In the first page of his work "The Design of Everyday Things," Don Norman says that good design "is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable."
What Norman says is true, and it extends to copywriting. When you're reading good copy, you're not noticing the copy, you're noticing what it says. When you're reading bad copy, the meaning is obscured by the number of mistakes. Let's take a look at a few examples. First up is a profoundly bad headline.
"Phoenix police disabled placard patrol tickets drivers misbehaving." Ok. Let's set aside, for a moment, the cringing insensitivity of 'disabled.' What is this headline even saying?
The headline writer could have written "Phoenix police are ticketing drivers who misbehave by using placards for those with disabilities." Only 6 more words, and we're all better off.
It's important to arrange headlines carefully. This one was undercut by verbs that could be nouns and nouns that could be verbs.
It's also important to watch those dangling modifiers:
The author is saying here that he sees millennials making 4 money mistakes, from his perspective as a finance coach. Unfortunately, due to the dangling modifier, it could also mean that he sees millennials collectively making 4 money mistakes in their role as a finance coach. Confusing.
The mistakes I've noted above are are both grammatical. I believe it's an even worse mistake for a copywriter to be tone-deaf than for a copywriter to be ungrammatical. Accurate tone and voice are essential to the message of a copywriter. Look at this magazine headline I noticed the other day while I was grocery shopping.
Nothing wrong with the grammar here. It's in title case and in fragments because that's allowable in a tabloid headline. The problem is that Anne Frank's story does not belong in a tabloid.
You could just as easily write "Jennifer Aniston. Who Betrayed Her? Finally, the Truth Revealed."
It's tin-eared to write a headline like this regarding a historically significant child author who died in a concentration camp. The gossipy tone is completely off.
These types of copywriting mistakes are to our advantage if we take conscious notice of them, which is pretty easy since they are so glaring.
The more we notice copywriting mistakes while we're reading, the better we're able to monitor our own mistakes.
What's harder is noticing good copy. Make a goal of noticing two pieces of excellent copy a week. Since it's so smooth, it'll be more difficult than you think.