Finding Freelances – How Realistic Are You?

Looking for a freelance copywriter?  Web designer, illustrator or proofreader?  You’re not alone.  Elance – one of many freelance exchanges – had over 30,000 jobs posted last month.

Companies both small and gargantuan realise one of the most effective ways to economise is outsourcing.  Only a few months ago Sir Philip Green’s review of government spending noted this was a shamefully neglected opportunity, losing millions in savings by doing work in-house that would have been completed more cheaply and effectively by freelance specialists.

So you would be well advised in these cash-strapped times to seek out freelance workers, but where exactly does the search for savings turn into a waste of money?

You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Choice

You know how it goes.  You’ll just have the one biscuit… whi-i-ich was very tasty, thank you.  Mmmmm.  Perhaps just one more.  Crikey.  These are good, aren’t they?  Chocolate HobNobs!  Well, they’re made with oats and that’s good for cholesterol, so one more can’t hurt, can it…?

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing and when it comes to hiring freelances savings are rather like chocolate HobNobs.  Take it too far and you’ll regret the dead weight you suddenly find yourself carrying.

The internet is a marvellous thing.  It opens out the freelance market like never before.  You can submit jobs to various freelance sites and before you know it a pile of bids leaves your inbox bulging.  Many of them for far less than you expected.

Mmmmm.  These are good, aren’t they?

But wait, before you bite into those sweet, crumbly savings take some time to consider your choice.

The Age-Old Truth You Should Never Forget

You get what you pay for.  It’s as true for clothes as it is for freelances.  Those jeans for a fiver seem a bargain, but four washes later they’re blotchy, the stitching’s loose and the zip unfastens at particularly unwelcome moments.  This is equally true for a freelance copywriter.  Effective copy needs to be many things:

  • Properly researched and targeted for the intended audience
  • Effectively structured and expressed with tried and tested techniques
  • Flawlessly written
  • Imaginative and engaging
  • Built around calls to action, ensuring it generates the desired response

This requires a sophisticated set of skills, yet many people seeking cost-effective copy imagine the competitive bidding on freelance sites means they will find people with these abilities for knock-down prices.

Just this week on People per Hour I’ve seen jobs posted with bid ranges set by the employer at £5-10 per hour.  The UK national minimum wage is nearly £6 per hour, so what sort of quality do these people honestly expect from such payment?

There’s no shortage of people willing to create work at such rates, many of them from countries where that sort of money is worth far more – and where English is not the first language.  There are UK workers too who are not professional, full-time copywriters but instead doing several jobs – the proverbial Jacks and Jills of all trades who will write some copy in the morning and mow some lawns in the afternoon.

You’ll get some copy, but like those jeans it’s liable to leave you looking shoddy and embarrassingly exposed.

How to Find Freelances Effectively

The problem for many people looking for a freelance copywriter is that they are obviously not specialists in that area themselves.  Consequently, a lot of dud copy is foisted onto businesses without their realising it.  However, if you care about getting it right you can follow some simple principles that will help you avoid being landed with inferior work.

  • Previous work.  Ask to see some samples – though of course you should be wary of material simply copied from elsewhere.
  • Ask for testimonials.  Proof of satisfied customers is reassuring, though be sure the people giving the testimonials are named and verifiable.  One of the more outrageous jobs on People per Hour recently was someone looking for a writer to create a number of testimonials for his new business!
  • Does the freelancer have his or her own website?  If not they’re unlikely to be full-time or serious.
  • Speak to them!  A good freelancer would want to speak to you anyway as part of understanding the requirements of the project.  You should quickly get a feel of how authentic they are.

And, the golden rule

  • Be realistic!  If you’re paying peanuts you’ll get monkeys.  An infinite number of them with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually come up with the complete text of Hamlet, so by extension they’ll also write you the perfect sales letter.  Unfortunately you’ll also need an infinite number of peanuts so the savings will probably be lost.

Do your checks, pay the sort of money you would expect to pay a professional and benefit from quality copy.  If it’s written effectively it will earn your investment back through increased business before you know it.  Then you can celebrate with a chocolate HobNob.

Just one, mind!

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Press Releases – Powerful Publicity!

Like any business with its head screwed on, you want people to know about you.  Publicity is gold-dust and you reckon it’s time for a fresh sprinkling to bring some sparkle back to your sales figures.

This is no time to be throwing money around though – any investment in advertising must be cost-effective, so what do you choose?  Direct mail can be targeted but a response rate of just 2-3% is the norm so is that really the best choice?  There’s traditional print advertising but that can be pricey for unpredictable results.  So how about a press release?

No really, stop laughing, I’m serious.

Okay.  Got your breath back now?  Then let’s think it through.

No News Isn’t Good News

When people read adverts one thing is very clear to them: they’re reading adverts.  The defences go up and they take everything with a pinch of salt.

