Tips for Writing Copy

 

Let’s start with a few general guiding points to writing copy. After all, writing copy is not like writing a paper or a short story. Writing copy requires brevity and simplicity. Here are some general guidelines:

  • No big words. You can express yourself well using simple words.
  • Choose conversational words, unless you’re writing a list of rules (and law is involved). For example, refer to “cars” instead of “vehicles” or “automobiles.”
  • Learn to parse. Can you edit a paragraph down to a sentence or two? Can you edit your verbal phrases (like “recur again” or “conduct an investigation”) down to a single verb (like “recur” or “investigate”)?
  • Write the way you speak, but stay balanced. Approach copy as if you’re having a conversation, but don’t compromise clarity.
  • Consider your audience. Are you working on a piece for student recruitment? Or, is your audience UCF Alumni? How will your approach differ? This tip is something to always consider, whatever you are writing.

 

Complex terms and ideas in your area of expertise might make perfect sense to you, but might confuse your reader. If they aren’t already in your field, you’ll lose their attention. So, think of ways to simplify your ideas.

Instead of: Discourse communities are often aided by the use of jargon.

Try: Some people find jargon useful.

Here are a few things to consider when you’re composing or editing copy for a large audience:

  • Can I explain this to someone I know, who isn’t in this field? My family or friends? Suggestion: try reading the copy out loud to yourself or someone who isn’t familiar with the concepts expressed in the copy.
  • Are any of the concepts or phrases unessential to the message? If so, remove.
  • Did the author use any unexplained acronyms or otherwise complicated terms? If so, are they explained in short, clear examples?
  • Did the author use concrete examples to explain complex ideas essential to the message?

 

As an editor, your job is to improve the text and maintain the author’s voice. As a proofreader, you have to catch often hard-to-find mistakes. While these are different skills, some tips help with either.

  • Read the copy out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.
  • Is the headline catchy? Does the introduction inspire you to continue reading?
  • Did the author argue their point or points compellingly, offering concrete examples? Facts?
  • Did the author use authoritative sources—and cite them in some way?
  • Look for transition issues: Does one sentence (or each paragraph) lead to the next smoothly? Transitional terms—like moreover, instead, or in short— are excellent for creating smooth transitions between ideas, sentences and paragraphs in a text.
  • Are the sentences and paragraphs of varying lengths and structures? If not, it can make copy sound repetitive.
  • Overall, is the writing style appropriate for the target audience?
  • Will the conclusion make readers feel the copy was worth their time?
  • Is there a call to action of some kind—a place to go for more information or to respond?

 

Subject-verb agreement:

Remember that the subject and the verb must agree—it’s easy to be fooled when you place words between a subject and a verb.

Wrong: The class for seniors are offered in the morning.

Right: The class for seniors is offered in the morning.

Pronouns:

Remember to make pronouns agree with the last noun. Overusing “they” is the most common mistake.

Wrong: The faculty members want their students to be serious about assigned course work and they treat them accordingly.

Right: The faculty members want their students to be serious about assigned course work and treat students accordingly.

Some nouns are singular and plural:

“Faculty” and “staff” can be used as collective nouns, making them singular or plural.

For example: The faculty returns to campus next week. (singular) The faculty return to campus next week. (plural)

Note: One way to get around this is to refer to faculty and staff as “faculty members” and “staff members.”

Avoid:

Overusing “etc.”

Repeating words, unless purposefully using it or emphasis (usually in spoken form or in ad copy). Using a thesaurus will help.

Sentences beginning with “there was” and “there are.” Instead of there were many students who applied to the university write many students applied to the university.

Passive voice. Make sure to assign action and use strong, active verbs.

Passive: The student was bitten by a mosquito.
Stronger: A mosquito bit the student.

Cliches—unless using them creatively (undermining them, punning or otherwise playing with words, etc).

Using “their” to refer to organizations or units. Always refer to a unit as an “it.”

Wrong: The university opened their new arena last fall.
Right: The university opened its new arena last fall.

Note: The royal “we” is often allowed at UCF.

For example: At UCF, we give students a quality education.

Writing too abstractly. Instead, use words that provoke concrete images. Abstract terms like “success” mean something different to everyone.

Instead of saying: An M.B.A. from UCF will start you on your path to success.
Try: An M.B.A. from UCF will make you a more marketable job candidate.