What the *Bleep* Did You Say? Limits to What You Can Say in Your Copy
When it comes to copywriting and content creation, we look for ways to be unique. We do our best to find creative ways to stand out and be memorable in our writing for clients. But are there boundaries to what you can say in your copy?
Most of the time, the short answer is no, even if the writing is poor in quality or even in poor taste. But there are a few instances and situations where crossing the limits could cost you.
More often than not, there are loose rules when writing copy. Punctuation and grammar issues are often overlooked and given a pass. Even some misspelled words get approval depending on the target audience. Jargon is okay in some circles. Blogs and websites have flexible rules when it comes to cussing and language.
But even with the relaxed attitude of copywriting, there are a few places where you can cross the line.
The first is plagiarism. You can not take someone else's writing and try to pass it off as your own...period. Not only is it unethical, but it can cost you both professionally and legally. If you choose to steal someone else's writing and pass it off as your own, the owner can take legal action against you. If the legal costs aren't enough, there is also the damage to your professional reputation. No one wants to hire someone who is a thief. It shows that not only are you unethical, but you aren't able to produce your own quality work.
Most people think plagiarism is copying and pasting someone's writing word for word. That isn't the case. Sometimes you can plagiarize without even meaning to do it. If you rehash articles and ideas as your own without citing sources, you could be guilty by accident. Google is particularly good at finding copied materials online, even if it's a small part. Once they find that writing on either your site or a client's blog or website, they will lower your rank. You will lose money if potential customers are no longer finding your sites in searches.
To avoid plagiarism, you can use sites such as grammarly for a quick check.
Next up is gender usage; in particular only using one gender throughout your content. If your piece is professional in nature, you might be alienating a huge part of your audience. Imagine writing for the dentistry industry and only using the word "he". Now think of all the women who are dentists you've left out as a result. When writing, you can get around the gender issue by switching it up throughout your content. You could use the word they instead of he/she. Or better yet, try not to reference gender at all if you are writing professional pieces.
Another area to avoid is the use of slang, metaphors, or idioms. Think of the tasteless memes and GIFs you see all over social media. While it might be funny in some situations or to some audiences, there's a good chance a client or customer won't. While certain phrases might be harmless in one region, it might be wholly offensive to someone in another country. For professional purposes, it's best to leave the "colorful" phrases out of your writing. If you're in doubt about words or phrases, you can always use an online site to check. I like the Online Etymology Dictionary.
This should be common sense, but don't be misleading or dishonest in your writing. The best way to get customers to respond to your copy is to be completely honest. No one likes to fall for a scam. And once the word gets out that you aren't delivering what you've promised, your business will dry up. You'll find yourself hurting both your finances and your reputation.
One final thought is on cussing and "shock" writing. There will be times when a client asks you to use language like this in your writing. Depending on your target audience, sometimes this can be effective. But don't assume it's okay unless your client specifically requests you to write in this style. It's always better to err on the side of caution. If it's a professional website or email, chances are it's better to keep it polite.