When people are reading news stories those lines become much more blurred.  In spite of the fact that Britain’s press is riddled with bias, exaggeration and just plain falsehood, people have a surprising propensity to believe what they read.  Cheryl Cole dating tentacled alien from Proxima Centauri?  We-e-ell, she had a rough time with that Ashley so who knows what’s possible on the rebound?  Maybe…

The upshot of this for your business is that a story in a newspaper or magazine can have huge benefits for your public image and because it isn’t packaged as advertising it can generate positive associations for your company.

That’s why all the time you aren’t thinking of ways to generate potential stories you’re leaving a reservoir of positive public recognition untapped.


One of the biggest obstacles for businesses is getting over the psychological barrier of believing stories are newsworthy.  Your factory doesn’t have to explode to get you news coverage and if you simply wait on the chance of Cheryl and Xaanulon turning up in your store before contacting the press you’re missing an opportunity.

For small businesses in particular your local newspaper is a prime target; you just have to start thinking about strategies.  There are some stories which obviously lend themselves to press releases, such as new premises or a change of management, but if you package it in the right way you can create more newsworthy stories than you probably imagined.

  • Keep track of the history of your business – any anniversaries or milestones make effective news.
  • Keep track of your staff.  Human interest stories are always wanted and any success or achievement by an employee can provide opportunities.  Even if it’s not directly related to the company’s activities, you can always hold a newsworthy celebration.
  • Are you conducting training for your staff?  Create a prize, award it to the most successful trainee and you’ve turned company activity into another human interest story.
  • Profits up?  In the current climate more than ever that’s good news.
  • Trade fairs?  If as a local company you’re represented at a big trade fair it can be a source of pride for the local newspaper.

And so it goes on.  You should get into the habit of looking at everything and asking how you could turn it into a newsworthy press release.  Just make sure you remember to get both photos and quotes, which are vital in making a release successful.

With a Little Bit of Luck

There are two realities in the world of press releases that generally balance each other out.

Firstly, newspapers and magazines have space to fill and are always looking for new material.  Mostly they don’t find this material for themselves, it’s sent to them.  Consequently if you format your press release properly and write it skilfully there’s a good chance of it being used.  Especially if the editor is short of material that day!

The flip-side to this is the second reality.  If your release about the sales team’s charity doughnut-eating contest for Comic Relief coincides with Cheryl’s shock wedding to Xaanulon’s brother Kaarg, you stand no chance.

But with a consistent output of press releases, sensibly targeted at the appropriate publications, you’ll get that coverage at some point and it will provide a measurable boost to sales.

Press Release Plus – the Power of the Net

The potential of press releases has expanded considerably in the past decade because of the rise of the internet.  For one thing, if you don’t want to spend time researching publications for submission you can use an online submission service such as Pressbox or Press Dispensary.  These services will distribute your press release in a targeted fashion, saving time and – as a consequence – money.  Be careful, though.  Whilst they also offer services to write your press release you will often find a freelance copywriter will do the same for less money, as well as offering a more personal, less ‘pre-packaged’ service.  The usual approach from distribution services is to write a release based on information you fill out in a form – any decent freelance copywriter would want to talk it through with you in detail.

The other great advantage is that there are many sites which post your press release online, including those above.  This not only provides more visibility but crucially if you include your website details valuable inbound links are created, helping your site to rank higher in search engine results pages.  What’s more, you can add the releases to your own site, keeping it updated with current news and once again pleasing search engines with fresh content.

So, there are plenty of good reasons to use press releases to increase publicity for your business.  I’d outline even more but I need to get on a celebrity gossip website.  I’ve just seen a tweet that Kaarg’s been photographed leaving a clinic after secret tentacle enlargement.  Who’d have thought, eh…?

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Website Copywriting – Professional or DIY?

Website copywriting is very important to your business.  Why?  Well, consider your answers to the following questions:

  1. Do you want people interested in your products or service to find your website?
  2. Do you want them to stay there once they’ve found it rather than click on to  another site?
  3. Do you want them to take action such as purchasing your product/service or contacting you?

If you answered no to any of these questions I’m amazed you found my blog in the first place, given the restrictions of your strait-jacket.  Well done you!  However, you’ll find nothing more of interest here and I’d suggest striking up a conversation with the purple rabbit in the corner.

For everyone else, of course you want these things and professional website copywriting is crucial in making them happen.

We Can All Write

It’s a big day for your business.  The delegation from America is arriving and you have to impress them if you want that contract, so nothing can be left to chance.

Julia from Accounts has all the spreadsheets at the ready; Mike from Logistics has a cracking Powerpoint presentation and Jack from Human Resources is going to cook them a top-class lunch.  His girlfriend says he makes a wicked lasagne so catering for a group of international businessmen should be a breeze…

No, hang on, that really wouldn’t be sensible, would it?  Everyone knows Mike from Logistics wears those wacky ties that just won’t cut it at this level.

…Orrrr, maybe you’d opt for professional catering.  Of course, it sounds a ludicrous proposition to think that someone who rustles up a simple meal on a daily basis should be given such a responsibility, yet so many businesses make exactly the same decision when they ask one of their non-specialist employees to generate copy for their website.

