Saturday, 1 February 2014

Confessions of a real estate copywriter

My name is Penny Flanagan and I am a real estate copywriter.

It's an odious confession and I am suitably ashamed of my flagrant overuse of the words, "immaculate" "stunning" and "sleek" - just to name a few of my standard go-tos.

I also have these phrases programmed into my auto-correct (with coded anagrams):

Gourmet gas and stone kitchen (ggsk)
Seamless flow through bi-fold doors to deck (sftd)
Palatial master retreat with ensuite and balcony (pmreb)

Real estate copywriting is a purple-prose artform: it is the art of saying nothing whilst using as many stupid superlatives as you can think of.

At times, out of desperation and boredom, I have invented some words.

Other times, I have reached for some fake French words: not because I am a bilingual wordsmith, but because fake French words, to an idiot, sound pretty and sophisticated.

And my client is an idiot; my client is a real estate agent.

The worst thing about being a writer who works for real estate agents is that bad is good.

Essentially what they want from me is; a very bad piece of writing.

They want sentences packed with too many adjectives and they want me to repeat the same idea over and over again, in subtly different ways, all within the opening paragraph.

They call this ingenious writing method:  "the hard sell."

If you have been unfortunate enough to have had to peruse the real estate ads in the past few years and have laughed derisively at the copy contained therein, please spare a thought for the professional writer who has been forced to shit that word excrement onto the page.

In our defence; we do it simply because that's what the client wants. 

They don't want a good, crisp, factual piece of writing with rhythmic sentences and clear intentions. They want  meaningless "floofer-fluff" sounds with stupid words like "stunning" and "superb" peppered liberally throughout each paragraph and then regurgitated again in bullet points (just in case you didn't get it the first time round.)

If we don't give it to them, they send it back with helpful feedback like this:

It's just not exciting enough.
It's a bit boring. 
You're not selling it.
I need your best, times 65%  (I think he meant, he wanted my best PLUS 65% more, but clearly maths was not his strong suit.)

I have tried to single-handedly improve the genre

 In my early years, I decided to pioneer a crisp, factual journalistic style; something I would be happy to put my name to. That was my litmus: "Would I be happy to put my name to this?" If the answer was "no," I went back in and toned it down.

I produced some lovely, clean pieces of writing ... and as a result, I got no work for about three months.

Then the first job that landed to me (after no one else was available, I was so far down the chain with my crisp, factual prose) I just went to town and gave it a bit of  "superb" and "fabulous." I may have even used the word, "spectacular" to describe some pretty ordinary district views. 

All of a sudden I was in demand again. I realised then, that there was no byline and so I just went all "fabulous" and "spectacular" on their real estate arses.

 I got quite popular.

And as writing gigs go,  it's money for jam.

If you can grin and bear the constant "feedback" from the client (a person with no tertiary education who gives you helpful "pointers" on how to write better) it's relatively easy money.  And the work is sporadic enough to allow you to do other things with your life in the downtime.

But in terms of purposely writing badly, working for someone who tells me to give it my best TIMES 65% and using dumb words ...

Where is my limit?

I have hit my limit a few times in the last five years. For a while I simply gave them mean nicknames as a coping mechanism.

Fat Neck
The Amazing Pear-Shaped Man
Roberta (She was very common and reminded me of Cat Stewart's, Roberta in Underbelly.)
Nuggety Joe (A miniature bag of walnuts who claimed to be a cage-fighter in his downtime)
The Gymp (He would specifically request me by name,  but always, ALWAYS sent my copy back with petty grievances. It occurred to me that he was the kind of guy who would like to tie his girlfriend up and keep her in a dungeon below the house.) 

Then mid last year I hit my limit again after Nuggety Joe sent my copy back with the complaint that I had not used enough pretty words to describe the backyard. (It was a south-facing square of dirt and I made the judgement call; the less said the better. )

So then I decided I would only work with agents who didn't give me the shits.  As a result, my client list is rapidly dwindling.

Then, just the other day,  I received this email from one of my previously preferred agents: 

Hi Penny,

Pam from (company name omitted) here, I work with (agent's name omitted)

The copy writing (sic) has been great as usual, and thank you. (Agent's name) has just asked if we could avoid using the words spacious and refurbished. Generous and renovated work, or anything else you can think of.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Warm Regards


At first glance, it seems innocent enough.  The tone is friendly and I like the way she started off by "stroking" my ego, to prepare me for the ridiculous request that follows.

So hats off to Pam for her people skills.

But can I avoid using the words "spacious" and "refurbished"? And by "avoid," she meant,  don't use them ever ... Again ...

In any bit of copy.


(Because as requested, I called her to let her know that I had some questions and she clarified it for me.)

I could give you a detailed and thorough argument for why it is near impossible NOT to use the words "spacious" and "refurbished" when writing real estate copy; something around how I have to say the same thing in different ways over and over, so I actually need three words that mean the same thing: Large. Spacious. Generous.

If you can think of a word that isn't ridiculous that can replace "spacious" in my magic three, please post it below.  And no, "capacious" is not an option.

As for "refurbished."  Call me a word nerd but to my mind there is a subtle difference between "renovated" and "refurbished."  "Renovated" implies something old, brought back to life. "Refurbished" implies a sort of polishing up, a more decorative sort of makeover. 

And considering most homes on the market in Sydney have been to some degree, tarted up for sale, whether it's repolishing floors and adding a fresh coat of paint, or a total overhaul situation, I need to distinguish these nuances with different words.

(For the record, a learned colleague of mine once coined the phrase, "freshly schemed" to describe bathrooms and kitchens that have been tarted up for sale but not properly renovated. She said I was welcome to use it and it has served me well.)

And I don't mind if people have a really good reason for not liking a particular word.  For instance, one elderly Catholic gentleman once very kindly asked that I not use the word, "immaculate" when writing his copy.

"I'm very religious," he said, "and to me, that word is only appropriate for the Virgin Mary." 

He spoke to me personally and he was very polite and apologetic about it: acknowledging that it may be a weird idiosyncratic request.

(I have a soft spot for the veterans: the old school real estate agents with their strong work ethic and "no lies" integrity.) 

So, part of my problem with the email is:

a) the lack of good reason for banning these words
b) the delegation of this trivial task to someone lower down the food chain

One of the things on Pam's "to do" list that day was, "email copywriter re the words spacious and refurbished."   

It's just a dumb power play by a small man in a cheap suit.

But my real point (and I do have one) is this: 

I have just taken you through the ridiculous words I have used in real estate copy. I have made words up, I have used faux Frenglish words, I have completely overdone the superlatives to an embarrassing degree on a regular basis.

I have joined two words together to create new compound words that do not (and should not) exist.

And THESE are the words that I am no longer allowed to use?


I think I have just hit my limit.

Consider this the detonator that will blow the bridge.


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