“Bite the wax tadpole,” said the copywriter.

wax tadpoleWriting clear copy is hard.

One reason is that everyone speaks a different language. Something that seems clear to you may not be clear to someone else. Let me give you a few extreme examples:

Okay, those are indeed extreme examples. And you can write them off as just poor translation. But the same thing happens on a smaller scale even when you’re writing copy for people who speak your own language.

The reason translating copy into other languages doesn’t work well sometimes is that words are based on the ideas people have in their heads. Some words don’t translate beause some meanings don’t exist in other cultures. For example, there are tribes that have no word for “steal” because theft doesn’t exist in their culture.

But you don’t have to be translating into another language to run into this problem. That’s because there are cultural differences within your own culture.

I once saw an ad featuring a young couple just starting out and they were driving an expensive Volvo and living in what appeared to be a large suburban home. The copywriter probably thought that made sense becasue this is what “starting out” meant to him and his New York friends. But it didn’t “translate” to normal people in middle America.

I once wrote a headline that used the phrase “sell copy.” It made perfect sense to me and meant “the kind of copy that sells.” It’s even the title of a book. But several people who reviewed the ad took it to mean “the act of selling copy” or something referring to photocopy products.

Misunderstandings often happen when you use buzzwords. “On the runway,” “spin up,” or “paradigm shift,” may make perfect sense to you, but will your reader understand your meaning? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how “long tail” could be taken to mean some sort of cat, or “rich media” could refer to TV tycoons.

This failure to translate will kill any copy you write. The cure? Understand the problem and write as if your life depended on your meaning being crystal clear to your reader.

Always ask yourself, “What do I mean? What will my reader understand it to mean? Is there any way this could be misunderstood? What other way could I say this so there is no chance for misinterpretation?”

Communication is a joint venture between you and your reader. But ultimately, meaning is your job as a copywriter. If you tell people to bite the wax tadpole, don’t be surprised if they have no idea what you’re talking about. Because they don’t.

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2 Responses to ““Bite the wax tadpole,” said the copywriter.”

  1. Fiona Fell - The Profit Maximising Web Geek on November 25th, 2008 6:53 pm

    I think I really need to read over some of my older articles, web site posts and copy. – Just to make sure.

    Thanks for the timely reminder that words are very much localised.

    Fiona Fell – The Profit Maximising Web Geek

  2. Feedback Secrets on November 27th, 2008 6:23 pm

    In regards to your list of translation nightmares above is the story of marketing the Chevy Nova in Spanish. Difficult to market a truck named the “No Go”.

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