They probably will have spent thousands on professional web designers to create the physical site but then happily try to save money by creating its content themselves.  The usual thinking is that their employees can write; they went to university so of course they can create effective content.

But there’s a difference between writing with reasonable accuracy and writing with professional skill in a business context. If you cut corners you damage sales.  Fill your sparkling new website with sub-standard copy and you squander its potential.  In the same way that buying a Rolls Royce and sticking deckchairs inside for the seating probably isn’t a smart move.

The Importance of Website Copy

Your website’s copy has to achieve the following objectives:

  • Enable visitors to find your site through search engines
  • Hold their interest in those first few seconds before most people click away
  • Keep that interest so they continue deeper into your site
  • Persuade them to take whatever action your business wants

This is far from easy and involves the tricky balance between search engine optimisation (SEO) and customer appeal.  On-site SEO is essentially about making sure the content of your site works powerfully with search engines to ensure your pages come high in search results for anyone looking for your company’s products or services.  If you don’t get this right it doesn’t matter how amazing your site is because no one will find it.

This contrasts with customer appeal because people don’t read your pages in the same way as machines and ultimately your task is to persuade them to take the action you want.

Combining these objectives requires an understanding of how to provide search engine crawlers with what they want and skill in writing persuasively.  That’s entirely in addition to the need for accuracy.  I regularly find errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation on the sites of even massive, household name companies – and it genuinely puts me off.  At an instinctive level the quality of your writing represents the quality of your company to consumers.

To expect non-professionals to achieve all of this is expecting too much of them.  In addition, they have their ‘proper’ jobs to be getting on with.  A full-time, qualified copywriter will be able to achieve better results in less time.

Spend Money to Make Money

The real mistake made by so many businesses is imagining the money spent on professional website copywriting services is somehow ‘wasted’.  The reality is that using in-house non-specialists is actually losing you money because without proper optimisation there are potential customers who will never find your website.  Furthermore, many who do make it there won’t stay or take action because the sales copy isn’t strong enough.

In short, the money spent on your copywriter will be more than offset by the additional sales it generates from your site.  Indeed, you should expect to make many times that investment through the power of professional copywriting.

Sorry, what’s that again?  …Purple rabbit agrees, you say?  Well, he’s a wise rabbit indeed.  Perhaps it just goes to show that good copy will keep people reading through to the end, even chromatically-challenged bunnies.

Mmmm?  Purple rabbit says you can read more at the Nexus Copywriting website?  Well, you wouldn’t want to disappoint him now, would you…?

Website Copywriting Services

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Colons & Semicolons – How to Use Them

Colons and semicolons are troublemakers.  Not content with the clarity of being a single marking they have the nerve to mix and match other, more straightforward punctuation marks.  You can be happily making your way through a sentence when suddenly you’re accosted by some strange hallucinogenic hybrid of a full stop and comma.  I mean what’s all that about?  It should be in a freak show, man!

In fact, colons and semicolons can be very useful indeed and the hallucinogenic experience for me is when I see some of the strange and bizarre ways in which many people use them.  In some situations they are vital so it’s important to get them right, but in general terms they can help your business writing by adding variety of expression and increasing clarity.


The semicolon (;) is mostly thought of simply as creating a heavier pause than a comma but in fact it has two distinct functions:

  • Linking sentences
  • Listing

Linking Sentences

Semicolons can link two sentences that work closely together in terms of meaning.  As a starting point, we can consider two perfectly acceptable sentences:

      20% of customers bought StayDry umbrellas last year.  60% bought ours.

There’s nothing wrong here but the impact is stark and maybe even simplistic, so perhaps we need to consider other options.  Because these two sentences express different aspects of the same idea you could also join them in a complete sentence using a conjunction:

      20% of customers bought StayDry umbrellas last year whilst 60% bought ours.

However, whilst this flows more smoothly maybe the point being made isn’t rendered as powerfully as it could be, so instead we can try a semicolon:

      20% of customers bought StayDry umbrellas last year; 60% bought ours.

The pause here is lighter than the full stop but heavier and a little more dramatic than the conjunction.  A semicolon can retain a better sense of flow whilst adding weight to concepts you want to stress.


Developing on this, you can use semicolons to join two sentences which indicate sharp contrast:

      My brother loves modern art; I hate it.

      Mel’s hair is dark and curly; her son’s is blond and straight.

This type of usage can be effective in surprising your reader.

      People think installing a new boiler is expensive; in fact it saves you money.

Note that in all these examples the semicolon is linking two sentences.  You can’t use a semicolon if either of the two statements is not a sentence in its own right.

I’ll briefly mention that semicolons should also be used before introductory phrases and in many situations with conjunctive adverbs (e.g. however, finally, therefore); however, in all honesty this usage has become rare now and readers may even be thrown by it.  Consequently, here are a few examples, but I wouldn’t worry about this one.

Various reforms have been suggested for working practices; however there has been no agreement on the issue. 

