As a teenager, I was semi-obsessed with the movie Se7en. For the uninitiated, it’s a serial-killer-on-the-loose thriller starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. Unlike plenty of movies I adored as a teenager, Se7en still holds up today. The cinematography and storytelling are hard to beat.
In the film, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are homicide detectives hunting a deranged killer; the hook is each of the seven victims is guilty of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pitt is an ambitious, naïve up-and-comer. Freeman plays the grizzled, wary old-timer.
As a rookie writer, I was Brad Pitt: young, earnest, overconfident (albeit not quite as sexy). Now I’m more like Morgan Freeman. I’m getting gray as a copywriter.
With close to a decade of word working under my belt, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call me a grizzled, wary old-timer. Which means—kind of how Morgan Freeman called out the shortcomings of ambitious young detectives—I’m starting to notice the transgressions that plague inexperienced copywriters.
Let’s call them the seven deadly sins of copywriting.
Envy: Being jealous of another person’s work. If you’re fortunate enough to work in a place full of smart people like I am (or you pay attention to what’s coming out of the world’s most revered agencies), you’re going to see work that intimidates you. Some “Why didn’t I think of that?” work. Or worse, the dreaded “There’s no way I’d ever have thought of that.” work. But just know, at one time or another, everyone feels this way in advertising. There’s lots of outstanding, intimidating work out there. But instead of getting discouraged, use great work as fuel to push your own stuff further.
Lust: Making it too sexy. Our society values style over substance. Just look at the highest grossing films of the last ten years. They’re mostly overwrought, billion-dollar blow-up-everything blockbusters. No matter what your take on the quality of these films, we can probably all agree they’re heavy on style and less concerned with plot arcs and dialogue. While that (arguably) works for movies, it doesn’t work in marketing. In this industry, substance—simple truth articulated well—is what moves the needle.
Gluttony: Using too many words. Find your message and get to the point. Quit using “that” so much. Select adjectives with care. Ditch the exposition. Don’t waste words being vague. Use “very” very rarely. Shorten your headlines. And in the words of the great Samuel Clemens, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”
Greed: Taking on too many projects at once. Good writing must be thoughtful. That’s impossible if your brain is in 15 different places at once. It’s better to do great work on one project than mediocre work on four (some creative directors might disagree with me, but I digress). Henry David Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify.” Take his words to heart.
Pride: Knowing your idea is a winner. As a copywriter, I’m supposed to come up with ideas. Great ideas. We call it “concepting.” And when you’re concepting—especially if you’re struggling—it’s easy to get excited about the first idea that isn’t a steaming pile of trash. But don’t. Sit on it. Run it by other people. Sing about it in the shower. Let it marinate. If you’re almost out of time, keep coming up with more ideas. Sometimes your best stuff manifests six minutes before the presentation. Hopefully not the client presentation.
Sloth: Neglecting to do the research. If you want to write great copy, you have to know your client inside and out. That means getting dirty. Find out what competitors are doing. Read all the collateral for cues about tone and presentation. Check out the annual report from three years ago. Talk with someone at the company in an entry-level position. Visit their facilities. Have lunch there. Ask lots of questions. Great copy will follow.
Wrath: Abusing the m-dash. Writers, especially those just getting into copywriting, tend to beat the m-dash to death. While it’s a useful tool that’s great for conversational tone, use it sparingly. You have plenty of other grammatical weapons at your disposal: colons, semicolons, commas, parentheses, ellipses marks, etc. And sometimes…all you need is a good old-fashioned period.