Doctors do it. Trendy marketing agencies do it. Lawyers are the worst culprits of all. And it annoys us to the point of exasperation.
– You’re told the patient has had a cerebrovascular accident but you’re not sure whether they’ve broken their arm or had a stroke.
– Your creative consultant wants to ‘articulate your message across several marketing touch points’ but you just want to shoot them.
– You’re given an important legal document to sign but need a translator to make any sense of it.
They, and many other professions like them, use their own special language. And because you don’t understand it, you don’t want to read or hear it. Because it just makes you feel stupid.
Now for these people it rarely seems to matter. After all, their living doesn’t depend on it. But if you’re a copywriter, blogger or online retailer it does.
People are free to choose whether they read your content or not. And if they can make neither head nor tail of it then they’ll click away from your web page, product sales page or blog post in an instant.
So ask yourself this:
Is my website converting traffic into sales?
Because if the answer’s NO then maybe you’ve got exactly the same problem.
The Three Deadly Sins
Basically your content isn’t working because you’re NOT thinking about your target audience. And you can put this down to three fundamentally dangerous habits or deadly sins:
- You confuse readers with excessive JARGON – specialist words and expressions that only people in the know can understand.
- You use PAROCHIALISMS – things that mean something to you but nothing the reader.
- You assume readers already know particular ACRONYMS and INITIALISMS – abbreviations formed from the initial letters of other words.
But you can set yourself free of sin just by recognising when you’re doing it and knowing how to deal with it.
→ Go easy on the jargon
In my previous post, I said short and simple was nearly always best. But I also explained that longer words are often more specific and could capture what you’re trying to say far better than a shorter, more general one.
Well, much the same applies to jargon.
Sometimes you’re talking to a very clear and specific audience. Sometimes you need to target specialist terminology in search. Sometimes no other word will do.
But excessive jargon is often too much for even the most technically minded people.
And it can also be bad for your SEO.
A web page awash with jargon is a bit like targeting too many different keywords at the same time. This makes it difficult for search engines to work out what your content is specifically about.
Also the more technical the product or subject matter the harder it is to avoid it.
But don’t let that be a problem: Instead, take the opportunity to help visitors make sense of any unfamiliar language. For example, you can:
- Add hover-over text to specialist terms.
- Use a call-out box to clarify any jargon you’ve used.
- Link to a blog post, landing page or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section that provides additional useful information.
- Link to an external resource, such as Wikipedia, that gives a fuller explanation.
But remember: You want readers to stick around for as long as possible. So hover-over text and call-out boxes generally work best.
→ Beware of parochialisms
Perhaps the best way to grasp parochialisms is to see them in action. So here are a few fictitious examples:
The problem here is that the author knows what they mean by their local area, but the reader hasn’t a clue. Unless the writer’s previously stated where it is then it could be just about anywhere in the world.
But who on earth is Professor S.P. Hutchins? He or she means something to the author but absolutely nothing to the reader. Unless the writer has introduced them earlier in the copy then no-one will really care.
Parochialisms in tweets, shares and blog post headlines are particularly common. Take this example:
Why does this person assume everybody knows them?
Even if I do know them, I’m still not going to share it – because not everyone in my own network does.
And as for ‘about website copywriting’. That’s far too vague and general. If you want to capture people’s interest, you really need to be a little more specific than that.
→ Spell out acronyms and initialisms
Acronyms and initialisms are pretty much the same thing. The difference is that with acronyms you pronounce the abbreviation as if it were a word:
- NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
- OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
- SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus)
But with initialisms you pronounce each letter on its own:
- B2B (Business to Business)
- SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)
- ROI (Return on Investment)
These days acronyms and initialisms seem to be almost everywhere. But don’t automatically assume readers know what they stand for.
So, whenever you use a new specialist term in your copy, don’t forget to spell it out in full and immediately follow it with the abbreviated form in brackets:
But use your common sense. For example, if you write a blog about search engine optimisation then you really don’t need to say what SEO stands for in every single post.
What’s more, where you do need to spell out terminology you only have to do it the first time you mention it.
And remember that sometimes it’s not nearly enough just to spell out the term in full. You may need to go one step further and also explain what your terminology actually means.
This will, of course, interrupt the flow of your copy. But then again you can always use the same ideas we suggested for jargon – namely hover-over text, a call-out box or a link to explanatory content elsewhere.
Now becoming a successful copywriter or blogger is far from easy. And, in many ways, this is just what this blog seeks to explain.
But if you pay attention and learn to kick these dangerously destructive copywriting habits, you will be well on your way to becoming a better writer.