They searched everywhere for his car keys; eventually they gave up.

There’s plenty you need to remember to take on holiday; for example, passports, sun lotion and a camera.


Usually when writing a list you would separate its items with commas.  When the listed items are themselves made up of more than one or two words, however, semicolons are needed.

The sports complex has excellent facilities: a swimming pool with a flume; a well-equipped multi-gym; a supervised play area for the under-fives and an indoor five-a-side pitch.


Colons (:) can do a lot more than leave young boys sniggering at the back of the classroom during punctuation lessons.

They generally act as a signal that additional information is to follow and have three main uses:

  • Introducing lists
  • Introducing quotations
  • To explain, expand and summarise


As seen in the corresponding section for semicolons, a colon signals to the reader that something is to follow and so introduces lists.

There were three things about his speech I didn’t like: the beginning, the middle and the end!

Note that the section leading up to the colon must be a sentence!  This is probably the most common error made with colons.  This example is wrong:

Campers need: a tent, a sleeping bag and a camping stove.

‘Campers need’ is not a complete sentence.  To eliminate this mistake we can either remove the colon altogether – it isn’t actually needed – or we can insert ‘the following’ in order to make the opening section a fully-functioning sentence.

Campers need the following: a tent, a sleeping bag and a camping stove.

In effect, the colon is working to provide the meaning ‘for example’, so if that or an equivalent expression is used then there should be no colon to introduce a list.  In this case a semicolon would be used, exactly as shown at the end of the semicolon section above.

She enjoyed many activities in her spare time; for instance, tennis, photography and swimming.


The function of signalling that something is to follow also allows colons to introduce quotations, although if the quotation is short and flows with the rest of your sentence a comma is sufficient.

Our garden seat was praised by the Suffolk Garden Furniture Association: “The Relaxalounger is comfy, durable and a stylish addition to any garden.”

What to Buy magazine awarded the Relaxalounger 9/10, declaring it to be, “great value for money” in their August issue.

To Explain, Expand and Summarise

A colon can be used to divide one part of a sentence from another when the second explains, expands or summarises the first.

My life’s been turned around: I’ve got a job and a future.

I’m certain of one thing: I’ll be going with you.

The sales figures were very disappointing: 30% down.

A handy test to see if you’ve used the colon correctly is to see if you can substitute it with ‘namely’ or ‘that is to say’.  If so, this proves the statements depend upon each other; if not then a colon is inappropriate.  Once again, note that the first part leading up to the colon must be able to stand as a sentence in its own right.

Be aware that a colon is never followed by a dash.

Fashion vs Flexibility

When it comes to lists and quotations, it’s crucial to understand colons.  However, it would be true to say that in recent times there has been a decline in usage of both these punctuation marks in other functions.  It’s easy enough to avoid them with alternative sentence structures or even by breaking rules that very few people will notice anyway.

However, the most successful writing is able to use any tool in order to increase its effectiveness.  This may be through conveying information in a more powerful way or perhaps by mixing means of expression so as to create a lively variety that keeps the reader engaged.

It’s certainly my belief that even though they should be used only sparingly, colons and semicolons can add both zest and sophistication to your business communication.

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Specialist Copywriter – Niche or Not?

So, you sell costumes for pets.  Great idea – whose heart wouldn’t be warmed by the sight of a Pekinese Che Guevara?

And now you want to create a direct sales letter to be sent to local pet owners.  It’s a reliable way of generating new customers and you need to get it right, so it’s time to find a copywriter.  After all, the small investment in quality copy leads to far greater returns in new business.

The question naturally arises of which copywriter to choose.  There are plenty of considerations here and a common thought in many people’s minds is the importance of finding someone with experience of their particular area of business.  Not that animal costumery is going to be easy to find as a copywriting speciality, but perhaps you suspect someone with experience of writing for pet food manufacturers or animal charities might be a better bet.  They’ll have an understanding of the target market, after all, which is a boon, right?

Well, probably not.  In fact, copywriters on the whole are very flexible and adapt quickly to any business sector.  That’s actually one of the joys of the job – constantly having interesting new areas to write for.  More importantly for you, that’s also why a general copywriter is going to be best for your writing project.

A Matter of Perspective

A golden rule of copywriting is always to look through the eyes of the intended reader.  If the copy is written for the client it will fail; if it’s written for the target market it will succeed.  That’s why a non-specialist copywriter brings great benefits, because he or she isn’t part of your world.  Without familiarity and specialist knowledge the copywriter is in the same position as the consumer and consequently will ask the sort of questions that a specialist would take for granted, focusing on the aspects of the product or service that really matter to the people buying it.

This is true of business-to-business copy too.  If a company wants to buy a photocopier they’re not remotely interested in the fact the PDL is PostScript3 Emulation and UFR II, they want to know if it copies quickly and reliably, whether it’s economical to run and what sort of technical support they can expect.

In most situations you actually want someone who has to ask the right questions.  The skill of the copywriter to present your product in a way that sells is the key.  The speciality you want is in communication, language and generating action.  That’s what a good copywriter brings.

