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Essence of Great Copywriting

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1. What Makes Great Copy?

It is about what makes great copy. Without the skills outlined below, no matter how much business acumen you have, the chances are you will not make a great success of copywriting.

If you are expecting me to outline some secret winning formula, however, prepare to be disappointed. There is a winning formula, but it is far from secret. The rules you need to follow can be found all around you, in conversations in the pub, jokes on the internet and even Hollywood movies.

What all these have in common is that they are capable of engaging you and commanding your full attention, at least for a while. This is exactly what you, as a copywriter, need to be able to do – with any audience.

But how? What follows are a few simple rules of thumb that apply to all forms of effective communication. In a nutshell, all you need to do to write great copy is to keep it:

short

simple

interesting

relevant

active

honest.

2. Keep It Short

It is quite common to have a lot to say, but most people do not have much time to listen – or read. So the first rule of copywriting is: keep it short.

Remember that you are not a novelist; your audience is not asking you to give them something to read on the beach. Instead, think of your copy as a journey that the reader has to undertake to arrive at the message you are trying to pass on.

No matter how interesting (and it should be interesting), your readers will want to get to the end in the quickest possible time, so help them by providing the most direct route.

Get rid of any detours and use short cuts where possible.

The ‘keep it short’ rule applies to words, sentences and entire texts. In your copy, every word should count. There should be no padding, no dross. With everything you write, look to see if you can cut the number of words you use and still retain meaning. Do this once, twice, as many times as you can. What you will find is that every time you cut words, your message becomes more direct and more powerful, because you are stripping away excess to reveal the core of what you want to say.

Let’s take an example. Here is a fairly straightforward commercial message:

‘The reason why you should buy my book, which is called Fasttrack your copywriting skills, is that it will help you to become a better writer and make more money.’

At 34 words, you might think this is pretty succinct. But watch:

‘The reason you should buy my book,
Fasttrack your copywriting skills, is it will help you to become a better writer and make more money.’

We have taken out five words without changing the meaning of the sentence at all. What were those words doing?

Just taking up space and time – and preventing the reader from progressing quickly onto the next important point. If you look carefully at any text, you will usually find there are words that simply sit around without contributing to the meaning of sentences.

The word ‘that’ is a good example; it can usually be replaced by ‘which’, or taken out altogether.

Now let’s see if we can cut away even more. How about:

‘Buy my book, Fasttrack your copywriting skills – it will help you to become a better writer and make more money.’ (24 words) Or even:

‘Buy my book, become a better writer and make more money.’ (11 words)

Notice how each time words are taken away, the message becomes more direct and thus more powerful. How far can we go with this process? The core message in this example might simply be: ‘Buy my book’ – just three words, or less than nine per cent of the original sentence.

Don’t just keep sentences short. Try to break up long paragraphs and words, too. Your aim should always be to minimise the number of syllables, or even letters, in your text.

If in doubt, it is preferable to have a string of short words than a single long word. Better still, break up your long words and then rearrange each sentence so you get rid of some of the shorter words you have just created.

Watch out for unnecessary punctuation, too. In essence, if punctuation marks can be taken out of a sentence without changing its meaning or making it more difficult to understand, then get rid of them. Consider the following:

‘Chief executive, Alan X, says: . . .’ And:

‘Chief executive Alan X says: . . .’

Notice how the commas in the first line are not adding any information or clarification to the sentence. So they have to go. Notice also, however, that the commas would be justified if Alan X’s name were being mentioned in a subordinate clause, as in:

‘Company Y’s chief executive, Alan X, says: . . .’

In a similar vein, leave full stops out of common abbreviations like ‘Mr’ or ‘mph’.

How long should sentences be in copywriting?

As a general rule, unless you are writing for a particularly highbrow audience, no sentence of commercial copy has any right to be much longer than about 50 words.

For an intro, the first line of your text, you need to hook the reader with a short, sharp statement, so try to stick to 25 words or fewer.

Keeping to these word counts will make your text easier to read. It will help you in other ways, too, for example in forcing you to clarify what you are trying to say and making you break your message down into small, bite-sized chunks of information.

Note that these word counts are for guidance only and will depend on the exact project you are working on. Be particularly wary of long sentences (and paragraphs) if you are writing for electronic media (because it is difficult to scan long lines of text on a screen) or direct mail.

