The Bastardization of Writing (and How I Learned to Live with It)

The Bastardization of Writing (and How I Learned to Live with It)

The age of novel writing is over. The dawn of a new era has begun — the Age of Copywriting — and it’s marked by one indisputable fact: People don’t have much time to read anymore.

Everywhere you look, distractions abound. Marketers clamor for your attention, and you cram your already-busy day with even more activity.

So what’s the writer who has a message to share with the world to do?

For the longest time I tried to fight the tide, to swim upstream, go against the current. I wrote huge blocks of text and assumed people would read them. I demanded attention, instead of earning it.

And no surprise, people ignored me.

Then I had a revelation.

I realized I was treating people with a different expectations than I had for myself. In other words, I was getting distracted easily — by TV and email and the incessant ringing of my cell phone — but expecting my audience to focus.

So I started learning about copywriting. Not because I wanted to be a business writer, but because I wanted to be heard.

Things started to change. I wrote more clearly and with greater focus, and people started paying attention to what I had to say.

This honestly surprised and depressed me. Because I don’t like business writing. I think it dumbs down a beautiful craft and panders to people’s narcissism.

But what choice did I have?

Not much of one, if I wanted to be read.

In a world where there are too many messages, too many writers, too many people demanding our time, we have all learned to filter out what’s non-essential. We’ve become skimmers and scanners, and there’s no going back.

You can fight this trend, as I did, or you can find ways to live in a healthy tension with this new, lowered attention span. What’s not an option is for you to sit there with your arms crossed and choose to do nothing. Like I did.

If you have a message worth sharing, you need to get it out there. You need to write like you mean it and spend the effort asking permission to be heard.

Maybe you’ll find, as I did, that copywriting isn’t that evil after all.

Here’s what I learned…

Yes, I thought business writing was from the Devil. And to be fair, there is still a lot of crap out there, passing itself off as legitimate copy.

But there is also a redemptive side to this style of writing, and the purists would do well to take note. Here are three lessons I learned:

  1. It’s all about the reader. In the case of copywriting, you’re trying to get the customer’s attention and keep it. Every line is a chance to ask permission to read the next.
  2. Brevity is king. I always got bored reading long novels. So do a lot of people. Business writing taught me that if you keep your writing concise, you can take people wherever you want to go. The point, of course, is not the length, but the style. You can write a 100,000-word novel and keep the reader’s attention, if the copy is clean.
  3. Clarity wins. I thought I needed to be a verbose writer, because words were cheap. I used to carelessly spend them without much thought. Copywriting taught me to make each phrase count, and my prose is better for it.

I still wince when I read most copywriting blogs. There are a lot of hacks out there bastardizing the craft. But I’ve reconciled my distaste with business writing — there’s something here for all of us to learn.

My hope is this: That the writers who have something worthwhile to say (regardless of their industry or field) will find ways to earn an audience and then stand up and say it.

The question is, “Does that mean you?” I hope so.

Post by Jeff Goins

Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook. His eBook, You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One), is an Amazon Best Seller in books about writing and creativity.

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  1. Thanks for the great tips. It’s true, copywriting done correctly helps you to craft concise text that’s clear and understandable for your public. That’s why when I first started, (and I most often had precise word limits) it was really hard.

  2. Hi Jeff

    It’s great that you managed to get this message down into a blog post. I’m subscribed to the email list here, and the content was ideal to read on my phone. Far too many good messages are being lost over the noise and constant shouting of how the internet can lead to overnight wealth for a single $47 e-book.

    You may to have a word with the tech people here as the signature box is missing your picture.


  3. Hi Jeff,

    I liked “We’ve become skimmers and scanners, and there’s no going back.” Our culture has changed, the publishing industry is changing too. Don’t you wonder what is next? Maybe we will only do headlines? or bullet points?

  4. Hi Jeff,
    Nicely (and briefly) said : )

    “I think it dumbs down a beautiful craft and panders to people’s narcissism”

    I’ve actually come to the opposite conclusion. Simon Cowell from American Idol clued me in to the concept of “indulgent”. It’s the perfect word to describe why the lack of authentic voice and affected antics from writers completely leaves me cold.

    Writers casting self-inflated affected drivel into the universe and expecting us to force ourselves to read it are the ones suffering narcissism…

  5. Hey Jeff,

    Great post, but I’m going to (respectfully) argue that you’re not completely right.

