Here’s some copywriting advice from your art director.

Full disclosure: I’m not an art director, I’m a copywriter. But I did, once upon a time, study design and typography. And though I’m not advocating we all become experts in this field (I certainly didn’t), I am insisting we all at least learn the basics.

I’ll never get over the shock of arriving at my first agency to discover that no one – no one in the copy team understood formatting. I’ve always considered it essential, especially in a digital environment where clients and agencies increasingly look to their writers to manage CMSs, lay out webpages and collaborate with UX designers.

Yet, in retrospect, it’s understandable. Formatting skills are only taught to students of design and typography (sometimes journalism) at degree level.

But that doesn’t excuse you – yes you, the graduate of English/Marketing/Humanities, etc.

If you wouldn’t submit copy to a client without proofreading the words to perfection, why shouldn’t the same rules apply to formatting?

Here are what I consider the six worst formatting culprits. Copywriters, I implore you: add these factoids (and Alt codes) to your little book of copywriting tips, if you haven’t already.

More to the point: stop making your copy look bad.

1. The ellipsis

Let’s start with a game of spot the difference.

A: …

B: …

Can’t find any? I’ll give you a clue. One is an ellipsis, the other one is just three full-stops.

Can you tell now?

The ellipsis is A.

And an ellipsis is always the right answer where you need three full-stops. B, meanwhile, (the three full stops) is what I call the PPC copywriter’s worst nightmare.

The difference between these two pieces of punctuation is simple. A, the ellipsis, is one character. B, three full stops, is (if you haven’t guessed) three characters.

Why is this significant? Well, let’s say you have 35 characters on a PPC ad copy line, or 156 characters to write a meta description, or 140 characters for a tweet. You want to make the most of your limited allocation, of course. So if you need to add an ellipsis to this copy, and you were to inadvertently use three full stops instead of an ellipsis, you’d waste two of those precious characters.

Okay, that’s not the end of the world – but this might be: how jarring the sight of three full stops can be. In some typefaces, fair enough, the difference is barely noticeable. But in many others, full stops are not made to kern (more on this word later) with one other. Often they appear wonky, or take up lots of room horizontally.

An ellipsis, meanwhile, is consistent. If you are using two ellipses in a piece of copy, they’ll appear identical, with the same space between periods and before and after other letters. They’ll kern well every time, and look neatly compact.

At size 11 on a screen, you may not see much difference. But at size 10,000, on a billboard, you certainly will.

To write an ellipsis:

Windows: With Num Lock on, hold Alt and press 0133

Mac: Hold Option (⌥) and press semi colon (;)

2. The hyphen, the en-dash and the em-dash

Let’s play spot the difference again.

A: –

B: –

C: —

It’s easy enough to recognise these three dashes are different lengths. Short, medium and long, we might call them. But beyond a superficial level, what’s the difference?

Let’s break it down.

A is a hyphen. A hyphen is used to make a conjoined word, i.e. to join two or more words together. That’s all it does. You should never use a hyphen as an en-dash, and certainly not as an em-dash, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

There are three steps to using the hyphen:

One. If I wanted to create a double-barrelled word like, well, double-barrelled, I would use a hyphen. I could go on to connect three words (devil-may-care), four (state-of-the-art), and so on.

You can tell if a word should be conjoined by testing if it has a single, unambiguous meaning. For instance, if a carbonated drink has no sugar, you could call it sugar-free. But, if you want to give me sweets expecting nothing in return, that would be sugar free.

Two. You can use a hyphen to join prefixes and suffixes – but you should try not to. Sometimes, it’s essential, especially if you need to add emphasis to the prefix or suffix (for instance, I would recover from an illness, but I would re-cover my sofa). A good rule of thumb is to only use a hyphen where it makes sense to do so.

Three. Having said that, there are three prefixes that always need hyphens. They are ex (e.g. ex-girlfriend), all (e.g. all-encompassing) and self (e.g. self-confidence).

That’s the hyphen.

Next up is B – the en-dash (so named because the dash is the same length as a lower-case “n”).

An en-dash offsets parenthetic clauses. Easy enough to understand, right?

You only need to look back through this article to see what the en-dash looks like in action. Simply, the dash separates two related parts of a sentence – such as where one sentence qualifies information in the sentence before it – like this! Think of the en-dash as an alternative to the comma, brackets and semi-colon, all in one.