For advertising, where your intro is usually a headline, 25 words of copy is far too much. Aim for a dozen words maximum in your headline but remember the name of the game is to write as little, rather than as much, as possible.

If you can summarize your ad in one word of copy, then do it.

3. Keep It Simple

Notice how the paring-down process we used in the example above helped simplify what we were trying to say. Towards the end, it becomes clear that the text contains a number of distinct messages:

‘Buy my book.’

‘Become a better writer.’

‘And make more money.’

Breaking down a text into simple messages like this is another way of improving the readability and power of your copy.

Once again, remember that you are not out to wow readers with your literary prowess, but to give them an unequivocal motive to take some form of action. Highlight each point clearly and concisely, so the reader is left in no doubt about what you are saying.

Presenting your argument one point at a time can be important in helping you work out the structure of your text. If you are writing a feature, for example, it is worth setting out all the points in the argument you want to make and then writing a paragraph on each; as you go along you will be able to see where it would make sense to include quotes, statistics and so on.

The ‘keep it simple’ rule applies to different types of project in the same way as sentence length. Keep things very simple in texts for electronic, broadcast and tabloid media, advertising and direct mail.

If you are in any doubt as to how you should simplify a complicated argument, a good tip is to pick up a tabloid newspaper and see how they have treated similar subjects.

Finally, presenting your argument in simple terms is useful in helping you work out the order of your messages – and, crucially, what should be the first thing you can say that will capture the reader’s attention.

The Fog Index in Copywriting

If you are worried about the readability of your copy, you can use a measure called the Fog Index to assess whether you need to simplify it. The Fog Index quantifies how complicated a text is in terms of the number of years of schooling required to understand it. This is how you use it:

◆ Work out the average number of words per sentence in your text. You can do this by dividing the number of words by the number of sentences in a couple of paragraphs. Independent clauses (such as ‘The time for words is over; now, action is needed’) count as separate sentences.

◆ Count up the number of words in the same section of text that have three syllables or more, ignoring proper names.

◆ Add the two figures and then multiply the sum by 0.4 to get your Fog Index.

The Fog Index of the bullet points above works out at about ten, which is more or less the same as text in Time, Newsweek or the Wall Street Journal. Such a score is alright for educated audiences (like the anticipated readership of this book), but far too high for mass-market copy.

Tabloid newspapers (and, interestingly, great works like the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays) tend to have Fog Indexes of almost half that level. And if your copy has a Fog Index of more than about 12, it is probably too complicated for most people to read easily.

If you use a word processor to produce copy, it will probably have other statistics that can help you gauge readability. Microsoft Word, for example, has two readability indices (which can be switched on via the ‘Options’ panel under ‘Tools’):

Flesch Reading Ease, which ranges from zero to 100, with higher numbers indicating greater readability. Average texts should score between 60 and 70.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which indicates readability in terms of US grade-school levels; anything above eighth grade would be considered of below-average readability.

4. Keep It Interesting

Although we have worked out that the key message (or, if you like, the desired outcome) in our earlier example is ‘Buy my book’, this does not mean it is the message that is most likely to get the reader to act in the way we want them to.

When faced with commercial communications, people are often much more likely to act if you talk to them about an idea (wealth, for example, or expertise) rather than a physical object (like a book). This is a technique which has been used by sales people for decades.

In How to Win Customers, first published in 1957, ace salesman Heinz M. Goldmann writes: ‘What you sell is never a product as such, but the idea behind the product – that is, the role played by that product in satisfying a customer’s needs. The product is a means, not an end.’

Nowadays, the theory still holds true. In marketing it tends to be embodied in the phrase ‘talk benefits, not features’; in other words, what will grab the reader is an explanation of what a product or service can do rather than how it works.

(Nevertheless it is still amazing how often companies insist on talking about the features of their products in their commercial communications.)

People are not interested in what a product or service can do. They are interested in what it can do for them. Whenever you have to write about something, don’t think about what it is or does; think about what it means.

Take a new computer, for example.

You could talk about how it has a screen layout that makes it user-friendly; how even non-technical people could find it easy to work with. These things might be very important as far as your client is concerned, because, after all, they have spent a good deal of time, effort and money coming up with these features. But such messages are likely to be trivial to the average buyer.

What interests the consumer is what these features might mean to their lives.

In the 80s, Apple Computer adopted this approach to launch its Macintosh machine.

The advertising campaign it used, directed by Ridley Scott, did not feature a single shot of the product – or even a mention of what it could do.