Familiarity vs Novelty

Chocolate’s great.  Snap off a chunk and let it sit in your mouth as you enjoy the wonderful flavour sliding out over your tongue.  Just like Charlie Bucket as he savours his rare taste of Willy Wonka’s marvellous bars.  As a treat he appreciates it, in stark contrast to the bloated Augustus Gloop, who eats the stuff morning, noon and night and actually ceases to have any meaningful pleasure from it.

This is why it’s so important to have someone fresh to produce your copy.  If your copywriter specialises in a certain area then are they really going to produce something novel and imaginative?  How likely is it that they will come up with a wholly original take that will grab the attention of your target market?  Is it actually more likely they’ll come up with something rather similar to the copy they produced for another company the previous month?

General copywriters take pleasure and interest in working with you to understand your business, your product and your target market.  It’s this process and collaboration that ultimately generates highly original, skilfully focused copy that produces the action you want.


Realistically, of course, there are some circumstances where you will want a specialist copywriter, and you’d be right to do so.  If you need articles for professional journals or technical white papers drawn up then you would need someone with expertise in that area, be it legal, financial or technical.  99 times out of 100, though, you don’t need to worry about finding a copywriter who specialises in your area of business.  A skilled general copywriter will be able to meet any business writing need and just like a bar of Willy Wonka’s finest, will leave a pleasantly sweet aftertaste in the results their copy generates.

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You’re a Copywriter? Isn’t it Cheating to Copy…?

Well now that’s a highly original invention.  A laser-guided back-scratcher with attached targeting mirror is exactly what the world needs – it’s so difficult to hit the right spot otherwise.   …Oh yes, I’m sure it’s taken an awful lot of effort on your part.  …Sure, the skin grafts on your back are just the price of creativity.  Judging beam strength must have been very tricky.

But you see the thing is, I’m not the person you should be consulting.  …No, you’re thinking of copyright, although what you actually need is a patent.  I have nothing to do with copyright.  …No, the spelling’s different, W-R-I-T-E, not R-I-G-H-T.  …Yes, it’s very confusing, isn’t it.  They really should have thought about those names.  Still, just before you go – I’ve got this niggling itch…

The Arcane Mysteries of Copywriting

Other professions have it easy.  If you’re an accountant everyone knows what you do.  Introduce yourself as a banker at a dinner party and you may well find the trifle being upended over your head but at least people understand what your job involves. 

Not so the copywriter.  The announcement of my profession leads to blank stares and slightly nervy twitches as people struggle with the social etiquette of having no idea what they’ve just been told.  The consensus response is generally, “Oh, right.  So it’s great weather we’ve been having…”

If people do venture a wild stab in the dark then the assumption is the one I opened with: I deal with copyright, the legal ownership of literary, artistic or musical works.  Which is understandable, especially if the word is spoken.

Other confusions are trickier to comprehend.  I received an e-mail the other day from a woman wanting pictures transferred onto several A4 copies.  At first it seemed a little alarming that she had absorbed the ‘copy’ part of my title yet completely failed to register that ‘writer’ had nothing to do with the service she wanted.  However, it became more disturbing when after a little digging it transpired that my entry in the Thompson Local directory had been placed under ‘Copying and Duplicating Services’ – unbeknownst to me.

So we have a professional business directory that has no idea what a copywriter does.  I rang Thompson Local to sort the matter out and had to explain what I actually did.  Then of course we had to track down a suitable category.  This has applied with many business directories, which frequently lack a suitable category for copywriting, even though there are many professional copywriters out there.  Eventually we settled on ‘Advertising Services’ since there wasn’t a ‘Business Services’ category.  As pointed out in another entry, I’m an advertiser, but this is hardly a truly representative label, especially for someone who might be searching for the services I offer.

Enough Already – Tell Me What You Do!

Okay, thanks for asking – there seems to be a lull in the conversation anyway while that banker gets the trifle out of his hair…

In short, a copywriter creates words for business.  All companies need to communicate with customers in order to thrive and a professional copywriter ensures they do so in the most effective way.

Words are incredibly powerful.  The right ones will impress and persuade; the wrong ones will frustrate and deter.  It doesn’t matter how remarkable or indispensible your product or service is, people need to know about it and still need convincing before they buy.  Flashy pictures and lists of features only attract attention, they don’t sell.

A skilful copywriter will analyse both the business and target market before using proven techniques together with creativity to write text (or ‘copy’) that’s crafted to achieve the client’s objectives.

This could be sales letters, website content, e-mail campaigns, newsletters, advertisements, articles, press releases – indeed, any number of things.  In addition, copywriters can edit and proofread to ensure your business copy is properly expressed and grammatically accurate.

