The joy of copywriting: taking on government garble

I recently took a contract putting stilted government language into plain speech.  I’m rewriting hundreds of web pages covering all kinds of public service – from pest control to parking and schools to recycling.

Public sector copywriting might not sound glamorous, but it’s fun to attack a mountain of jargon and break it down into something clear, friendly, and informative for a wider readership.

I meet a lot of students who want to make a living as a writer. Although there’s a few working on screenplays, many teens imagine themselves growing up to be novelists – solitary, self-reliant figures hunched over a desk, creating a masterpiece which will earn them Rowling megabucks.

Yet the joys of many writing jobs are not solitary but social. Journalism and copywriting both involve getting out, talking with people, communicating and learning.

Matt Finch hard at work in his dressing gown
After a day’s work sitting in my dressing gown, you can see the cabin fever in my eyes! YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE THIS CRAZY MAN.

Not only does leaving the house and talking to people keep you sane (and force you to change out of your pyjamas!), this kind of work highlights the importance of writers to our literacy-driven society.

Our streets, our homes, the screens of our TVs, PCs, and phones are all saturated with words. In such a world, deft writing is a vital skill, yet it’s often overlooked by people who assume they can just ‘dash something off’.

Without communications expertise, language can swiftly break down into a mess of jargon.

Last week, the BBC’s Lucy Townsend drew our attention to British government gobbledegook in a new promotional video encouraging the public to ‘re-mode’ – that is, to choose healthier and more environmentally friendly ways of getting around.

In the video, which is meant to encourage sustainable travel during London’s Olympic Games, Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening tells viewers: “Across the whole department we’re trying to re-route, re-mode, re-time and just generally reduce our travel, so I’m re-moding at the moment, and having a good old walk up to Cabinet, which does me a lot of good.”

The BBC journalist found that ‘re-moding’ doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, although it is a term ‘well known within the transport industry and can be found in many Department for Transport papers.’

It’s not hard to see how this happens. We’ve all heard of ‘modes of transport’, and for a civil servant writing a policy document, it’s much easier to write ‘re-mode’ than ‘change one’s mode of transport’ – in fact, it’s a pretty elegant solution, and if coining new words was good enough for Shakespeare, why should we complain?

Once you take this word out of the transport industry, however, you get the jarring experience of a politician exhorting ordinary folk like you and me to ‘re-route, re-mode and re-time’. Which is not going to get anyone trading their car keys for a bus ticket or a bike ride.

I run across this kind of challenge every day. It’s a full-time job trying to implement the tangle of rules and regulations that decides, say, which kids get free transport to school. The person with that job might not have the time or perspective to step back and describe what they do in straightforward language. This means they need a fresh pair of eyes to find the words that will get their message out to the entire community.

As I told an old friend when I scored my copywriting job, ‘Molière this ain’t.’ But it’s an exciting challenge for any writer – and one of the many wordsmithing jobs that won’t occur to young people when they dream of making a living from their language skills.

Later this year, my writing workshops in Australia will explore the wide variety of options you have if you set your heart on making a living from words.

But for now I’ll leave you with a few wonderfully plain-speaking signs from New York. (Yes, I am that much of a geek!)

Whenever I visit the city, I’m struck by their public service copywriting. I think it’s some of the best in the world. These are simple, punchy subway advertisements which get the routine messages of public transport across in a clear and memorable way – images by Clarice Meadows of Plays Like A Girl.

MTA Sign- We're Replacing Track, ConstantlyMTA advert - New switches, less hitchesMTA advert - LIRR extension

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