Monday, January 31, 2011

Punch up the copy, '11

Instructors have all been guilty of giving students "thoughtful" feedback that later turns out to have confused things more than if we'd have kept that feedback to ourselves.

At least part of this has to do with the very nature of "marking" and "giving feedback." Generally, you give more and better feedback when you start to mark than by the time you're finished, which is why I mark no more than five papers of any one assignment in one sitting; I'm all too aware of the temptation to say, "These all look great to me," give everyone an A+, and resume watching "my stories." How I love my stories!

This, in fact, is what "the lazy instructor" does, knowing that he or she will get few complaints from students after granting a high mark, but spending virtually no time actually "marking" their assignments. Ironically, it's the instructor who often takes the most amount of time to mark and give "real" feedback, who later needs to account for something he or she has said.

Advertising feedback

As an advertising instructor, I'm conscious of walking a very fine line between saying too much and saying too little when I give feedback. On one hand, it's really easy to pick apart an ad and offer ways to make it better. On the other, you can really crush someone's creativity by giving advice, or any mark, good or bad.

Further complicating the issue is that, in advertising, there are a million slangy ways to say, "Write better." Some of my favorites include: "Punch up the copy," "Not on strategy," and "Needs a rethink." There are a million more!

So today, a very hard-working and good-natured student asked me by e-mail, "What does "punch up the copy" mean, anyway?" and I had to think about it for a few minutes, before writing her back this essay, which she didn't ask for, but got anyway. If there's any justice, she'll return it to me with a grade!

Upon reflection, "punch up the copy" can mean a lot of things. And whether it has meaning to the person getting the feedback probably depends on a lot more than anything that I might have to say about it.

That said, here's what I wrote:

What does "punch up the copy" mean?

Just like the director who tells his or her actors to "act better," "punch up the copy" means "write better."

The instruction can be broad and sweeping at times, and more specific at others, depending on the assignment.

In the general sense, it could mean, "Oh, boy. We need to start from scratch here." In the specific sense, it might refer to something like having a great idea for an ad, but writing it so that some of the lines don't ring true, sound contrived, or aren't "on strategy."

So, even if the big idea is great, maybe there's room to "punch it up" so that the execution is more true to that idea.

When I use it to give feedback on assignments, it almost always means one - or more - of the following things. These, by the way, are really common things that pop up regularly in assignments in first-year CreComm:

1. "Make it active, not passive."

For instance: "Breakfast will be served" is passive, because it doesn't assign responsibility. "I will serve breakfast" is active, because it does. Active sentences are more interesting to read than passive. Passive sentences aren't grammatically incorrect, just boring and not as accurate.

2. "Get rid of typos." 

3. "Don't be boring. And don't write copy that wouldn't work on you yourself."

Write something that you yourself would find interesting to read. If it sounds like dull ad copy that repeats things you see in every ad ("We strive to be the best department store in the tri-state area...blah blah blah"), then it won't work in yours.

Also see: "win-win scenario," "refreshments will be served," and "ample parking." Sigh. (note: I add to that, "From shoes to insoles...our store has it all!!")

4. "Aim for an economy of words"

If you can say it in three words, don't use 25 words to do it. In copy, it just means "make sure every word counts" and "cut out the fat."

5. "Make sure every piece of what you write is on strategy."

All parts of your ad (or whatever it is you're writing) should point in the same direction, or be "on strategy."

6. "Be consistent"

Use CP Style, so that your writing is always consistent, which is what makes you a professional writer over someone who, though he or she "speaks English," doesn't write professionally because he or she isn't familiar with "the rules" - like you.

7. "Have a distinct tone or point of view."

Your copy should always sound like you wrote it, not a machine. Inject "your humanity" into your writing, so that you have your own "style," and people relate to your words, just like they would to you as a person.

To see some great examples of this, visit the Washington Post website, and see how Tom Shales writes TV reviews. Or how Roger Ebert writes movie reviews at the Chicago Sun-Times. Or how Maureen Dowd writes columns at the New York Times. Or how Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Stephen King, or insert your favorite writer here, write books.

8. "Know your audience, and write in its language."

9. "Spell check, edit, proofread, edit, proofread, edit, proofread, spell check. Repeat."

- Reprinted from a blog post I first posted two years ago.


  1. um...can I have my assignment back? which one? um...all of them?

  2. But also, don't over-estimate the virtues of physically beating your pages to a pulp.

    That's right, I said "pulp". Two groans for the price of one.


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