But Hey – I Can, Like, Write

Well indeed.  This is the mistake made by so many businesses, especially in the current tough economic climate.  I joke a little in my sub-heading but most people in business can write with relative accuracy and feel it’s a waste of money to hire someone to do it for them.  Indeed, many are unaware such a service even exists, hence the OED definition of ‘copywriter’:

Copywriter – n. One whose profession is a mystery to all.  In popular belief related to copying and printing services (apocryphal).*

*Definition possibly not exactly as in the OED.

In reality, though, every area of a company’s operations should be rigorously professional.  Cut corners and you lose business.  You may well be able to link your home PC to a wi-fi network but you probably wouldn’t want to overhaul your company’s IT infrastructure; you’d find a specialist.  Words, just like any other aspect of your business, need professionals if they are to be at their best.

The essential point about copywriting is that it’s not an expense at all.  What’s spent on the professional services of a copywriter is more than repaid by the extra business generated from properly focused copy.  With a copywriter you’re not simply running a duster over your lexical shelves for appearance’s sake; you’re spending money to make money.

So, I hope that’s clarified things.  Thanks for listeni… Sorry?  You want what? 

But I… that’s not what I…

*Sigh* Would you like that in colour or black and white?

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Abbreviations – Mr. or Mr?

The rules about abbreviations are very simple.

Or very complicated, depending on how closely you want to look at it!

The great myth about English is that its usage is all bound up in watertight rules that 95% of people neither know nor care about.  In reality, it’s watertight as a sieve and 99.9% of people carry on believing the myth.

The rules of language are constantly evolving and one area in which there’s still a great muddle is abbreviations, where different people follow different conventions. 

“So,” I hear you declare, “why worry?  I can do what the heck I like!”  [I’ve edited your words – this is a family blog]

Well, not really.  For one, there are still rules and if there’s one thing that remains constant it’s that where there are different options you should choose one and stick with it.  Whatever choices you make, if you are inconsistent your writing will appear sloppy.  For another thing, whilst some options may not be ‘wrong’ in the absolute sense, they nevertheless run against modern convention and your business communications need to look in-touch.

Abbreviation vs Contraction

Well, already the worms are wriggling from the can.  These distinctions have all sorts of overlap and grey areas.

In common understanding, an abbreviation is any shortening of a word or phrase – anything from can’t to NATO.  Grammatically, though, there are distinctions.  A contraction is where letters have been missed out – often to make words or groups of words easier to pronounce – e.g. I’m, didn’t.  (The rules for punctuating these are covered in my entry on apostrophes)

An abbreviation is where a shortened form of a word is used to represent the whole:

St (Saint), Prof. (Professor), abbrev. (abbreviation).

However, some definitions say that examples such as St are contractions, because letters have been removed from the middle of the word.

Others say not because contractions are based on making the word easy to pronounce, whereas abbreviations are used in written terms to represent a larger word.   When spoken, you actually say the longer version of an abbreviated word (usually!) whilst contractions alter pronunciation.

Plus, an example such as NATO is in a group all of its own called acronyms, which are words created from the initials of a group of words (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).  These are pronounced as words in their own right if the letters allow, as with NATO, or as letters if not, as in BBC.  Of course, we also have examples such as ETA, which is pronounced as initials when meaning “estimated time of arrival” or as a word when meaning “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna” – the Basque separatist terrorist organisation.

So you know what?  I’m going to scoop up the worms and wrap several rolls of sticky tape around the can.  We’re not going to worry too much about the nuances of definition on this one.  Let’s just focus on the best way to punctuate it.

Full Stop Needed?

The important issue with abbreviations is whether to use a full stop in order to signal abbreviation.  In British English this has always been defined by a clear rule: if the last letter of the word remains, no full stop is needed.


Mr (Mister)  vs (versus)  Dr (Doctor)  Sgt (Sergeant)  Ltd (Limited)

Prof. (Professor)  approx. (approximately)  Maj. (Major)

Whilst essentially straightforward, some abbreviations may bring confusion.  For instance, if writing about Reverend Brown, there are actually two possible abbreviations – Revd or Rev. – and since one ends with the final letter whilst the other doesn’t they require different treatment.

Note that in American English a full stop (or period) is required in both cases.

Over the past decade, however, there has been a trend to lose the full stops entirely.  Take ‘Prof’ for instance.  The BBC News website consistently writes it without the full stop.  In newspapers there is some variation, although the consensus appears to be for omission once again.  Mind you, even in the most high-minded newspapers you can find a certain confusion.  In one online piece, the Telegraph not only retains the full stop for ‘Prof.’ but sticks one in erroneously for ‘Dr’ as well:

The Telegraph

So it would seem the tide is turning against the full stop for these types of abbreviation and you should choose whether your business image should look traditionally accurate or moving with the times.  In making that decision you should consider whether your target market includes a substantial proportion of older, well-educated people who may well not warm to such innovation!

Whilst still not incorrect, it has gradually become old-fashioned to use full stops after the initials of people’s names, such as OJ Simpson.  The same applies to titles, such as MP (Member of Parliament).

