Corporate copywriting, Editing, Structural tools

“Congratulations! Your copy is so good you’re now in charge of marketing”

From a common method of sabotaging in-house writers to a powerful tool for turning features into benefits, Andy Maslen explores 15 ideas that could put the sparkle back into your copy.

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I know you’re busy. So this issue, I won’t burden you with one long article. Instead, here are fifteen fun-sized factoids to crisp up your copywriting. Enjoy!

Writing copy in-house

  1. If you are fortunate enough to have on your permanent staff a talented copywriter, promoting them to marketing manager will not, generally, improve the quality of copywriting in your business. What it will do is decrease the quality of management in your business. Copywriting is a craft skill, and talented craftsmen and women should be left to get on with their work, not saddled with responsibility for recruiting, supervising, conducting appraisals, and all the baggage that goes with the “manager” tag. Instead, pay them more and give them somewhere quiet to work. (They will then leave you, believing that they will be happier and more fulfilled as a head of copy.)
  2. When recruiting marketing executives, the typical ad asking for, “creative and analytical skills, the ability to work on your own and as part of a team, strategic and tactical thinking,” is unlikely to furnish you with anyone useful. They will either be suffering from a split personality, or be a congenital liar, since nobody can keep that many impossible things in their head before breakfast and stay sane (not even the Red Queen managed it).
  3. Fishing out your pen as soon as your copywriter presents their first draft is not a great motivator. Hey! If you’re that good, how come you don’t write the copy. Believe it or not, your in-house copywriter has put a lot of hard work into that ad, letter or e-mail; show them the courtesy of reading the copy first and thinking about it for a while.

Smart?

  1. Putting “to raise awareness” as your primary marketing goal at the top of a copywriting brief is neither particularly smart nor even very helpful. Face it, everyone who sees your mailshot will be aware of your title (assuming you have used the outer envelope to mention it). But, as Gerald Ratner (remember him?) famously discovered, having raised awareness of his company’s products to stellar levels by describing them as “crap” at a meeting with brokers, awareness doesn’t pay the bills. A simple number is usually far more instructive (it certainly focuses my mind, anyway). For example: to sell 500 additional 3-year subscriptions by the end of the year.
  2. Refusing to use copy on the outer envelope of a mailshot, on the grounds that, “people will know it’s direct mail,” is quite common in my experience. Presumably, these naysayers are the same people who believe you shouldn’t adorn churches with crosses in case people realise they are places of worship, and who can’t see the point of labels on tinned food for similar reasons. There are enough cues on an outer envelope already to suggest that this may just be a mailer. The question is, is it relevant to the reader? Give them a reason to look inside. Use some copy. Or a picture. How about, “How to slide up the greasy pole” for a management title? Or “Eat yourself happy” for a diet mag?
  3. We don’t “know” a creative approach won’t work. We are not omniscient. Or psychic. If we are, what the hell are we doing wasting our time in publishing? We could be ruling the world ha, ha haaa. I still have trouble fathoming the thinking of publishers in particular and marketers in general who tell me, quite seriously, that they can predict the psychological and financial responses of a list of 100,000 strangers to a typeface, headline, offer or sales hook and, therefore, need not waste their money on testing. A related attitude can be summed up as, “I never read this type of copy, so I don’t want you to use it.” Hmm. I prefer the approach of a client of mine at one of the big London-based magazine publishers. She says, “I hate that copy – keep going, the sales are fantastic.”

Training

  1. You do not need to hire expensive copywriting trainers to improve the skills of your staff. For a modest outlay of twenty or thirty pounds a head, you could give each of them a handful of books that, if they read them, would sharpen their writing and, more importantly, their salesmanship. But, most people do not read books at all, and especially not business or professional books. I suppose this is good news for people like me. And there IS a difference between reading a book and attending a course. But books are a great first step. Why not at the very least acquaint your staff with the thinking and practice of the best people in advertising and marketing over the last 100 years or so?
  2. Cheap training is a false economy. If your goal is to tick the box that says, “Attended copywriting training” on your team’s yearly appraisal sheet then of course cheap training is what you want. If, on the other hand, you want to see some sort of return on investment in terms of sales and profits, I would counsel you to seek out the best quality training and compare the cost against the increased revenues you expect it to generate for your titles. If you market £1,595/year management newsletters, why worry if a workshop costs £4,000? Three additional subscriptions will cover your outlay.
  3. Great copywriters are not necessarily great trainers. Knowing how to do something and knowing how to communicate that knowledge to others are quite different skills. Why do you think so few tennis coaches ever win Wimbledon? If you DO decide to bring in external trainers, ask about their copywriting experience of course, but much more importantly, ask about their training experience. Ask them how they engage learners (beware of anyone who talks to you about trainees). Ask them what they to do maintain arousal levels after lunch. Ask them what they do to embed learning.