Instead it showed a character rebelling against an Orwellian society. In the consumer’s mind, the Macintosh was thus powerfully linked to the concept of freedom.

This positioning ultimately may have helped Apple become the preferred computer for creative professionals the world over.

In the same way today, Volkswagen’s award-winning advertising rarely makes a big deal about the cars it promotes, but instead focuses on ideas like security, enjoyment or roominess.

What this illustrates about the ‘benefits, not features’ approach is that it is ultimately designed to elicit an emotional, rather than rational, response from the audience. And this is largely what drives purchase behaviour.

This response can be as subtle as presenting a product or service in terms that make it ‘feel right’ to the customer; hence why large organisations spend millions of pounds on brand advertising campaigns that are solely about making particular consumer groups feel an affinity with their name.

As a copywriter, your job is to convince your audience; but you will do that only if you can make it feel something.

5. Keep It Relevant

Making your copy interesting is all well and good, but you also have to remember that different things appeal to different people. So the first question you have to ask yourself with any copywriting project is: who am I writing for?

In virtually all assignments, you will find there are usually two or more distinct audiences.

First there is the ultimate audience, the one your client is trying to reach. This may be consumers, business people or some sector of society; youth, for example, or professional women, or members of the press.

If the ultimate audience is not clear from your client’s brief, then make sure you establish what it is before you get to work. And if you are not personally acquainted with the ultimate audience, find out as much as possible about them, both from your client and from other sources.

You need to find out what drives these people and what messages they will respond to, so that your copy will grab their attention.

As well as being relevant to your ultimate audience in content, your copy needs to be relevant in tone.

Youth audiences are unlikely to respond to corporate speak, for example. But beware of overdoing it if you are not familiar with the language of a particular group or you could end up alienating the audience you are trying to get through to.

If in doubt, stick to simple, straightforward words and phrases as these make sense in any dialect.

Besides your ultimate audience (and there may be more than one of these), you also have to satisfy an immediate audience: your client. This means that your copy has to be consonant with your client’s organisation and take account of its style and approach to communications.

Again, if these are not outlined in your brief, it is worth querying your client on what they would and would not like to see in your text. Remember, also, that the ultimate audience is likely to have certain expectations about how they will be spoken to by your client’s business.

It is probably obvious at this point that your immediate and ultimate audiences may have widely different expectations and requirements.

In general, your job as a copywriter is to try as far as possible to steer your client towards using the language of the ultimate audience, as this is the approach that should achieve the best results.

However, you also need to be sensitive to your client’s idiosyncrasies, particularly if these are imposed by some higher authority. It is usually possible to come to some form of compromise, but if you cannot reconcile the two types of content and tone then you really have only two options: resign the work or accept the client’s point of view (with reservations, if necessary) and do it their way.

Which you choose is up to you but personally I favour the latter. You still get paid and many clients appreciate the effort that you put in on their behalf plus the fact that you understand the constraints they operate under.

A final point on how to keep your copywriting relevant to your readers: talk about them.

When writing marketing copy, it is easy to say ‘we do this’, ‘we do that’. Your client’s readers, however, are in the main not interested in hearing about your client.

So write text that says: ‘we’ll help you do this’, ‘you’ll do that’. As a basic rule of thumb, if your copy says ‘you’ more often than it says ‘we’, then you are talking in language that is likely to appeal to readers. Get into the habit of checking that this is always the case.

Keeping things short, simple, accurate and relevant is important in all types of copy and you should ensure that you apply these rules as second nature throughout your writing.

The next two rules are also crucial, but their importance can vary according to the type of project you are working on.

6. Keep It Active

Consider the following two sentences:

‘Savings of £2 million a year have been generated by the new procedure.’

‘The new procedure has generated savings of £2 million a year.’

Both say the same thing, but the second sentence uses an active rather than a passive voice.

In the first instance, X is done by Y. In the second, Y does X.

Notice the latter is shorter, simpler, more direct and more powerful.

It is easy to write in the passive voice because it sounds more long-winded and ‘authoritative’; as a result, it is commonly used in management documents and the like.

This is not the way your copy should read. As I have already mentioned, when writing copy you are not trying to impress people with your wordiness, but attempting to grab their attention and get an emotional response from them that will drive them to act.

Using the active voice will ensure your copy is unambiguous, direct and personal. There may be exceptions to this rule.

