Can You Share Some Examples of *Useful* Commercial Freelancing Jargon?

Got an email recently from a budding copywriter with a big worry. She wrote:

What is the language of marketing? What kinds of jargon can I expect when I talk to marketing execs? I am concerned that in meetings or conference calls, I might find myself up against a foreign language of sorts because I never worked in a corporate marketing environment.

My first inclination was to simply say, “Not really a big issue in freelance copywriting. It’s not really like a different language, so don’t worry too much about it.”

But then, I got to thinking about it and realized that, when you’ve been in the middle of a particular world for 20 years (this month, in fact…), it’s easy to imagine that it’s not all that complex. And bottom line, it really isn’t that terribly complex, but it’s not completely transparent, either.

And right about the time I got that question, I received an email from a new commercial freelancing client, with the background information on a new project he wanted me to quote. And in that email, he told me what files he’d attached, which included “the wires.” Commence head-scratching. Huh? Wires? What are the wires?

He was with a marketing/design firm, and after clicking through the source material, I realized that one of the documents was a line-drawing mockup of the website they’re creating for their client, and for which they need new copy. That six-page mockup with all the little boxes, arrows and greeking*—is known as the “wires.”

*(Oh, that’s placeholder copy a designer inserts in spaces where copy is needed, but hasn’t been written yet. It usually reads, “Lorum ipsum dolor sit amet…” and a bunch of other, well, Latin, actually. So, the name’s a misnomer, but it’s still “greeking.” And two Latin-to-English translation sites are telling me that the five-word phrase above means…well, “Thong team…” Hmmmm. No clue. Remember, it’s placeholder copy.)

So, “wires.” Learn something new every day. So, maybe there’s a little more to the jargon in the commercial copywriting business than I’d like to believe. Of course, a couple of standard phrases come to mind: collateral, for instance: the term for various and sundry marketing communications pieces beyond ad copy that are part of a larger campaign—things like brochures, sales sheets, case studies, etc.

Then there’s the “creative brief.” Meaning, the document you’ll receive from clients (i.e., an agency, design firm, or the marketing department of the end-user themselves) describing the scope of the project in question, what the objective is, what the deliverables are (there’s another word: “deliverables,” meaning the final end products that need to be created, and which you’ve been entrusted to write), the timetable, contact people (a.k.a. “subject matter experts”—a.k.a. SME’s, and yes, actually pronounced “Smee’s”—yet another term!), etc.

All that said, I still maintain that, even if you come from a background completely different from commercial writing, that it won’t be anywhere near the same as, say, visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

Over time, I learned all these (and many other) words by osmosis, but my overriding recollection is definitely not of one embarrassing moment after another as clients exchanged looks, loosely translated as, “Where did this guy come from?” Not so.

So, that’s a few that occurred to me off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a ton of others I’m missing right now. So let’s help out this nervous newbie, and share some of the jargon you’ve come across in your freelance commercial writing travels.

And, for the record, I’m not talking about the silly jargon that’s the brunt of jokes about “corporate-speak”—things like mission-critical, value-added, at the end of the day, outside the box, leverage, etc.

Yes, our fledgling freelancer should familiarize herself with those as well (here’s a pretty good list), but I’m talking about the useful terms native to this field of ours.

What are some of the terms, phrases, jargon, that you’ve encountered in the course of your copywriting practice?

In your opinion, how hard is it for a newbie to get a handle on all the vernacular? Did you feel at all confused or out of your depth when you first started out in the business?

Are you aware of any resources/glossaries listing a lot of these terms (I know, I should know some…)?

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15 replies
  1. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Jargon hurdles seem low, even for a newsroom veteran such as myself, and those who sling obscure phrases respond helpfully to clarification requests.

    The transition to web content development also introduced me to “wireframe,” which was the version of “wires” that I tripped over.

    Just one other puzzler comes to mind: Early on, I had to ask an agency partner exactly when he wanted that requested “reply by EOB” (end of business day).

    Amazing how fast one can flip from jargon-impaired to jargon user, so be careful what you wish for!

    And remember, friends: There’s no such thing as a dumb question . . . unless it’s unasked.

    Thanks for inviting us to contribute, Peter.

  2. Lori
    Lori says:

    I think the buzz word I hear most (and hate most) is the “value proposition.” It sounds so phony, and it really doesn’t tell your customers a damn thing. Unless they know you’re talking about what makes you different, they’re going to say “Huh?” If you’re selling to businesses, they’ll get it. Consumers will be confused, though.

    And I’m totally done with people who insist on shifting their paradigms. That sounds way too painful!