Have Your Say
What bad writing habits annoy you to the point of exasperation? Tell us in our comment section below.
In our next post: Find out how to craft bullet points like a superstar copywriter.
About the Author
Kevin Carlton is an IT copywriter and blogger based in Stafford in the UK. He is owner of freelance copywriting service Write Online, which helps technology companies get the most out of their online presence.
Oh my gosh Kevin, I can so relate to this. I am so glad you brought this up.
I guess if you’re a doctor and want to sound smart then you’ll throw those words around but like you shared here, if we’re your patient then we don’t have a darn clue what the heck you’re trying to tell us. We don’t want to be talked down to, we want to understand.
I’ll read some content online and my immediate thought is what the heck were they thinking. Obviously I’m not their target audience because I seriously don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. I don’t consider myself a stupid person but I sure do feel that way a lot of times with some of this stuff I read online. My goodness.
I think one of the other things that irks me is the abbreviations. I don’t know what all of them mean so at least when you start your post say what it means then the abbreviation and from that point on use the abbreviated version. Don’t always assume I know what it is because I don’t. not yet anyway.
Great share and boy does this one need to be spread around. Okay, off I go then.
You’ve really got to the root of why so many people use such fancy terms and phrases – because they want to sound smart.
But genuinely smart people try to make things as simple as possible.
When I hear people spurting out acronyms and technical jargon, alarm bells usually start to ring. More often than not, I wonder whether they actually understand what they’re talking about themselves.
Many thanks for your helpful input Adrienne.
Steve King, said in his, On Writing book, good writers know what empathy is. They know how to put their self in the readers place.
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You know I was just thinking about this today LOL…We all have done this thinking that we’re sharing great information, but yet it doesn’t click with our audience.
I can remember back in high school, my junior year to be exact, I took chemistry. The teacher in my class knew her stuff. She knew about the periodic table like the back of her hand, and knew what chemicals goes with what. But to us, the students, we didn’t have a clue to what she was talking about LOL… She just didn’t relate the material to us that well!
Well the same goes with blogging. You definitely want to really help the audience out with terms that aren’t that common. Especially those jargons that only an elite of bloggers know quite well. I usually write out the acronyms, but the other two points I may need to work on ;)
Thanks for bringing this to our attention!
Thanks for the real-life example Sherman
I imagine most people have had a nightmare teacher like that at some time in their youth. So I’m sure everyone will be able to relate to this.
You also say you still need to work a couple of my points above.
Well, I’m no model of perfection either and still slip up on these sometimes myself.
But the more you become aware whenever you’re using jargon, acronyms and stuff then the likelier you are to cut them out.
Oh this is so true, you’ve hit the nail right on the head Kevin! I’m a former lawyer turned newbie copywriter and I have had to work really really hard to de-formalise my language, making it more approachable for a wide variety of potential readers. I still think I’m probably a bit more formal than most but it’s getting there slowly but surely. It’s a great point that speaking (or writing) in more ‘everyday’ tones and using more simple language doesn’t automatically mean you’re dumbing down your message (or that you’ll sound stupid). It’s about accessability and relatability – two things we should all focus on.
Shauna, I can definitely relate to that.
I’m originally from an engineering and IT background. As you can imagine, they’re not exactly the best places to pick up good writing habits either.
Thanks Kevin, I have a background in Mechanical and Architectural engineering, writing specs for engineering work. I’ve had the pleasure of writing one paragraph sentences. I didn’t pay attention to rules or the audience. They either understood the specs or they didn’t, for those that didn’t, was not a concern.
I take it from your other comment about Stephen King that you’re now a reformed writer.
And you now put the needs of the reader first.
I won’t say I’m reformed yet. Reforming is more like it, though as I’m proofing, I try to make sure each sentence fits the blank page test. Where by, you should be able to remove any sentence from any paragraph and place it onto a blank sheet of paper, it should make sense to anybody…. almost. The blank page test is a good thumb rule for me. It keeps the audience perspective on my mind, so I write for them, not me.
Thanks again for this blog Kevin
Your three deadly sins and their remedies are worth their weight in gold!
Maybe I should’ve called this post The 3 deadly writing sins every copywriter should avoid.
But I decided to refer to them as habits because they’re not that particularly easy for writers to snap out of.
You’re so dead-on with these, Kevin!
I’m currently arguing with a recently “improved” (read: complexified and dumbed-down at the same time) program, and can’t get Customer “Support” to explain what they’re talking about. To “look up” every-other-word?? – they’ve clearly forgotten that not every user is a “pro-user”!
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Karen, I remember as a child when a teacher once tried to make me read a more ‘grown-up’ book.
