When I first started out in copywriting I used to think that if I wrote in simple language then I was dumbing down my writing. I felt that if I simplified it I’d be insulting the audience and assuming they weren’t particularly bright. However, the words “my writing,” is a little narcissistic to say the least, as copywriting is about writing for other people and not myself.
“If it's slovenly written, then it's hard to read. It doesn't give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.” Maya Angelou
As I’d come from a professional and academic background, my writing veered from professional to creative or academic essay writing. When you write copy for businesses, your tone of voice must accommodate the audience you’re trying to reach, and it can’t be poetic wording worthy of Wordsworth either, nor full of jargon and technical references no one will understands. When you write academically, you’re writing for a specialist audience, an audience who will understand the terminology any technical references. Professional writing was probably the most useful to me in that I was used to creating white papers, and this type of writing is fine if your creating a report for a specific audience. Creative writing is fine if that's what you've been asked to do, but creative writing isn't copywriting.
“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” Ernest Hemingway
As I’ve quickly found out, writing for others means I had to adjust my writing so it fitted the brief. And the copy you have on a website, blog or brochure is usually a quick skim read at best. It’s not the same as reading a newspaper or novel, the reader isn’t going to be giving it the same kind of attention. Here, the brief is to get a quick understanding of what’s on offer, establishing whether they want to continue reading or whether they’ve had enough after the first few lines.
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Mark Twain
So, writing simply should also include punchy headlines and clever eye catching sentences, ones which aren’t too complex or too long. If you don’t catch their attention in the first few seconds, you’ve lost them. So, the emphasis here is on the clever wording and crafting of sentences to attract attention, rather than crafting sentences to convey an idea or complicated hypothesis. The sentences are both clever and simple, without the descriptive elements of a creative writing piece.
Sentences must still have a rhythm, a certain beauty, and reading them should have a certain flow and ease, making whatever you’ve read pleasurable yet easy to understand. That takes a certain skill and one worth the effort, you only get what you put into it.
“Writing headlines is a specialty - there are outstanding writers who will tell you they couldn't write a headline to save their lives.” Bill Walsh
Writing in a simpler way, as I’ve come to understand it, doesn’t mean the audience I’m writing for is stupid, I’m not making a judgement on their intelligence nor on my own. I used to feel like this but not anymore – that was my ego talking. Persuasive writing is built on clever sentence structure and making it easy to act on. A simple cohesive piece followed by a strong call to action, this is what your clients are going to appreciate, and their target audience especially are going to want.
“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” E. L. Doctorow
Clarity and simplicity doesn’t have to mean dumbing down - unless you can’t distinguish the difference yourself. It’s like the written version of shouting at someone you think is stupid just because they don’t speak the same language, you’re the one who looks like an idiot. Respect the audience as well as write for them and you won’t go far wrong.