    I remember being in Acronym Hell more than once, especially during the Dot Com craze. I’d get press releases that read “XYZ Company announces release of its robust, fully integrated end-to-end user-facing platform solution that delivers data enterprisewide in real time.” In other words, they’ve built a web-delivered information system. But when you’re first seeing these things, it’s like its own set of Lorum Ipsum.

    It shouldn’t be too tough to come up to speed on the vernacular. What I did in the beginning was ask. If someone I interviewed spouted some jargon or acronyms, I would say “Sorry, I’m brand new. Can you tell me what that is?” Now that I’ve been at it a while, I look up the buzz words I see in articles or releases. And there’s where it gets tricky — sometimes they use the same acronym in different industries. For example, I knew LCMS as licensed client management system. In my husband’s company, it’s liquid chromotography management system. You never know. 😉

    I’ve used Acronym Finder to help me when I’m really stuck ( Also, depending on the industry, you might be able to find answers on trade association websites (which also are their own acronyms, but I digress).

  3. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    When I made the switch from copy to design, I had to learn a new vocabulary which, for the most part, a writer wouldn’t need to know. But if you’re just starting out, you will get some of those design-related words or phrases thrown at you.

    For example, you may be asked for copy for a “#10”. That’s referring to a business size envelope. A Johnson Box certainly threw me the first time I heard it. Maybe the client wants you to rewrite the “deck” of their sales letter. Or perhaps a prospect wants to know if you can write copy for a slim jim. (“Hmm. Well, I might if I knew what that was.”)

    For pure design, here are two links and I want to stress that there is NO (nada, zilch) reason to memorize any of this. As a college teacher once told our class, you don’t need to memorize tons of things… just memorize where you put the books that have the answers. Today, we refer to those books as Google. 🙂

    Sites like that are handy when talking with a client or even a designer and they start going jargon-happy on you. In most cases, it’s not even important that you know what they’re talking about as it will be the designer or printer’s job to know, but you’ll feel less out of the loop.

    Here’s something I learned, though… don’t be afraid to ask the “stupid” question if you’re not sure. I did that once to my detriment because I was too embarrassed to ask what the client meant by something. It wasted time as I went off thinking we were talking about something else.

    These days, here’s what I might say if there’s a term being thrown at me that I’m not familiar with: “I just want to confirm what you mean when you say ____________ because, as you know, people can use the same words in different ways. So I’ve found it’s always safe to ask and make sure we’re on the same page and not wasting time. So what does that word/phrase mean to you?”

    And then, when they explain it and you realize there was no way you would have ever known what that word or phrase meant, you smile and say, “Great! That’s exactly what I thought you meant.” 🙂

  4. Rick Middleton
    Rick Middleton says:

    I agree with Mike. Lots of the jargon is based on the mechanics of the piece you are working on. Direct mail has tons of jargon-y terms. Same with web content. Immerse yourself in the “How To” guides prior to meeting with the client so you know what “lift letter” or “sustainer series” or “landing page” or “metatags” mean.

    The client may have jargon specific to their industry, or even their own company, but they seem a little more forgiving if you don’t know those terms.

    Jargon is an odd thing. On one hand, it’s annoying to hear so much of it. On the other hand, if you can pick up on it and use it with some skill, you can gain credibility with the client.

  5. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    The following is a small (?) sample of terms I came across as a newbie freelancer that I had no clue about.

    Tear sheet (also known as sell sheet or data sheet), buck slip (insert in direct mail package), and several writing jargon terms (not necessarily copywriting) like content mills, landing pages (really-before freelancing I had no idea what that was!), microsite, squeeze page, SEO, PPC. And I am sure multiple others that this boomer brain has forgotten about – or gotten used to. 😉

  6. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Broke my own cardinal rule of not using acronyms without explaining (even if I do think this crowd knows them). There is almost always someone who does not. SEO, of course is Search Engine Optimization and PPC is Pay-Per-Click (someone clicks on your ad, you pay the publisher of that ad).

    Content mills are companies that typically pay very low fees to writers to crank out articles/web content that at least used to rank high in search engine results. Landing pages in marketing is the location (webpage) you are directed to when you click on a link. Microsites are like mini-websites that typically focus on a specific product/ebook/service and is often part of bigger organization. Similar to a landing page. A squeeze page is a landing page that provides a form (and hopefully enticement) to capture email addresses of subscribers.

    Feel free to correct any misstatements. 😉 Or ignore what you know.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks much, Cathy!

    I’m sure most on this forum DO know what they mean, but we have no doubt have a lot of visitors new to the business, and unfamiliar with many of these!

    And thanks, Mike, not only for the great links, but for the masterfully worded line of inquiry to discover the meaning of a term used by a client, while pretending that, of course you know. AND, as several folks have pointed out, most clients are pretty forgiving about people being unfamiliar with something new.