    Attention spans are definitely going down. However, I would argue that’s less so with novel readers. I found myself that that although my attention span is shorter than it was (maybe it’s me getting older, or too much work stuff floating in my head?), I still focus relatively well when reading a novel. I suspect that’s true of most who read for enjoyment.

    It’s funny, I’ve been wrestling with these same issues over the last couple of years. I’ve taken a conscious approach to address this issue though while writing my current novel. I’ve even studied the New Journalists (Wolfe, Thompson, Capote, etc.), taking a feature-writing style and adapting it for the novel. Although my novel won’t be necessarily for “skimmers”, it does rely less on subtly and more on turns of phrase, so the reader can be entertained in the *now* at every step. Sure, I’m trying to add those deeper connections, symbolism, etc. for the readers who are looking for it. I’m just making them less necessary to “get” in order to understand the point I’m getting across in the story.

    Will it work? I’m hoping so

    That said, I agree 100% that learning copywriting is going to help hone your style. After years as a copywriter myself, I am approaching this novel in a much different way than I did previous (unfinished) novels. Confidence is certainly part of it, but I think I have learned how to grab — and keep — attention. Really, that’s what it comes down to in any writing, no?


    • I agree that novel readers are a different breed. However I’m seeing that even fiction authors (esp. YA) are implementing the tools of copywriting more and more, whether they realize it or not. One example: The Hunger Games.

      • I got turned into a fiction reading nerd by one of the great copywriting coaches on the planet – Dan Kennedy. He was the person who help me realize all the great attributes that fiction series writing offers – the kind of writing that keeps people excitedly coming back to them year after year after year to get the next installment, the next evolution of their favorite characters.

        Dan was the first person who advocated to me that as a marketer that I wanted to keep customers for life, I needed to help my audience see me as a character they became fascinated with.

        Dan was the guy who got me to see that reading fiction was good. Eben Pagan more recently reinforced this again in his Advanced Learning and Teaching seminar where he talked about how people are getting dumber as evidenced by the lowering of scores on IQ tests.

        He credits television with the dumbing down of society. He recommended everyone read a book titled “4 Arguments For the Elimination of Television” by Jerry Mander. One thing that he pointed out is that when you’re reading right, fiction or non-fiction, you’re making a movie in your mind.

        When I heard this it made Stephen King’s recommendation for how to improve your writing . . . “If you want to become a better writer you’ve got to read a lot and write a lot,” take on a whole new meaning.

        Most non-fiction books or content reads nothing like a fast paced novel like David Baldacci’s 605 page “Total Control” that I took down in no time at all. Non-fiction writers believe that since their writing is teaching that it should read like a text book. PEOPLE HATE TEXTBOOKS. Text books and the public education system can be credited with people HATING the process of learning.

        So I believe that a hybird format is necessary – infusing your writing with copywriting elements that are inviting to eye, the use of energy invoking words rather than boring ones, etc. with the novel writing character development strategies that make a person buy US and not just the content because what we promise to deliver within our content in a lot of different places (especially in a crowded niche) and with the internet getting bigger an badder every second, people are able to find answers to their questions for free. But their buying into us, wanting to stay connected with us, pledging allegiance to us is something that can’t be turned into a commodity.

        Thank you Jeff and Graham for reminding me of this oh-so important lesson!

  6. “I started learning about copywriting. Not because I wanted to be a business writer, but because I wanted to be heard.”

    Me too, James. I want to be heard, particularly by my fellow landscape professionals and garden owners here in Australia. Landscape architects and designers receive little inspiration to pursue high aesthetic standards, and even less to reconcile aesthetics and ecology.

    Your fellow Canadian, former Professor of Landscape Architecture, York University – Michael Hough, deserves re-quoting:
    “The exotic vegetation that replaces the indigenous plant communities in urbanising regions disassociates us from the rhythms and diversity of the native landscape and a sense of the place; and we are the poorer because of it.”

  7. Wow, Jeff, you are on a roll this month!

    I, for one, have always been a huge fan of clean, spare writing, so the current trends suit my reading style well. Funny enough, though, I always struggled with being way too wordy myself. James’s Damn Fine Words class helped IMMENSELY with that (though I still have to ruthlessly edit myself a lot).

