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Copywriting problem number 1 – people don’t read

By Andrew Boulton

May 18, 2016 | 5 min read

Not unlike fire-fighting, neurosurgery and being in a boy band, the profession of copywriting contains some pretty fleshy existential angst. Which finger should I type with today? Have I chewed this pencil or is this someone else’s saliva? Does this cardigan make me look bookish enough?

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But undoubtedly the most toothsome amongst our gnawing professional anxieties is this one simple question: is anyone even reading this?

Copywriting, done correctly, is the distillation of a block of knowledge and insight hefty enough to club a meteorite into a tidy pile of astral crumbs. It is the accumulation of brand and market immersion so deep, we writers often emerge from the other side of a brief like FBI agents who infiltrated the mob in the 70s and can now never go back to the ‘straight’ life. There are copywriters, I’m quite sure, who devoted themselves so entirely to a particularly compelling advert for yoghurt that they now live in the woods, returning to the world of men at night only to ring Gok Wan’s doorbell and run away.

And yet, despite the effort, the acquired knowledge, the agonisingly wrought empathy with every conceivable viewpoint, we still worry that no one will read it.

And this isn’t a neurosis that emanates solely from our inky bones, this is very much an illness that has been conditioned in our preposterously sensitive minds.

I doubt many of us have ever not been challenged, internally or by clients, over the amount of copy we’re asking our customer to read. This is often a fair complaint, particularly when a writer has brazenly submitted a bloated word count purely because they refuse to slash the windpipe of pretty, but ultimately redundant, sections.

But sometimes we can be asked to reduce copy that is – in terms of pace, structure, content and flow – utterly perfect. It is not merely a copywriter’s obstinacy that says some messages simply cannot be conveyed in fewer words than the amount used. To this we are invariably hectored with the same misgiving – customers don’t want to read.

Very few clients will go so far as to suggest customers will refuse to read a single word. The idea that the modern, mulish inhabitants of the world would rather step in front of a speedboat than let a syllable of advertising creep beneath their eyelids is difficult to sell.

But the limitations some people set on what is a realistic word count are staggering and a little disheartening. No copywriter with scrap paper and pencil shavings in their marrow will ever fail to hit an immovable word count – but we will always know when we’ve delivered in terms of quantity at the expense of clarity.

The only conceivable way to wriggle around this crude and irksome blockade is to challenge its validity. I hesitate to accept the legitimacy of anyone who tells me a customer will only engage in a precise number of words because, quite obviously, that all depends on what those words are.

If copywriting is about impact it must also be about invitation. Some fine copywriting can tell its entire story in the turn of the head or the flip of a page. Some equally fine copy can convey a rich and elaborate message by drawing the reader irresistibly from one thought to the next.

Where you can agree with the pesky word counters is that people will not read bad copy. They will not read a bad headline which will, quite thankfully, spare them from reading a bad paragraph about something that may or may not also be bad because we’ll never know.

But if the copy has wit and charm and fire and surprise, then it will be noticed. And those who notice may read. And those who read may act. And we will bask, not at all humbly, in the demonstrable righteousness of our beliefs. And next time we’ll be asked to cut it down because, silly you, people don’t read.

Except, of course, the ones who do.

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