If you’re gonna slam your copywriting chops into high gear, you have to allow yourself to fall in love with the language.
This concept makes many otherwise strong men and women quiver… and it’s because our lame-ass education system does its best to make people hate the language early on. This antagonism toward English — created by boring homework and pointless drills and dull reading — has saddled most rookie copywriters with a truly sad and shallow vocabulary (list of useable words). Not only are they clueless about what constitutes a “power word” (one filled with emotional tension, like “humiliate”), but the way they construct even a simple sentence will put you to sleep.
But that’s why I say “allow” instead of “force” yourself to fall in love. There’s a very easy and enjoyable way to do this that can fix the damage done by brain-dead teachers.
Here are two ways to begin right now:
1. The current edition of the online magazine “Slate” (www.slate.com) has a great story about Dave Barry. He’s just retired his column, after 22 years. If you’ve never read Dave Barry, you’re in for a treat. More important, you need to read him and pay close attention to how he uses simple, common words and phrases to bring his ideas alive.
The guy is a master Word Slut, clearly in love with language and the amazing power language has to rattle our cages. Read the article titled “Dave Barry — elegy for the humorist” by Bryan Curtis.
2. While researching linguistics (I have strange hobbies), I also came across one of the best sites on current slang I’ve ever found. Go to www.doubletongued.org and just start clicking on the words listed there. Warning: You better allow an hour or so per visit, cuz this is good stuff.
My favorite “new terms” the site has defined (and given fascinating histories for) are rat spill, metric butt-load, eye-wreck, ghetto pass, duckshove, road diet, listicle and BlackBerry prayer.
If you can go to this site and NOT find a new word to use in your next ad, then you’re hopeless.
The best copywriters are all dedicated Word Sluts. We delight in finding and using fresh slang and old forgotten cliches — anything that works to increase the readability of our copy. But you must be careful — you cannot use words that aren’t clearly understood by most readers. This forces you to write at around a fifth grade level (which most newspapers aspire to). You start using too many fifty-cent words (big ones that most people aren’t familiar with) and you will lose large percentages of your audience. This, of course, will murder your response.
But that’s why reading guys like Dave Barry is so important. He never uses a word that isn’t instantly understood by anyone able to read a newspaper. And yet, by having a deep “bag” of words to choose from, he is not limited at all. Simple language, lovingly arranged in the right way, can still be amazingly powerful.
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You have definitely helped bring my passion for the english language to the next level…
You’re certainly one of the master of “killer word combos”… such as “shock and delight”… It’s a lot of fun to find weird interesting ways of putting words together… Such as calling your friends “Good Vibe Merchants.”
Enjoying the blog John,
You never cease to amaze me with what you read. At the DK copywriting bootcamp, you ran through a list of what you read in a day, could you give an update on that.
give a list of the top 20 books you think people should read that are NOT related to copy or marketing.
John, first off I want to say thanks for all the information you’ve handed to rookie copywriters such as myself…it’s such a huge leap in education. My challenge is getting over the obstacle of starting to write and then mumbling all the way through the copy. I attempt to lay out the points I want to cover and talk about…and then inevitably find myself muttering and saying the same crap over and over again. Does clearer, laser focused copy come with diligent practice? And is there any tip for improvement?
By the way if you haven’t seen it yet, go check out urbandictionary.com
As a writer for a blog called the Real Estate Pimp and also from South Florida needless to say your Word Slut article caught my eye.
Dave Barry is just as good of example of Word Slut as is when I called Donald Trump the greatest Real Estate Pimp alive.
yOU KnOW once Dave Barry made the comment about the irony that Ralph Nader wants big business to pay more taxes yet he runs a million dollar business that pays NO taxes.
I like how you bring out the irony that to make good copy you need to talk more like the high school drop out than the college english professor.
Thanks for pointing out those great resources!#
See – English is my second language. I “learned” it in school but couldn’t speak or write or understand it. (In fact, my final English note was an F – totally dismissed).
It wasn’t before I got into Charles Bukowski that I wanted to learn something about that language. I started reading those books, with a dictionary next to it looking up every third word or so, making vocabulary lists that I would carry around with me.
I’m pretty proud of how much I mastered the language in less than ten years (and it was fun along the way, I just read books I loved, translated some lyrics and did a lot of transcribing movies and parroting, just purely because it was INTERESTING to me).
Now I realize – my English isn’t proper, and there’s a lot to clear up.
But I wonder whether those limitations might actually be an advantage at some point – because I won’t be as tempted to use the fancy 10-dollar words.
I laughed my ass off, when I saw you using the word “decrepit”. From then on, I started to collect the words from you, and others that “wow” me for my swipe file
Thank you, John.