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Web Copy Blunder: ‘J. Peterman’ Syndrome

Web Copy Blunder: ‘J. Peterman’ Syndrome

Printing blocks spell "Adventure" image on web copy blunder: beware of J Peterman Syndrome

Does writing web copy sometimes remind you of those “choose your own adventure” books from your childhood? In these books, you could turn to page “x” if you wanted the protagonist to go down the staircase into the dark and foreboding basement. Alternatively, you could turn to page “y” if you wanted him to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich instead.

Choose your adventure

Today is choose your own adventure day here on our blog (in the broadest sense of “adventure”). I’m going to give you the choice of reading two stories from my life, and ask you which one you’d pick:

A: That time I went shopping for a stapler.


B: That time I appeared on “Jeopardy!” I hung out with the late great Alex Trebek and won a lot of money. Upon realizing that I had just won all that money, I proceeded to pick my nose on national television.

Unless you’re this guy, I’m guessing you chose adventure B. Why? It certainly wasn’t because of the way each story was presented. It’s not because B is relevant or useful to you, unless you are testing to be on Jeopardy

If you chose the “Jeopardy!” story, it’s likely because it sounded more interesting than a device that holds pieces of paper together.

My colleagues and I spend a lot of time writing interesting web copy. We thrive on connecting with readers through well-crafted copy, compelling storytelling and effective use of language. Sometimes, however, you need to write copy about a subject that isn’t soon to be a major motion picture. That typically means writing content that’s dry, technical and more mathematical than literary.

Not every picture tells a story

Obsessing how to make web copy “entertaining” or “engaging” is often unnecessary and counterproductive. In many cases, the sole goal of copy is to convey relevant facts, features or details of a product or service. Readers who visit your website may simply want actionable information – now. While you need to write succinctly and clearly, don’t feel obligated to spin a grand tale or elicit laughs. Readers won’t care.

I think of this as “J. Peterman” syndrome, in homage to the clothing catalog and its eponymous founder caricatured on “Seinfeld.” Every product was accompanied by a florid backstory that went far beyond colors, sizes, fabric, etc. And in the context of a catalog full of pretentious or preposterous apparel, such copy may serve a purpose. But if you’re selling, say, a stapler, does your reader really want to see:

“The ancient Sumerians were the first to adopt staple technology. They would twist staffs of wheat into crude clips, which would be affixed to their garments and livestock. Over the centuries, cultures from far and wide continued to make advancements in stapling, leading to the efficient and cutting-edge stapler we offer you today.”

Spare me. How much does the stapler cost, how long will it take to get here, and does it come in metallic grey? That’s why I’m on your site. I’m not here for a history of office supplies.

There’s a place for great storytelling, and quality writing is always vital. But spend your time the right way when writing copy for your website. Make sure the style and content are suited for the subject matter, your brand, and the reader’s priorities. Don’t stress if you can’t turn a subject or product into a page turner – you may not need to. After all, not everything is an “Urban Sombrero.”