Something happens to people when they have to write sales copy—be it a proposal, a letter, a brochure or a website. They get so wrapped up in the process of writing that they forget to articulate their message clearly—to themselves or their reader.
The copy is long. The copy is wordy. The copy is BORING.
I always ask the same question: “What are you trying to say?”—because it’s rarely clear from the text.
When they start speaking, all becomes clear. They have one or two simple messages that they want to get across and I understand them immediately. “So why didn’t you write that?” I ask.
If you want to sell something, you have to break through a wall of indifference, apathy, even downright hostility. People, generally, don’t want to receive sales communications (despite what surveys of direct mail recipients tell us). Mailshots are an interruption to the day’s work, or pleasure.
The first step in surmounting their objections is to plan what you want to say. Without a plan you’re going to spend more time achieving less. Remember this article? Your reader? Your plan must revolve around them.
When I ask people at a copywriting workshop what single issue affects their writing, a common response is “writer’s block”.
Now, they’re not talking about the tortured condition of the writer sitting alone in a garret staring at a blank sheet of paper, or screen. These are business executives.
What they mean is, they know they have to write a sales letter, but they can’t think how to start or what to say or in what order.
When I ask how many of them make a plan before they put finger to keyboard, the usual answer is none. And that’s the problem. Without a plan you have a real hill to climb. It’s hard enough trying to write compelling sentences with fresh phrasing without having to think, “Where am I going with this?”
Think first, write later
The best way to start is to sit down, away from your PC, and just THINK—calmly. Doing this will save time later when you come to write.
There are six big questions you need to ask (and answer):
- What am I trying to achieve? Change minds? Motivate people? Make someone do something? Buy something?
- Who am I writing to and what do I know about this person? Remember, even if you are writing something that will be read by lots of people, you should plan it (and write it) as if you were only ever going to have one reader.
3. What do I want to say? You need to have all the facts and background information to hand before you start writing. Make sure you concentrate on your reader’s needs, not your own.
- How much space do I have? Ideally, you should not be governed by artificial length limits when writing. You should say everything you need to and then stop. In the real world, of course, it doesn’t work like that. It makes sense to find out whether you have a single side of A4, 500 words or a two-screen email before you start writing.
- How do I want to come across? Friendly and approachable? Authoritative and knowledgeable? Independent and unbiased? This will affect your tone of voice and the words you choose.
- How long do I have? Deadlines are a fact of life. Learn to come inside them and your client (internal or external) will thank you for it. Over-run and you can kiss that “most popular employee/freelance” award goodbye.
Of these, the most important is number one. In this book, we are talking about copywriting, or at the very least, writing with a commercial purpose. That means you want to get someone to do something for you.
Start with paper, not pixels
Nowadays, most people, including me, write on a computer. We spend our days, or a great proportion of them, staring at a screen.
Apart from being bad for your eyes—not to mention your posture, neck, back and the tendons in your arms—it’s not a great way to plan.
You know you’re going to have to spend a big chunk of time sitting at your screen to write your copy, so don’t double it by writing your plan there too.
Also, that little cursor, blinking accusingly at you in the top left corner of the screen, is as likely to induce writer’s block in your plan as it is in your copy. So, here’s what I recommend you do instead.
- Get up from your desk and go and sit somewhere else. Get comfortable. Now you’re ready.
- Paper and pencil is a wonderfully freeing combination. Nothing comes out in perfectly formed type; nothing looks so good that it can’t be scrubbed out or scribbled over.
- Make notes based on all the stuff you’ve been thinking about. Draw little pictures, if that’s the way you prefer visualizing information (it is for one very good friend of mine). Connect ideas with dotted lines or arrows. Draw a mind map. Record your thoughts on tape or digital media if it helps.
- Try to avoid writing complete sentences. They’re hard enough to compose when writing “properly” so don’t waste your time on them in your plan—you’ll end up spending too much time worrying about your syntax when you should be getting what’s in your head down on paper. Writing, a right-brain, creative activity, and planning, a left-brain, logical activity, are two completely different mental processes: it pays to keep them separate.
Jot down bullet points of your copy
At this point, you really just want to get all your ideas onto paper, so stick with bullet points.
You can just have a few keywords that will remind you of the main ideas when you come back to them. To help with the next stage, you could try writing separate points on Post-its.
Every time you have a new idea, put it on a new note, then stick them all up on the wall. Once you’ve got all your ideas you can group them together and see what belongs with what.
At this stage, you should start to arrange your thoughts into themes. There will be a few main ideas under which you can group all your subsidiary ideas. For example, if you are writing a proposal, you might have sections (or themes) headed:
What’s in it for the reader? Our capabilities
Our track record Costs and timings Background to project
This is still supposed to be a fairly loose arrangement of your ideas, so if you find that there are two or more themes with overlapping ideas, you can split them and decide which points belong in which section. This will help you avoid repetition in your final copy.
Finally, your copywriting plan
The end product will be a simple written plan, preferably on a single side of A4. It will have started out as a handwritten document (or collection of Post-its) and will have evolved into a typed plan.
It will have your goal at the top.
If it’s for long copy, it will have a number of sections that follow on from each other logically. If it’s for short copy, it will have ideas for paragraphs.
It will tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
It will include ideas for alternative ways of presenting your main points.
Believe it or not, you are now ready to start writing. And, if you win the lottery and throw it all in to sail round the Bahamas, your less fortunate colleagues can pick up where you left off.