Register Revision: A Copywriting Exercise

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Copywriting

Improve your writing skills with register revision, a copywriting exercise designed for marketing teams and freelancers.

Register revision is an exercise for copywriters and content writers. It’s designed to improve your technical writing skills – specifically, register (how formal your writing is).

If you’ve ever struggled with brand voice, received feedback about writing more/less formally, or wanted to become a better writer, this exercise is for you.

What Is Register in Writing?

In linguistics, register refers to the words and grammar used in specific social contexts or situations. For example, the vocabulary and syntax you use when you talk to your boss are probably quite different to those that you use when you talk to your friends.

In English, there are many different types of registers. Some are field-based registers – think about ‘legalese’ or the highly technical language used by software engineers. Others are relationship-based, like the difference between talking to a work colleague and talking to your partner. Register can also vary across subcultures, like the rhyming slang used in Australian prisons or the ‘surf speak’ used by surfing communities.

Keep in mind that register is different to language (which includes dialects) and medium/mode (which refers to the delivery mechanism for your communication, such as email or SMS).

Why Does Register Matter in Copywriting?

As a marketer, choosing the right register is important. You’ve probably heard the saying “write the way your audience speaks”. That’s register. Communicating in the appropriate register is a way to both improve your message’s clarity and show your audience that you understand them, but it’s often more complicated than it sounds.

Start by thinking about register on a five-point formality scale: casual, informal, neutral, formal, and ceremonial (read this article for an explanation of what each term means). Once you’ve mastered formality, you can move on to field-based registers (using the technical terms that your target audience use).

Register isn’t just theoretical, either. It’s an essential part of the brand voice formula: style + register + tone + perspectives. Even if your brand voice guide doesn’t explicitly use the term ‘register’, it’ll still be mentioned in one form or another.

Take Mailchimp’s ‘Voice and Tone’ guide as an example.

“You might use one tone when you’re out to dinner with your closest friends, and a different tone when you’re in a meeting with your boss.

Your tone also changes depending on the emotional state of the person you’re addressing. You wouldn’t want to use the same tone of voice with someone who’s scared or upset as you would with someone who’s laughing.”

The first paragraph, even though it uses the term ‘tone’, is actually talking about register – the context-specific choice of words and grammar. The second paragraph’s use of ‘tone’ to describe the emotional inflection of text is more accurate.

Style Manual also groups register under tone:

“Tone is the way you express ideas. It includes the words you use, the way you put them together and their level of formality.”

Note: While this definition of tone isn’t ‘correct’, I believe that it’s a conscious choice by Style Manual to simplify linguistic terms for users that want straightforward answers.

Although register, tone and style overlap, they’re all distinct concepts that, together with worldviews or specific perspectives, form a recognisable textual voice. Being able to isolate and change the register of text will help you improve as a writer, giving you more control over the consistency of your brand voice.

Understanding register is especially important for freelance and agency writers. As an in-house technician, you can immerse yourself in your brand’s voice – writing in it becomes second nature. As a contractor, though, you’ll often be switching between multiple brand voices each day, and a poor grasp of the elements that comprise them can lead to muddled, homogenous outputs.

Copywriting Exercise: Register Revision

Register revision is an exercise I came up with for marketing teams to use in their cognitive restoration sessions (a concept I’ve talked about in our weekly digital letter, The Arete Letter).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Choose a sentence from a book, a blog, a website, or another publication.
  2. Using the five-point register scale, work out the register classification that the sentence currently falls under.
  3. Rewrite that sentence in the remaining four registers.
  4. Focus on the differences in sentence complexity, word choice, active/passive voice, idioms and slang, jargon, and contractions. Don’t change the meaning or the emotional inflection, and try to follow a similar sentence style.
  5. If you get stuck, use ChatGPT for inspiration by entering prompts like ‘Rewrite this in a more formal way’.
  6. Repeat the exercise up to 10 times in a single session. Make sure you choose sentences from a variety of sources.

The idea of register revision is to increase your grasp of how register is formed – and, in doing so, give you more control over changing between different types.

Example

Original Sentence: “Queequeg and I had just left the Pequod, and were sauntering away from the water, for the moment each occupied with his own thoughts, when the above words were put to us by a stranger, who, pausing before us, levelled his massive forefinger at the vessel in question.”

Source: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

Register Classification: Formal

Written Ceremonially: “Upon our passing from the decks of the Pequod, Queequeg and I sauntered forth from the water’s edge, each occupied with introspection, when – hark! – such words as writ above were uttered unto us by a stranger, who, halted before us, thence indicated the aforementioned vessel by way of his massive forefinger.”

Written Neutrally: “Queequeg and I had just left the Pequod and were sauntering away from the water, lost by our own thoughts, when a stranger said the above words to us. As he spoke, he paused in front of us and pointed his huge forefinger at our vessel.”

Written Informally: “Queequeg and I had just left the Pequod and were heading away from the water, lost in our thoughts, when a stranger came up to us and started saying those words while he pointed at our ship with his huge finger.”

Written Casually: “Me and Queequeg had got off the Pequod and were heading away, just thinking to ourselves, when this guy came up and said those words to us while pointing at the ship with his giant finger.”

Summary

Register revision is an exercise that’s easy to do and hard to get right. Getting through those four revised sentences will probably take you longer than you think, but, over time, you’ll get faster.

Of course, the real outcome you want to achieve is better control over register in live marketing contexts. Just as athletes practise drills to build muscle memory, register revision is designed to make switching between registers second nature – which is especially important if you’re working in a freelance or agency environment.

So put aside an hour every week or every fortnight. Pick a handful of sentences, and work your way through them. Get comfortable with moving up and down that formality scale, and you’ll become a better writer who can conform more consistently to brand voice guides.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.