What makes brilliant copy?

The other day I was having a bit of a moan on Twitter about some website copy I was translating which was so full of jargon and puff, I was having real trouble to see through all the verbiage and get the meaning of what I was trying to translate.

The tweet provoked quite a reaction from other translators, copywriters and editors, empathising and agreeing how much harder it is to translate poorly written text, or pointing out the importance of lean and clear copy.

I then felt I had to redress the balance, as only the day before I had been translating a brochure for a different company, which was so well written, it was an absolute breeze to translate. And a real pleasure too. Translating it felt like writing poetry.

Again, this sparked a number of replies from other translators who wholeheartedly agreed with me. But the most interesting response was from a friend who asked me: “What makes brilliant copy?”

To which my spontaneous reply was: “It flows well. It reads almost like poetry. It sings to you.”

And I think that basically sums it up. Good, well-written copy is not just clear and lean and concise, it also has rhythm. The right balance between longer and shorter sentences. An inherent beauty that you only notice on a subtle, subconscious level.

Brilliant copy has a sensual quality that you can almost feel in your body. Which is also why, when I translate copy like that, I always read the final draft out loud. It not only alerts me to any stumbly bits that don’t quite flow just right and still need some more work, it can also feel like a reward in itself for the work I put in.

Translating really good marketing copy is one of my favourite jobs.

It’s not marketing copy, it’s marketing poetry.

4 Responses to What makes brilliant copy?

  1. Cicero certainly knew this – his favourite sentence ending was dum di di – di dum di, a variant on the iambic pentameter which much good speech lapses into.
    “We shall fight them on the beaches” – dum dum, dum di di di dum di
    I also find it’s a good idea to leave text for a bit, even overnight, and come back to it. The ‘reading out loud’ tip is a good one too.

    • Betti

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew. (My first blog comment – yay!)

      Indeed, if at all possible, I usually leave my final draft overnight and read through it first thing in the morning, with a fresh mind, before sending it off to the client.

      If it’s a longer text and I have more time for it I work through it one draft a day, which I then read through and amend the next morning. I usually do 3 to 4 drafts for all my translations.

  2. I so agree with your comment on the need for “The right balance between longer and shorter sentences”. Texts that stick too religiously to the “22-25 words per sentence” formula can be really hard to absorb. A longer sentence – maybe even with a relative clause! – now and again gives a much better flow. As long as it’s not the 100-words-and-counting variety…

    • Betti

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, that’s the trouble with formulas: they’re useful as a rule of thumb, but you then also need the confidence to decide for yourself when to ignore the rules. Otherwise you end up with formulaic and mechanical-sounding text.

      Great blog, by the way!

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