We use a number of Latin abbreviations in English which again traditionally have used full stops:





In these cases the tide is slower in turning.  Many writers no longer use the full stops in ‘am/pm’ but e.g. is still resisting in many quarters:

BBC Skillswise

The awkward and possibly confusing appearance of ‘ie’ perhaps explains why that is hanging on to its full stops quite doggedly.

One important note about punctuation to keep in mind is that if you use an abbreviation that takes a full stop at the end of a sentence you should not use a second full stop.


Acronyms never take full stops now and indeed some writers take those which can be pronounced as words and use lower case letters.  Take a story from today’s BBC News site, for instance:

BBC News

Here we see ‘Nato’ with only an initial capital in keeping with the grammatical rule for a proper noun.  This is part of the natural evolution of language: the word has been around long enough for it to take on an identity of its own rather than acting as shorthand for the longer title.  This has already taken its full course with words that are no longer thought of as acronyms but which started out that way, such as ‘laser’ (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and radar (Radio Detection and Ranging).

This same principle of evolution is why even before the full stops started disappearing we didn’t use them in ‘bra’ or ‘gym’ (brassiere and gymnasium).

Language changes and it may be that it’s been given an accelerated boost by 21st century technology.  If we write using full stops for abbreviations on the computer then spell-checking programs will underline our ‘mistake’ and suggest correcting it.  Perhaps it just makes life easier to leave the thing out altogether!

But the perils and pitfalls of grammar programs are a subject for another blog post…

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Advertisers – Spawn of the Devil?

Advertisers have been lucky over the past couple of years.  The global economy has gone the way of cheese in a fondue and MPs have been picking voters’ pockets.  Consequently, the national hate list has been dominated by bankers and politicians whilst those ghastly folk who interrupt the football to sell you car insurance have faded into the background.

It won’t last, of course.  No one actually likes advertising because we instinctively feel we’re being told what to do, and that grates.  Even if we actually search it out we see it as a necessary evil – the goblin-filled forest that must be traversed to reach the princess in the tower.

I’ve even felt that way myself, but I have to come clean – copywriting is not simply the much-nicer-by-far third cousin twice removed of advertising.

My name is David and I’m… I’m…  Oh Lord… I’m an advertiser!

But hang on – should I really head off with some rope to a tree with a usefully low-hanging bough? Sure, there are plenty of times when we don’t appreciate advertising, but there’s a wide range out there, so the question for this blog post is: do I have a soul?  …Or, if I take my tongue out of my cheek, is there integrity in advertising and where would I draw a line?

You might be surprised by the area of advertising I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole…

The Slippery Slope

When dealing with essentials, advertisers often focus on price.  You already know you’re going to buy it, but you can be persuaded to go where it’s cheapest.  That was a rare mistake by Tesco a while ago when they ran a campaign showing how much cheaper their goods were than Sainsbury’s.  Asda were then inspired to take exactly the same tack to show their prices were lower than everyone’s – including Tesco.  Tesco’s ads were rapidly dropped whilst Asda’s have continued ever since.

Ultimately, these ads are conveying useful, money-saving information.  That seems morally fine. (Though if you’re a farmer I would understand why you’d think there are many other areas of the big supermarkets’ operations that are far from fine!)

Alternatively you need persuading that a particular brand is better than the alternatives.  In this area car advertising is particularly interesting.  Since all cars in a particular price range tend to have exactly the same features they are sold on more intangible qualities, such as ‘fun’.  Of course, when I buy my shiny new car I shouldn’t expect it to be able to launch from rooftops to execute barrel-rolls.  Neither should I be surprised if it can’t pull off the latest break-dancing moves.

These ads portray the ludicrous as a way of conveying the concept of fun and excitement, but could I demand my money back if the car didn’t seem much fun when I drove it?  Of course not – it’s just selling a vague concept.  And in all likelihood I won’t even be aware this is why I’m leaning towards that particular brand of car in the first place.

Masters of this are Apple.  Reviews consistently point out that competing products are superior in terms of functionality and yet the brand has made itself so iconic that a substantial section of the population want nothing else and will happily sell their grandmother in order to acquire one.

Hmmm.  Perhaps we’re reaching the point of three Hail Marys but we’re not Hell-bound yet.

Do You Really Need That?

A great deal of advertising, though, is to convince you to buy something you wouldn’t otherwise have bought.  You enjoy your coffee, but wouldn’t it be even nicer if steaming plumes of caffeinated bliss emerged from a proper coffee machine?  Your garden looks great, but wouldn’t you enjoy it even more from the plush, velvety padding of a premium luxury relaxer seat?  You love your wife, but wouldn’t that love be even greater if you bought her a sparkling eternal diamond solitaire?  Because anything less than a diamond means you’re a cheapskate…

Well now of course we’re starting to look shifty.  People are quite happy without these products but the lifestyle gurus of the advertising world do their best to convince them they’re not – that their lives aren’t entirely complete until the breadmaker-shaped hole that wasn’t there five minutes ago is filled.

Even so, I can cope with this.  After all, these products are designed to make life better, albeit in an infinitesimally small way.  And no one’s forcing you to buy them.

