

#3: Jargon

Your audience expects you to use inflated words, right?

Wrong.

If you use business and industry jargon, you could alienate readers who aren’t familiar with those terms, as well as bloggers, journalists and others whose attention you’re trying to attract. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it.

Try decoding this banking jargon:

“We must effect a needs assessment of the downturn in commercial lending package applications.”

Huh?

Translation: “We need to find out why no one is applying for loans.”

How to fix it

Impress readers with clear, concise and benefit-driven content – not bloat. Simple words are approachable and meaningful.

For example:

  • Choose “rules” instead of “methodology.”
  • Use “improve” instead of “optimize.”
  • Select “think” – not “conceptualize.”
  • Pick “avoid” rather than “circumvent.”

OK, on to #4.

#4: Passive voice

Fizzle or sizzle? It’s your choice.

Passive voice goes down like a can of pop that sat open on the counter for three days. It’s impersonal and unfriendly, and often produces ambiguous, unsatisfying sentences.

Here’s an example:

“The database contains 1 million veterans’ records and can be easily viewed and searched online.”

The first half of the sentence is fine. The rest doesn’t tell readers who can view and search the database.

Check these out. They’re all in passive voice:

  1. “Mistakes were made when the cars were produced on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “It was heard by Susan that a companywide audit was scheduled.”
  3. “Pat’s new car was driven too fast and the fender was scratched.”

How to fix it

Rewrite your copy in active voice. It’s easy: Determine who or what performs the action and use that as the subject of the sentence.

Now, let’s try those again:

  1. “The welders made mistakes when they produced the cars on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “Susan heard that the CFO scheduled a companywide audit.”
  3. “Pat’s son, Blake, drove the car too fast and scratched the fender.”

Last but not least …

#5: Random capitalization

“Hi, my NAME is [fill in the blank] and I have an overwhelming Compulsion to capitalize RANDOM words in my copy. Even Worse, I do it inconsistently. I Need HELP.”

Here’s the thing: Capitalization within a sentence implies a proper name, such as Anita Job or Acme Widget Co.

It confuses readers when you capitalize words or letters at will, such as “our Financial expertise,” and “I TRUST that you have Integrity.”

TRUST me – random capitalization doesn’t make a word inherently important.

How to fix it

If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, use bold text or italics, but don’t go overboard. Emphasize too much and you’ll diminish your point. Better yet, use plain text. It promotes readability and comprehension.

Take this example – it’s jarring to your audience:

“I’m happy to report that we’ve made excellent progress in reducing our PRICING MISHAPS, SHIPPING ERRORS AND BAD DEBT.”

Capitalizing these words is unnecessary and is the equivalent of SHOUTING AT YOUR READERS.

You’ve got this

The first step to turning ordinary copy into irresistible content is to apply these five fixes to your own work. It might take some practice, but everything worth doing requires a commitment. If this list intimidates you, master one or two and then work your way through the rest one at a time.

You can do it!

Do you have tips of your own for making middling copy magical? Let us know in the comments below.

About Dawn

Dawn is the senior editor at The Simons Group. As a grammar queen, she'd rather lose her wallet than misplace an apostrophe. Fellow copy ninjas unite -- you have an ally.

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