There is one other way you can use the en-dash, which is to show range between two numbers. So, if I wanted to write “nine to five” in numerals, I would do so with an en-dash: 9–5.

There’s an exception to this rule (isn’t there always?) which is if you use the words “from” or “between” before these numbers you should forego the en-dash and simply use a word like “to” or “and” instead (e.g. “from 9 to 5”, “between 6 and 7”).

To write an en-dash:

Windows: With Num Lock on, hold Alt and press 0150.

Mac: Hold Option (⌥) and press the hyphen (-) button.

Finally C, which is the em-dash (so named because – you guessed it – it’s the same length as a lower-case “m”).

This one is nice and easy. It only has two uses. Chances are you’ll probably only use the em-dash if you’re writing a novel, but it works just fine on other channels.

Its first use is to indicate a sentence has ended abruptly, unfinished. Allow me to give you an example by doing it in this—

The second use is to attribute a quote.

One example that clearly showcases both uses is from one of my favourite movies:

“I sense something, a presence I’ve not felt since—“

—Darth Vader, Star Wars Episode IV

To write an em-dash:

Windows: With Num Lock on, hold Alt and press 0151.

Mac: Hold Option (⌥) and shift, then press the hyphen (-) button.

I appreciate that’s a lot to digest. So let’s sum it up:

  • Hyphens join words. That’s it.
  • En-dashes separate sentences and show a range between numbers
  • Em-dashes are for ending sentences early and attributing quotes

3. Widows, orphans and non-breaking spaces

Here’s a picture of some dummy text laid out on a page. It looks pretty nice, right?

Widow-Orphan-1

Well, almost. There are actually two mistakes – can you point them out?

By way of a clue, here’s a classic mnemonic handed down through generations of typesetters: an orphan has no past, a widow has no future. Haunting though it may be, perhaps it gives you a clue as to what we’re looking for here.

Allow me to explain further. When setting type, your primary objective is to help the reader digest your information as quickly as possible, without interruption. Common errors – like typos and bad grammar, but also more technical things like widows and orphans – jut out and cause distractions.

Remove them and your copy flows easier, faster.

With that said, allow me to point out what you were looking for:

Widow-Orphan-2-1-220572251

In the left hand column, we have an orphan. In the right, a widow.

Simply put, an orphan is a single word that hangs at the bottom of a paragraph. A widow is a short sentence that sits alone at the top of a column.

Go back to the first image – notice how out-of-place they seem, now you know what to look for. We must get rid of them – but how.

The easy way is to use non-breaking spaces. A non-breaking space is a signal to your computer that two words should never be separated. Adding a non-breaking space to the two words at the end of a paragraph ensures that there will always be at least two words on a hanging line. With correct use of non-breaking spaces, your paragraphs will never have to end with a sudden jerk.

Widows are harder to sort out. In most cases, the easiest – and in other cases, the only way to get rid of them is to adjust the height of columns.

Whatever solution you find, your ultimate objective is a layout like this:

Widow-Orphan-3

Much better.

To insert a non-breaking space:

Windows: Highlight the space between two words. With Num Lock on, hold Alt and press 0160.

Mac: Highlight the space between two words. Hold Option (⌥) and shift, then press x.

4. Roman Hanging Punctuation

Despite its regal-sounding name, Roman Hanging Punctuation is a very simple concept.

Let me show you a quote:

Roman-Hanging-1-1

Not bad. But, as you should expect by now, there’s something a little off about this paragraph.

I’ll give you a clue: it’s to do with the alignment on the left-hand side. Still lost? Let’s draw a line down that side.

Roman-Hanging-2

Can you see it now?

That punctuation – the opening speech mark – is spoiling the alignment of our paragraph. This isn’t a huge thing, of course, but with one little difference – that is, by applying Roman Hanging Punctuation – your copy will look much, much better:

Roman-Hanging-3

If you’re sending an ad off for print, always add a Roman Hanging Punctuation check when reviewing the finished product. It’s easy to apply Roman Hanging Punctuation with InDesign: highlight your text, open the Story box, then select “Optical Margin Alignment”.

Remember, you can apply Roman Hanging Punctuation to web copy too. A quick Google search will usually be enough to give you the code you need for your coding language or CMS.

5. Kerning and leading

Kerning is the space between characters. Leading is the space between lines.

