Good writing saves lives

The news story that instructions on medicine bottles are being re-written because people find the language they use too complicated, took me back to my first proper job, writing copy for the publicity department of a regional theatre.  I was laughed out of the room for suggesting that we should change the phrase “affix stamp to envelope” on the  letter sent with the season’s brochure to “please use a stamp”.  Affix was the ‘proper’ word to use.  That’s what we were going to stick with.  It was evidently more important to them to sound posh than be understood.  (They also veto-ed my suggested tagline – It’s Swine-sational! – for a Christmas musical based on the children’s book, Fat Pig.  They were idiots and didn’t deserve me.  But it’s OK, I’m over it now.  Really.)

The standard advice given on copywriting courses is to remember that the average reading age of adults in this country is about 11, so you need to  KISS (variously Keep It Simple, Stupid; Keep It Simple, Silly; or Keep It Short and Simple depending on the whim of the trainer).  

Writing short, snappy, clear copy that’s  fun to read and sells a product – or gives advice about how to use a medicine properly –  is much harder than it looks.  Maybe that’s why there is so much copywriting advice available online.  The American site Copyblogger is one of my favourites – its 10 steps to becoming a better writer advice is spot on.  I subscribed to Naomi Dunford’s newsletter for a while, even though it wasn’t particularly relevant for my business, because I liked her bracing “get off your ass and get down to work” style. 

Copywriting really matters.  Poor writing skills will lose you contracts, customers and sales.  There’s some good advice here about ways to improve your writing – the most effective tip is simply to read.  Lots.  Of all kinds of different writing.  Think about what you enjoy and try to understand why it works.  And if it doesn’t work, try to understand that too.  Medicine bottle-labellers are doing that right now.  Who knows.  If they find the right words it might save someone’s life.

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2 responses to “Good writing saves lives

  1. Pingback: hangman words

  2. Oh, how true this is. I get a similar reaction every time I suggest to someone they use the words “I enclose …” rather than “Please find enclosed/attached for your attention …”, which they insist to me is more businesslike and professional.

    I have despaired over recent years at the inability of otherwise bright people to string coherent sentences together. I have been astonished by marketing graduates – graduates! – who are apparently incapable of writing clear, grammatical English which speaks to their prospective reader in language they understand. And I have been staggered by how little they think it matters.

    I know I am seen as a crusted relic who focuses too much on minutiae. I don’t care. George Orwell once wrote that “Good prose is like a window pane”. John Irving (whom God preserve) talks of writing as “the necessary strict toiling with the language … writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation.” In the end, it’s about one person communicating to another. If the other person doesn’t understand what you’re saying, then you’ve failed in what you are trying to do.

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