I had to ‘look up’ every other word. It was very disheartening and made me feel stupid.
These days, though, whenever I have an experience such as yours I now see things differently:
It’s the person that wrote the stuff who’s the stupid one and NOT myself!
That reminds me of a story from 5th grade. I was told (substitute teacher) to look for the spelling of a particular word I couldn’t spell. After a long and embarrassing search for the word, I had to admit, with tears streaming, I couldn’t find it, because I couldn’t spell it.
She’s just lucky I didn’t grow up to be a terrorist… ha I’m just kidding about that last part… my humor ;-)
This post is spot-on, Kevin. I’ve written for lawyers (have three in the family) and IT professionals (one of whom I call “Dad”). These days, I primarily write for online and tech companies. Two of the worst crimes I come across is the overuse of “solutions” and “leverage.”
As in, “You can leverage our solutions to boost your visibility and marketshare across your lines of…”
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As it happens, I really like both the words solutions and leverage. Or should I say I used to like.
I originally come from a science and engineering background. So both those words convey a really strong mental picture for me.
But now every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to use them – because they think scientific-sounding words make them look clever.
I actually once used the word solutions in my business name. But I dropped it a 2–3 years ago because I felt it was making me look like a jerk.
That’s funny Erica, they also go so
far as to name their companies Leveraged Solutions …. “going forward”, as opposed to going backwards I guess. OK Sorry, I almost went off on a tangent there.
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Simple is always better. I like the “mumbo jumbo” sign, and I like the way you gave some examples of professions that do it, but then explained why they can get away with it. People have to read those legal documents, and try to understand their doctor. But with our writing people can choose whether to read it or not, and to hire you or not. I also liked the explinations of initialisms and acronyms, and that you can spell them out once and then let people refer back if they need to. This is the way I usually see it done.
I’m glad you posted this at Carol Tice’s link party since I missed when you first posted it. That’s how I got here.
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A lot of the time and effort I put into my copywriting goes into keeping it simple – not just the choice of words but also the way in which I structure the content.
I’m sure you know exactly what I mean Peter. But unfortunately not everyone else will.
If only they did – because then more people would actually read their content.
Lawyers are by far the worst, LoL — so are acronyms and initialisms.
I like what you’ve done here, Kevin: everyone blogs about “knowing your audience” and “using simple speech”, but this is one of the rare blog posts that actually break the concept down.
I definitely agree with you there Helene – lawyers are by far the worst.
And in fairness to doctors, it tends to be more the nurses who bamboozle you with health jargon.
I suspect it’s because they want patients to think they’re as clever as doctors.
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Sometimes, I assume that my readers already know what I’m talking about because they are my “target” readers; the readers who are on the same wavelength as me.
Too right Lem! By understanding your target audience you instinctively know just how much jargon you should or shouldn’t be using.
Hi Kevin, I’ve always try to write the way I talk. I feel ya it can get confusing for the reader if they don’t even know what they are saying.
I like your doctor reference, thanks for sharing.
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Larry, maybe I should’ve mentioned a fourth deadly sin – not writing the way you talk.
Certainly where blogging is concerned very formal official-style writing is a big turn off. And it doesn’t help with most other forms of writing either.
These are some really great points that I agree with 100%. I do like to use acronyms here and there, so I try to add a glossary at the beginning or end. I’ll def. work on keeping things simple.
Amiti, I also like to use acronyms here and there – because they help cut down on the bulk and often help you to speak the target reader’s language.
But the reason I wrote this post was to encourage people to use their common sense.
Many thanks for mentioning your glossary method. It’s another handy variation of the suggestions I made above.
Hi Kevin; I think I have a pretty good handle on these three issues. In my primary market of selling amusement equipment I write about subjects that are unfamiliar to many of my readers. So, I go out of my way to make sure they can follow my line of thinking. For me the things that annoy me are more on the technical side. I am a totally blind computer user who accesses websites and blogs with a screen reader. And I absolutely hate pop-ups, slide boxes, hover cards, and screens that auto-refresh. I understand the web is a visual intensive world, but there should be a balance between what is best to sell products and services and what can be used by all people who visit the web. Of course, as Adrienne told me last weekend there are a lot of people who don’t realize the blind are on the web much less that we are running online businesses managing blogs and podcasts and being leaders in our fields. Thanks for sharing, Max
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I remember a few years back when there was a lot of talk about optimising websites for visually impaired people.
This all seems to have gone fairly quiet at the moment.
So thanks for reminding us all of this.
I guess it’s an issue no different from jargon, parochialisms and alike, i.e. another barrier to some of your readers.