23 Jul

Non-wordy words

I always think of good copywriters in the same way I think of Tommy Cooper.
Obviously I can’t just leave that statement hanging there, so I’ll explain what I mean.

Tommy Cooper’s shows involved rubbish magic tricks – or just magic tricks that went wrong.
The thing is, Tommy Cooper was actually a very good magician – a member of the Magic Circle. He even developed his own tricks… then developed them further, to make sure they went wrong.
To be a rubbish magician (or pretend to be), he had to be a good magician first.

Similarly, copywriters often write things that aren’t grammatically correct, or – if we’re talking about everyday use of language – look/sound wrong: misspellings, typos, using the wrong tense, using made-up words.
But they’ll only do this when it suits an ad / campaign they’re working on i.e it makes that ad/campaign stronger.
To be a rubbish copywriter, you have to know how to be a good one first.

To use ‘writerly’ in a sentence, you have to know when to drop it in. It’s a genuine adjective, but it sounds awkward – like it’s not a real word.
I’ve often told clients that I cover copywriting, content writing, proofing and editing, ‘and anything else writerly’.
I often hear of designers with ‘writerly leanings’. But you have to know how/when to use that word, so that you don’t you sound like a wittering fool.

You’ll often see colloquialisms within copy or content, such as adding ‘ish’ after a number/amount, to indicate ‘roughly’: ‘we’ve been around for 50-ish years’… ‘we squeeze 20-ish grapes into our juice’.
This is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying ‘we’re not quite sure’, or a way of being playful… but you can only do this if your brand lends itself to that tone: you wouldn’t trust Natwest if they said ‘we have 300-ish branches across the UK’.

The superlative form of adjectives is often used in copy – biggest, tastiest etc.
But sometimes, a brand will go off-piste and just use a made-up adjective: strawberiest, beeriest, springiest.
In the right context, these non-words can work a treat… but you have to know when to use them, and whether they work for the brand in question.

If you’re going to use non-words (or awkward words, colloquialisms, non-existent adjectives etc) in copy, you have to have the skill – the know-how – to pull it off.
The trick is to write in such a way as to make it obvious that the supposed mistake is deliberate: part of the copy, rather than an error (which would then make you / your brand look a bit silly).
This should reveal itself through the general tone of the rest of the copy: if it’s fun and lighthearted, or a bit more ‘human’, then the on-purpose mistake will fit right in.
If the rest of the copy is error-free, then it’ll be clear that the supposed error is actually deliberate – part of the overall tone.

But only certain brands can do this, and only experienced copywriters know when it’s appropriate to use incorrect grammar or non-words.

Non-words: importanty.

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