This is well into the region of your art director’s responsibilities, but as a copywriter, it helps to know about them. Especially as the day may come when you submit some ground-breaking copy, only to have it sent back by your designer because it doesn’t kern or lead well.

Chances are you’ve come across some epic kerning disasters on the internet (Google “kerning gone wrong” right now if you haven’t). It goes to show not only the importance of letter spacing, but of the vigilance writers must have when pairing certain letters. Certain typefaces are notorious for danger pairs. I’m always on guard around:

  • rn
  • LI
  • cl
  • FI

To illustrate, consider reading these words at a quick glance, the letters perhaps a little closer together:

  • burn
  • FLICK
  • click
  • FINAL

Another thing to remember is that MOST TYPEFACES ARE NOT DESIGNED WITH ALL CAPS WRITING IN MIND, SO LETTERS PROBABLY WON’T KERN WELL. IF YOU FEEL YOU OUGHT TO BE WRITING IN ALL CAPS, SPEAK TO YOUR ART DIRECTOR FIRST TO MAKE SURE THE COPY YOU HAVE IN MIND IS KERNABLE. But, hopefully, you’ll never have to write in all caps anyway.

Kerning can be done on a letter-to-letter basis, but if you’re writing long copy, you probably won’t have the time or energy to fix every single gap. That’s why it’s important to know your typeface, how it automatically kerns, if there are any danger pairs – and if you need to fix it, how you’re going to do that – whether by using InDesign (put your cursor in the space between two letters, hold Alt and use the left and right keys), Microsoft Word (in the Font dialogue box, choose Letter Spacing) or online (usually using the format { letter-spacing: 2px; }).

As for leading, this is a bit easier. Don’t space your lines too close or too far apart – it’s as simple as that.

Your main hazards when working with leading are ascenders and descenders. These are the parts of characters that sit above or below the ordinary heights and depths – like the long body of a lower-case “d”, or the curly bit hanging beneath a lower-case “g”.

When an ascender sits directly below a descender, there’s a chance they might touch. If that happens, it will look awkward. Knowing, as you should, the typeface you’re working with, you might be able to mitigate this risk in the writing stage. Otherwise, you can tweak the line spacing.

If you do this, just make sure you do it consistently. Don’t have one line that sits way off on its own somewhere. It will look strange and disrupt the flow of your copy.

Leading is one of the default options in InDesign and Photoshop, and can be easily adjusted in Microsoft Office too (Open Paragraph, then use the Spacing option). It’s also easy to fix in CSS – just search for the code you need and you’ll quickly find it.

6. Numbers

Let’s count to 12 – ready?

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven – (still with me?)

Eight

Nine

10

11

12

Huh, what happened there?

The Associated Press style guide says that numbers 10 and over should be written as numerals. Below that, use words. Trouble is, only 1 in 5* copywriters agree (* that’s a made-up statistic, don’t go quoting it elsewhere).

What I mean is, it’s fine to break the rules – especially in headlines. Numbers create impact.

But think hard before you do break the rules. Remember, if you’re using one or two numbers in a long piece of copy – like I did just then – using words can help readers quickly skim. If, of course, I needed to call attention to a poignant statistic like that only 2% of people do something, it would of course be better to use the numerals (writing “two per cent” just isn’t as punchy).

As for very large numbers, are you more likely to understand 3,574,220 or three million, five hundred and seventy-four thousand, two-hundred and twenty? (Or, perhaps a neatly summarised combination: “more than 3.5 million”).

What I mean is, screw the rules. We’re copywriters after all, not journalists. Write numbers however you think they work best in the situation. Just, as always, be consistent.

And that’s it!

You’ve made it to the end of this very long and information-rich article – so what should you do next?

Know what I’m going to do? Share this article with my whole agency. Because it’s not just the Creative department that are responsible for our agency’s communications – it’s everyone from the CEO to the Junior Account Managers. And knowing how to make writing look good – with simple fixes like non-breaking spaces, proper dashes and neat kerning/leading – is everyone’s responsibility.

Over to you

How about you? If you liked this article, why not share it with your network or agency?

newpicWho is Jonjo Maudsley?

I’m Jonjo Maudsley. I live in Brighton (the English one) and write for iCrossing UK. If you’re a scout for a Premier League Football Club, sign me up on LinkedIn.

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