    I’m very glad you didn’t decide to protest by crossing your arms and doing nothing, because I think you are a shining example of how copywriting (and writing in general) can be done well, even in our “ADD society.”

    It all reminds me a little bit of music, in a way — there are always going to be those who cry “Sellout!” when a band licenses a song for commercial purposes, but I don’t have a problem with it because I believe the musicians deserve to be paid well and to be heard. And I feel the same about writing.

    Great article — thanks!

  8. “It’s all about the reader (audience)”

    I think this has always been true. It doesn’t matter if you are writing the ‘Great American Novel’, a blog post, a play ad copy or a joke. If you can’t keep the reader’s attention and interest, either by entertaining or educating them in some way, then you probably should work on your writing.

    I say that, knowing I need to work on my writing skills too.

  9. Early Conner says:

    Good day,
    I still love novels like Atlas Shrugged or Dune but I am happy you could adapt to the new world of A.D.D. so we could still get good advice from you. I’ll take progress over pouting any day. Even if pouting may feel more satisfying;)
    Early Bird

  10. I think you make some very valid observations especially with regards to brevity and clarity. Copywriting is certain a different animal than the rambling writing we tend to produce on our blogs. I suppose the constraints of copywriting force us to getting to the point more quickly, this technique can certainly be used by all of us with a little practice.

  11. Could you point to an example of copywriting that makes you cringe? I’m genuinely interested in what you see as the difference between good and bad because I’m not sure I always know, which really bothers me.

  12. I think one way we may be headed is that books, especially print books for pleasure, will be purchased almost like art is now. Rather than everything appealing to the masses, there will be true book lovers who value and cherish traditional story telling. Non-fiction is a tough one to say what will happen as information continues to be free and cheap online. Overall, I think knowing your audience will absolutely be key.

  13. Thought-provoking discussion and important reminder that we’ve always got to be taking stock of where trends are going and deciding how much to resist and how much to get on board. As you said, it can be a healthy tension.

    I’m with Lynn in saying how much James Chartrand’s Damn Fine Writing Course helped me learn to say what was important in the most succinct, clear, and compelling way.

    I still see some marketers promoting the use of long sales letters. Surely that trend is changing too, isn’t it?

  14. I’ve been wondering about the benefits of learning copywriting, not because I want to work as one but as a skill for blogging and fiction writing. You mentioned that you’re learning copywriting – can you share how you are doing this or any recommended courses?

    Some of them seem a bit strident to me (I don’t want to write those direct sales letters that go for pages, they drive me nuts) but I am sure there are great resources out there. If anyone can pass on a few links it would be great, thanks.

  15. I’m a little torn on this. I value brevity (to the point of having a 55-word writing challenge on my website to promote laconic writing), but I also love long, indulgent novels.

    My two favorite novels are “The Girl who Played Go”, a masterpiece of brevity, and “Aztec”, as indulgent as it gets.

    In my business, for the last 17 years, I’ve been trained to reduce the most complex ideas to a 1-page reco. Otherwise no one would read.

    So I get it, but shall we all write in bullet points, as Mary suggested above? We writers are entertainers, after all.

    • For my public speaking debut, aged 6, I jumped up onto a theatre stage unannounced, and recited the following 13-word masterpiece of brevity:

      ‘I had an awl
      I stuck it in the wall
      And that’s all.’

      (This earned me a scolding from my mother, and a round of applause from the audience.)

      • Haha! Brilliant. For my first public performance, also around the age of 6, I jumped out to a circus stage in Tashkent and got so paralyzed with fear that I said nothing.

        I did disappear into the thin air though, as was required by the illusionist.

  16. I actually love to read long novels, with lush prose. However, I learned more from working in the journalism field about writing than any course I ever took. The necessary brevity, clarity and communication of that field is always a great background for creative writing. And you meet a lot of interesting people who can become the basis for characters.


  1. […] Copyblogger, one of the web’s biggest writing blogs, was the first to apply copywriting to blogging. Now, everyone’s doing it. […]

  2. Why? says:

    […] I was hesitant at first (I’m a literary freak, you know!) because copywriting is far different from the techniques of creative writing. Jeff Goins called it The Bastardization of Writing. […]

  3. […] I was hesitant at first (I’m a literary freak, you know!) because copywriting is far different from the techniques of creative writing. Jeff Goins called it The Bastardization of Writing. […]

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