If you are writing a report or a management document, you might feel justified in adopting a passive voice because it will result in language your audience will feel more at home with.

Even so, I would probably argue that use of the active voice would still make your text more effective; try switching some of your sentences around to see how they read.

Using Anglo-Saxon

In a similar vein, Crawford Kilian, author of the excellent Writing for the Web, advocates using Anglo-Saxon root words rather than Latin root words where possible.

His rationale is that the latter were introduced into the English language by the Roman administration and in many cases replaced shorter, ‘vulgar’ Anglo-Saxon terms which are quicker and easier to read and carry a much higher emotional charge.

To demonstrate how effective this technique is, consider the following Latin root words that I used on purpose in this paragraph – and their Anglo-Saxon counterparts:

Latin Anglo-Saxon
• introduce • bring in
• administration • chiefs
• demonstrate • show
• effective • good
• consider • look at

7. Keep It Honest

If you look carefully you might notice that all the points I have made so far are in fact variations on a theme. They all refer to putting across a message as directly and succinctly as possible.

Such messages will be easier to understand and therefore more transparent to the audience reading them.

Which brings us on to the final basic rule for great copy: honesty. Honesty is crucial in copywriting because, quite simply, customers are unlikely to buy from an organisation they do not trust.

This lack of trust may be explicit in the company’s communications, for example through blatant over-claiming in advertising.

But it can also, very often, be implicit in the use of long-winded language and technical jargon which appears to have little substance.

If customers cannot understand what a piece of copy is saying, why should they trust the organisation it comes from?

There is another good reason to stick to honest, accurate text. In many areas of writing, such as journalism or advertising, if you mislead your readers you can get into serious legal trouble.

Accuracy of information

As a copywriter, it is your job to cram as much information as possible into as few words as you can. That means you deal with a lot of information: names, dates, quotations, figures, theories, concepts, assumptions and so on. It is ultimately up to you to make sure they are all right.

Someone else, whether it is the legal department of a client company or the sub-editor of a magazine, may take some responsibility in checking what you have written, but no customer of yours is going to thank you for handing in material that is riddled with mistakes.

So get used to questioning and checking every fact that goes into your copy. Also, do not assume that everything you read has been checked with the same diligence you should apply to your own copy.

Much published information in newspapers, magazines and websites is notoriously inaccurate because the content is often generated at speed and with access to a limited number of sources.

(It is sometimes said that information on the web is less trustworthy than that in the print media but my personal opinion is that the level of misreporting in both types is about the same. Online misinformation, however, can spread much more quickly and widely.)

Particular areas to watch out for (often because you may think you know what you are talking about when you do not) are:

◆ Place names (check against a good atlas).

◆ Name spellings (always check when you speak to someone and if in doubt then cross-reference your notes with published material, if available).

◆ Job titles (if in doubt, a phone call to a company switchboard can help).

◆ Company names (the phone book or the company’s corporate website are good ways to cross-check these; and beware of style points, such as names that are written with a lower-case initial).

◆ Figures (if they are sums of money, always check the currency).

◆ Sources (always provide a reference to the original source of information if you can, even if it is simply ‘research company X says’. On the web, you may be able to link directly to the source instead).

Accuracy extends to spelling and grammar, of course. While some people do not believe you should rely on automated spell checkers, they are at least useful for picking up the kind of obvious mistakes that can creep in when you are rushing to meet a deadline.

Just make sure you have your spell checker switched to the version of English that your audience will be reading in.

As for grammar, there is a case for doing away with as much spurious punctuation as possible (see above) but make sure your text does not become ambiguous in the process.

The best option, as always, is to stick to short, simple sentences.

Accuracy versus interest

Since your copy is intended to grab a reader’s interest, it is not unusual (particularly with dull subject matter) to come across a conflict between the truth and what you would like to say.

Much advertising seems to over-claim routinely (‘Our herbal remedy will change your life forever!’) to the point where most audiences now recognise a level of poetic licence as an inherent feature of the medium.

(In fact, around 70 per cent of people do not believe what adverts say at all.)

Nevertheless, claims which are factually incorrect (for example, ‘Our product is 20 per cent cheaper than our nearest competitor’s’ – when it is not) can still land you in trouble.

The smart copywriter will ignore the temptation to jazz up a product or service offering with fancy claims and, instead, look for something that will act as a unique selling point for the target audience.

Preferably, too, this will be linked to an emotional response rather than a feature of the product or service, which again lessens the potential for misrepresentation.