Ahhhh… now that’s where we start to reach the line.

You Really Don’t Need That!

What if you’ve already bought your coffee-making, diamond-studded, bread-producing all-swinging-and-dancing garden relaxer?  Well now the company has a problem.  So they try to sell you a slightly better one.

Prime territory for this approach is the mobile phone.  Once technology was cheap enough the market was quickly saturated with phones – which created a quandary for the manufacturers.  Part of the response has been to add ever more technology to the phones, latterly turning them into media centres, but a significant thrust in advertising was to make the phone a fashion item.

Ads would show sad old phones being hidden away by their owners in shame before a new, fashionable purchase suddenly brought social acceptability and a whole new life of fun and friends.  People now started buying new phones that did pretty much the same as their old one, but this was the latest model.

Now again, I don’t have a problem with this – adults are perfectly capable of deciding what to spend their money on.

But, this becomes more problematic with kids.  Fitting in and fashionability are crucial to a child and this is a highly vulnerable market.  So we come to an area now where I start to feel uncomfortable.  It’s still a grey area, but leads into the final stage where I would say, “Not for me.”

A Bridge Too Far

Thankfully tobacco advertising has already been swept away, so I would never be faced with a decision about working on promoting it (which would be a very easy decision).  Alcohol is another difficult area.  I enjoy it myself but remain alert to the social problems it generates.  Frankly the majority of the population enjoys alcohol responsibly, so I would be happy working with any campaign that was not essentially promoting the message, “Have a great time and probably a lot of success with the opposite sex with alcohol.”  Of course, such restrictions are already in place, but there are still ads where subtle implications along these lines exist.

However, ads aimed at children simply aren’t something I would want to engage with.  Persuading a child that they want a particular cereal that probably isn’t the best thing for them to be eating, or a toy that they certainly don’t need isn’t for me.

But there’s one area of advertising that genuinely offends and enrages me.  I would never give a moment’s consideration to involving myself in this area of the industry.

Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid

Fear sells.  You only have to read any tabloid to see their awareness that hitting readers’ panic buttons persuades them to buy the paper.  And just look where that leads – at least one child died from measles because she hadn’t been immunised against it after the MMR vaccine scare whipped up by the tabloids.  The scientific consensus was that the vaccine was safe, but you wouldn’t have thought that from the coverage.

What works for papers works for advertisers and the ads I abhor are those which try to scare parents into buying products to ‘protect’ their children.  Notably disinfectants.

The worst out of these was for Dettol Surface Cleaner (no YouTube video I could find).  A mother is preparing a chicken dish for dinner and has been chopping carrots on the same board as the chicken.  She then passes a slice of carrot to her child in a high chair, but as he moves it towards his mouth it morphs into a raw chicken leg.

STOP!  No!  Raw chicken!  That poor child!  How can we protect him?

Dettol Surface Cleaner to the rescue!  And another innocent life is saved.

As I said, this ludicrous scaremongering is only the worst example.  Have a think whenever you see an ad for disinfectants and see just how many feature young children.

Manipulating parents’ fears for their children is one thing, but what annoys me even more is that a number of scientific studies now make it clear that over-clean environments are actually damaging to children.  We sterilise our homes to such a degree that kids aren’t given the exposure to germs necessary in early life to stimulate and develop their immune systems.  This means they will be far more susceptible to truly nasty infections later in life and indeed this may even be responsible for the increase in allergies amongst our children.

Far from promoting healthy children, these ads play on the natural fears of parents and potentially risk their future health.

And so we have the latest in the line.  It follows the principles we’ve seen above – you already have soap, but there’s a machine that can make your soap even better!

Yes, the Dettol No-Touch Handwash System is here.  Note the kids in the ad, of course, looking happy and healthy in a germ-free home.  And yet here’s the glorious illogic: a normal pump has germs on the handle, we’re told, but what exactly are you going to do after touching it?  Oh yes – wash your hands.  And with Dettol the soap is supposed to kill 99.9% of all germs, so why on earth should you be concerned about touching a germy pump button anyway?  Your hands are already dirty – that’s why you’re washing them.  In all likelihood, there will be more germs on your hand than on the handle; that’s how it became germy in the first place!  So touching the handle of a normal soap dispenser is going to make no difference whatsoever.

Now of course a grimy soap pump doesn’t actually look very attractive and I would entirely understand households wanting a no-touch dispenser in order to improve the look of their kitchen or bathroom.  Yet that isn’t the basis on which the product is being sold.  Instead, nonsensical reasoning is deployed to worry parents and the fear button is pushed once again.  An understandable reason for buying this product is ditched in favour of a spurious one, because fear sells more than cosmetic appeal.

So, there’s my surprising no-go area for advertising: manipulative fear-driven ads that exploit parents’ concerns by over-cooking the hazards of day-to-day life.  As far as the fear button goes, I’m all for a no-touch system.

I’m off to wash my hands now – they feel a bit dirty after that…

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