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A common copywriting casualty – tight copy

When I’m wearing my copywriting course tutor’s hat, I’m frequently heard banging on about ‘tight copy’ to my students.  If you haven’t come across the term, it means eliminating all those useless ‘ifs’, ‘ands’, and ‘buts’, and never using ten words when one will do.

A couple of years ago I was doing some research before going off to deliver a day’s copywriting training.  I came across a brilliant method of writing tight copy on the Owl at Purdue website, which I thought would help my students.  There are a lot of writers out there who are incapable of calling a spade a spade … or is it a long handled implement used by gardeners to dig holes in the ground?

The ‘Paramedic System’ was devised by Richard Lanham, a professor of English at UCLA, as a way of revising prose.  Not surprisingly, it is also the name of his book on the subject.  I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of it here, but if you want to know how it works, visit the Owl for more information!

What really appealed, apart from the obvious benefits of much improved copy, was the thought of pages of copywriting being rushed to A&E in an emergency vehicle, complete with blue lights and sirens.  Imagine … all those word nurses and sentence doctors flying out to meet the ambulance … with the crash team on stand-by to breathe life back into reams of dull, dreary copy, previously destined for the scrap heap!

Fun and fantasies apart though, the ability to write tight copy is an essential part of a copywriter’s work.  It’s a good measure of their skill.

A visitor in the WORD-right garden

One of my particular hobby-horses is the word ‘THAT’.  According to William Strunk and EB White’s book: The Elements of Style, the word ‘THAT’ is one of the most useless in the English Language.  In speech, ‘THAT’ is used for emphasis, but when writing it can usually be taken out without affecting the meaning of the sentence.  For example … ‘he said that writing tight copy was easy.’  Take out the ‘THAT’ and … ‘he said writing tight copy was easy’.  The end result is smooth and much easier to read.

So if you’re looking for a copywriter, check out some of their work first.  Even if you don’t subject some of their sentences to a bit of resuscitation, Paramedic style, count how many times they’ve used THAT dreaded word in their copy.  If it’s used repeatedly, look for another writer.  You might have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the one for you!

Blog post by Joy McCarthy