Sometimes it can be practically impossible to think of anything interesting to say about your client’s product or service.

If you are stuck in this situation, look again at what appeals to the target audience. After all, someone must be interested in buying what you have to sell. Think also about modifying your creative approach; could the message be jazzed up if it were delivered through a different medium, for example?

However, if after much thought you cannot come up with anything truthful about a product or service that you believe will interest an audience, you might just be justified in advising your client to re-think how they want to go about promoting it.

Proofreading Your Copy

The smallest mistakes are the easiest ones to make: writing ‘an’ instead of ‘and’, missing out a word, misspelling a name.

These also tend to be the mistakes that are least likely to be picked up by a spell checker.

Because most of your copy will be proofread by a client at some point or other, it can be tempting, particularly if you are working against the clock, to not worry too much about these tiny mistakes and to leave them for others to pick up. Do not be tempted.

Handing your client copy that is riddled with basic mistakes makes your work look sloppy and unprofessional.

And your client will not necessarily pick up on all your small mistakes. Some of them may make it through to the final version, with embarrassing and potentially costly consequences.

Proofread everything you do before you send it off. Some people believe it helps to print a hard copy, since mistakes can be easier to spot on paper, but even a quick scan of your copy on screen is better than nothing – and could well help you spot a howler in the nick of time.

Do not just limit your proofreading to your copy, either. Make sure you check everything from proposals to emails.

Since your writing is your trade, you can be judged on every word you put down, and you should admit no errors.

8. Finding Inspiration

Having stripped away your message to the bare bones of what you want to say, you may wonder whether there will be any room left for that wonderful creativity copywriters are supposed to possess.

How are you going to impress your client (and their audience) if you are barred from finding space for that great turn of phrase or simile you had in mind?

How are you going to apply your written powers of persuasion in an intro just 25 words long?

And surely it is a waste to confine all the research you have done into a topic to just 200 words of copy?

If that is your thinking, then forget it. I bet your ‘wonderfully creative’ copy would have ended up sounding pompous and long-winded.

Directness and simplicity are paths to creativity, not obstacles to it.

Distilling your message to its essence will give you a clear insight into what you are really trying to say. Working out what is interesting and relevant to your audience will help you discover new ways of saying it. The process can be summarised as follows:

◆ What am I really trying to say? (‘Buy my book.’)

◆ Why is this relevant to my audience? (It isn’t, unless they want to improve their writing skills and earn more money.)

◆ What can I say that will get them interested in the first place? (‘Earn more through writing.’)

If you know what you want to say but are really stuck for an original way to put it, here are some tips that might help throw up the headline or intro you are looking for.

◆ Narrow down your message to one or two key words and think about whether they have any connection or double meaning that might work in another context relevant to your audience.

◆ Ask yourself ‘What if . . . ?’ questions about your subject matter (for example: ‘What if everyone was given a free product X?’).

◆ Take a train of thought regarding your subject matter to its logical conclusion (for example: detergent X washes whiter than ever; so white your clothes might blind you; so you write: ‘Optician’s warning – buy sunglasses before use’).

◆ Turn your argument on its head and think about the consequences of not using the products and services you are promoting.

This technique has been used in marketing for generations, to create demand for goods that would probably be hard to justify otherwise.

Think about why you buy toilet cleaner. Sure, it kills those nasty bugs which are supposed to live in your loo bowl. But how often do you touch your loo bowl anyway?

In many areas of writing, such as journalism, web copywriting or case study production, you should be able to pull out an interesting intro from your source material.

While you are researching the subject, look out for unusual statistics, quotes or trends that you can use.

9. Presenting Your Copywriting

There are no golden rules on how you should present your copy to your client. After all, what is important is what is said rather than what it looks like. Some obvious points to bear in mind, however, are:

◆ It is useful to include a header with information like the document title, draft number, date, approval stage and, if necessary, your contact details.

◆ Headlines, sub-headings and so on should be clearly identified as such with labels that will not be mistaken for part of the main text.

◆ Indicate where the text ends, in case part of it gets lost in faxing or printing.

◆ Include a word count if this is relevant to the job.

◆ Include page numbers on documents that are several pages long.

◆ On very large documents, such as proposals or website drafts, it is useful to have a contents page with links to headlines throughout the text.

◆ Give an idea of what any images or graphics being used with the text should look like, for example by including sketches or short descriptions.

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