    Always nice to have your fun AND substantive contributions, Lori! Useful stuff.

    Thank YOU, Alan for contributing. Good to hear your shared wisdom. And Rick, oh so true. Knowing the jargon can help build rapport with clients, but can also give you an idea of how NOT to write something. After all, that’s often what clients are looking to us for: a fresh, outside perspective that doesn’t communicate like they do.

  8. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    “The wires” is a new one for me too. Normally when I hear that phrase it’s related to public relations writing and “the wires” refers to newswires. Interesting!

    Some that come to mind are similar to the PPC / pay-per-click advertising example Cathy gave.

    If you plan to write ad copy for Web-based ads, you’ll probably want to know the different types of campaigns clients run. Here are a couple of the more common acronyms you’ll come across:

    CPC — cost per click (this is the advertiser side of the equation as opposed to pay-per-click which is the publisher side of the ads)

    CPM — cost per thousand impressions (when advertisers pay based on the number of views their ads receive)

    And along those lines you have “impressions.” Those are basically the number of times an ad is served. It’s a little bit different than a pageview because you can have multiple impressions on a single pageview if you run the ad in multiple places on a site (common in stats for ad networks where you might have their code in several places even though they’re publishing different ads).

  9. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    When I feel like I’m running into solid walls of industry-speak, I like to say, “I’m the writing guy, not the marketing guy.” This seems to place a different mental image into the other person’s head, causing them to speak in more basic, general terms. (Either that, or they just pity my obvious ignorance. Whatever gets them to revert to plain English is fine with me.)

    But it makes sense if you think about it. After all, who would place more priority on clear, concise, efficient use of the language than a professional writer?

    My other favorite trick to restore bottom-line clarity to a conversation is to ask, “All the lingo aside, what do we want this piece to do?” Once I know that, the buzzwords don’t really matter.

  10. Star
    Star says:

    I run into new expressions all the time, even though I am not concentrating on corporate anymore. Splash page–I remember wondering what that was at first (an opening/intro page to a web site, that many experts say you shouldn’t have as it’s one more step between a visitor and what he/she REALLY came to see…). Pretty common in the web world.. Half the “metrics” on my sites are “greek” to me. I sure notice Google is keeping the money, though. ROI used to come up–Return on Investment. There are a lot in the social media area–I don’t even Tweet, glaze reading them, and don’t think they belong on the news, but there they are. “Tote” for totally–my sister hates that one. Some people use so many buzzwords they sound like a smashed hornet nest.

  11. Mike Sweeney
    Mike Sweeney says:

    I agree with previous comments … a lot of terms will relate to a specific industry or project. In DM (direct marketing) I’ve come across a few such as: “BRE” (business reply envelope), “lift note” and “buck slip” (additional information or call to action designed to boost response), “OE” (outer envelope), “indicia” (bulk stamp postage), “teaser” (glassine window that lets part of copy or graphic show through envelope), “classic package” (consisting of outer envelope, sales letter, brochure, and BRE), “copy deck” (the entire completed assignment… specs, overall concept if there is one, and copy for all the components).

  12. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    I can’t think of much useful marcomm jargon that hasn’t already been mentioned (though I suppose “marcomm” itself may qualify!), but I wanted to second the advice of others above to ask the client or subject matter expert any time you’re not sure of the meaning of a word or term they use. This is not just for you to learn what it means, but also to learn whether *they* know what it means! In my experience, excessive use of jargon can indicate the person actually has no idea what they’re talking about.

    I also concur that “wires” was just shorthand for “wireframes” which are essentially “thumbnails” — or the roughest layout sketches — for web pages. Hmmm. I guess “thumbnail” is a piece of useful jargon. Some artists may still sketch those as part of their creative process, but computer-based layout design has all but eliminated that. I know plenty of artists who do their “roughs” or “comps” (hey, more jargon) on computer. The problem, unfortunately, is that when done on computer these preliminary, conceptual layouts look way too finished, leading clients to focus on specifics such as color, type selection and image placement instead of on the overall concept, message or idea. In a well-done old-fashioned hand-drawn rough, the idea is king. I miss those days.

    This next thing is not jargon so much as an evolution in meaning. For a web project I worked on late last year, a client wanted to set up a “meeting” with me, his SEO consultant and inside team. They were about 40 miles and an hour away, so I wasn’t thrilled about going there, but it was one of my highest-paying projects ever, so of course I’d go. Turns out the meeting was a GoToMeeting web conference call. In the months since then, other clients have talked about having “meetings” that are really calls. So now when someone uses that word, I need to ask “do you mean an in-person meeting.”

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