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Clear vs Clever Copywriting is a Big, Fat, Bloated Myth (And a Scapegoat for Subpar Writers)

In: Marketing, Writing,

I’m a very dirty writer.

Not Fifty Shades of Grey dirty, but dirty in the way that I put sentences, thoughts, ideas together.

My process is wild. Sexy. Free. Undomesticated.

And while I wish the reason were because I’m just such a clay-faced, crochet-bra-top-wearing, sun-worshipping bohemian soul (I am laughably not), rather, it’s because I know something you don’t know about the written word:

It’s only as brilliant as its process.

If your process is tame, commonplace, average, pedestrian…then the output of your efforts will reflect that.

If your process is uninteresting, dreary, unimaginative and lazy, then your writing will reflect that, too.

Because words were developed to describe the human condition, the words that we choose to put on the page undoubtedly reflect who we are as humans.

There is no such thing as an objective word.

Every single word carries its own private nuance, spin, shadow of suggestion. Every single word walks around cloaked in a veil. Nothing is on its face. Everything means something. Even the plainest of language is communicating a sneaky little message. There’s no escaping it.

So it should follow that when you sit down to write the copy for your business, the words for a promotion, the name for a company, or something equally as important for your career, it becomes difficult to get people excited about what you do, if what you say isn’t exciting.

By exciting, I don’t mean exclamation points or bold claims. I mean purposefully selected to convey the exact emotion that the reader wants (and needs) to feel.

This is not an easy task. It requires a writer to be able to pull a Men in Black alien move and hop directly into the mind of the reader–the reader who everyone forgets is the real protagonist in every story. Even yours.

But getting into the minds of other people is not a tame, tidy effort. It cannot be, or you are not doing your job. It takes the writer who is willing to throw all preconceived notions to the wind; who is willing to finger paint with ideas. Brilliant writing is never clean writing. There’s nothing clean about it. It’s messy. It’s savage. It’s dirty. Which is why I always say that the writing process is truly an editing process–and it is. Because the real genius of editing is not in adding a comma, or correcting a run on sentence–it’s about running each word through a specific filter, and making sure that when it comes out on the other side? It conveys exactly what you want it to. That’s writing.

Which, by the way, is why I take issue with the whole age-old dichotomy between “clear” versus “clever” copywriting, as if there were only two types.

If you have any idea what you’re doing as a copywriter, you’re well-aware that every single word you put onto a page makes its own very distinct statement. Therefore, if something you’ve written isn’t considered clear, then you aren’t selecting your words very wisely, are you?

Clear is a given. Clever is a bonus.

Just because your writing is clever does not mean it will fail. Brilliant writing can be clever, as long as it is also clear. As it should be. Real clever writing is, by nature, clear to the person buying it. That’s what makes it clever. And if you’re selling something? That’s the only person who matters.

Clever writing is sharp. It is bright. It is skillful. Precisely why the clear brigade hates it. Approaching clear/clever from an either/or perspective is for subpar writers who aren’t talented enough to merge science and art. Clever does not have to be unclear, and clear does not have to be unclever. When you’re doing it right.

Conversions happen because someone on the other side of the screen said, ‘YES’–not because they were under the spell of a green ‘BUY NOW’ button, as if this were the first fucking time they’ve seen one.

What it takes to get the YES is going to be different for every company, however, I can tell you this: At some point, every one of your competitors will have a beautiful, modern website. At some point, every one of your competitors will have a fully optimized BUY NOW button. At some point, every single one of your competitors will have their features neatly translated into benefits, and their headlines neatly tested against one another for conversions.

And then what? What happens when there aren’t any more easy legs up? What happens when the customer can no longer choose based on arbitrary aesthetics and basic benefits-focused copy? What happens when everyone is the same?

You’re going to have to give them a better reason to choose you.

And time over time again, that reason is going to be because of who you are. Your personality. Your company’s character. The subjective parts of the equation.

Like I said to a consulting client yesterday on the phone: Anyone can sell treadmill parts. There’s nothing genius in that, nor particularly difficult. The difference has nothing to do with what you sell. The difference is in how you sell it, and furthermore, how you make the people feel who buy it. And when that comes down to your words on the screen, versus the next guy’s words on the screen, then what you say really IS more important than what you sell. Because guess what? A “clearly” stated benefit that’s the exact same as everybody else’s “clearly” stated benefit isn’t going to do jack. At some point, it all becomes moot. There are only so many benefits, and other companies have those, too.

What they don’t have is YOU.

Your brand is your own best kept secret.

Precisely why your words need to brilliantly reflect you & your brand’s personality–and everything it stands for. If your company is really as innovative as you say it is, then your words need to mirror that same level of innovation. If you’re really as unconventional as you say you are, then you words cannot fall flat. If you’re really starting some kind of revolution, then your words cannot be yesterday’s.

Every word is a miniature representation of who you are. And trust me–no two words are the same. It’s why every single one of ’em has their own definition in the dictionary, and why synonyms are a myth, too.

And to that point, it’s the same reason why you’re still reading this.

Anyone can give writing advice. But the person who gets chosen? Is the one who chooses his words.

Because when he does it right, the person reading them will have already whispered,


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53 thoughts on "Clear vs Clever Copywriting is a Big, Fat, Bloated Myth (And a Scapegoat for Subpar Writers)"

  1. Becky says:

    Thank you. I totally needed this. I felt a “Hell YES!” when reading it. Will re-read before writing copy. You’re the best.

  2. Savage.

    I fucking LOVE that word. I want to take it behind the junior high and get it pregnant!

    What you say about the process of writing being a process of editing sings to my heart. It seems to me that for as long as I can remember I’ve been a big proponent of whole Jay Abraham, “Communicate with impact, or don’t communicate at all” saying – way of being.

    And because of this, I’ve had people convey to me directly and indirectly that my writing is intimidating.

    Not intimidating in a bully kind of way, but intimidating in a “How the hell do I match that?” kind of way.

    I’d never thought of it in this light until not long ago I was sexting back and forth with a woman and it was clearly evident to her that she was now playing in the major leagues. Later when I talked to her on the phone she said she was intimidated because she didn’t feel like she could come back with something beyond basic.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that do I this in blog comments as more than once I’ve turned a comment I’ve made on someone’s site into a blog post on my site. I’ve done it with a comment I’ve made here before. Often times the response from the blog owner is that of, “Holy shit! That comment is blog post by itself! Thank you for adding to the conversation here.”

    Other commenters might think I’m playing dirty because I get recognized for writing beyond, “Great Post! I really like these ideas!” but I don’t care because I don’t know how to write the neutered style that the majority write with. Just like I don’t know how to write shitty text messages in broken child-like gibberish.

    Maybe my style could be called dirty because I don’t play by the rules a.k.a. the norm, in commenting, in texting, my note taking, my sales writing, or in my 5,000-10,000 word blog posts.

    I go savage on a blank screen/field and I know it doesn’t work for everyone, especially those locked into rules (unspoken or spoken), but it works for me. The reason I fell in love with your writing Ash back in 2012 is because I guess I recognized a kindred spirit. A spirit I admired as being a beast unleashed.

    So for years now I’ve come here looking that nastiness that speaks to my soul and have yet to be denied. Thank you Ash. For as long as you keep bringing it, I’ll continue to keep coming to get high off it.

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