Planning

  1. Every piece of copy needs a plan, whether it’s a three-phase banner ad or a long-copy sales letter. Resist the temptation to dive in and start writing. It’s what we call an action illusion. You feel busy because you are writing, but you’re being neither efficient nor effective. And forget about what you want to say. Instead, concentrate on what your reader wants to hear. Make sure you have a clearly defined goal at the head of your plan. I find a quick trip to KFC always helps. Chicken? No. What do you want your reader to KnowFeel and Commit?
  2. There are lots of ways to write great copy. But I’ve yet to find a more reliable guide to a sound sales letter – or email – than AIDCA. (You know, Attention, Interest, Desire, Conviction, Action.) Maybe this is old-school. Maybe the digital world works differently. I think not though. At the very least, this age-old formula helps you write a rounded sales pitch that leaves nothing out. Prefer writing story-based copy, or foot-in-the-door? Offer based, or benefits-based? Fine – this works for any style of copy.
  3. If you are going to hit your targets for the piece of copy you’re writing, you need to know your reader. Research them, empathise with them, uncover their motivations AND reservations. Remember, copywriting is salesmanship in print so use all the tools that a good salesman would, from objection handling to a strong close.

What works

  1. Storytelling is a hugely effective way of conveying sales messages while engaging your reader. Stories don’t have to be long, but they do need to rely on narrative techniques. Give your reader a character, a situation, some action and a resolution, preferably with a twist, and you have them hooked. One of my favourite ads is for Técla jewellers of New York. It was written by Frank Irving Fletcher, the best-paid copywriter of his time. Here it is, in full: “A client for whom we had copied a necklace of Oriental Pearls, seeing both necklaces before her, said: Well, the resemblance is remarkable, but this is mine! Then she picked up ours!”
  2. Facts take your copywriting to a sparsely populated region of the salesosphere where your voice carries further. And let’s be clear, by facts I do not mean features. Here are a few examples of what I mean. “Paper Tiger is read by 98,400 of the world’s most successful office stationery sales executives.” “Last year, 75% of subscribers to The Brent Report were promoted to the boardroom.” “With no external shareholders to please, we are free to pursue a policy of total editorial independence.”
  3. I feel slightly strange committing this one to print, but experience tells me there are plenty of publishers and marketeers (and especially editors) who struggle with it: features aren’t benefits. I have lost count of the mailpacks and web pages I have seen with a heading, “Fifteen benefits of subscribing” followed by a list of 15 features. For the record, “in-depth interviews” is NOT a benefit. Nor is “Access to our website”. A simple but devastatingly effective tool for turning features into benefits is to ask the old “So what?” question. Keep asking it until you feel foolish for doing so. Remember, too, that whether you are selling to consumers or business people, they are all human (or the majority are). That means they have emotions and emotional reactions to sales pitches. Forget this at your peril.

Brevity is the soul of wit, said William Shakespeare. (And of lingerie, according to Dorothy Parker.) It’s also not bad for good copywriting, says independent subscriptions copywriter, Andy Maslen.

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To judge by much of the copy that I see in an average week, there are plenty of people who view long words and long sentences as the epitome of the copywriter’s craft. I don’t. Let’s examine the case for the prosecution.

One, long sentences are harder to read. It’s true that a well-written sentence, of almost any length, can be easy, even pleasurable, to read. But this assumes that your reader has the time to sit back and be lulled by your mellifluous prose style.

Let’s be honest. It’s not going to happen. People are busy. They’ll read if you make it easy for them. But they’ll get bored and switch off if they look at a sentence that starts on one line and ends two or three lines further down the page.

Two, you get lost (and so does your point). It’s very hard to write a simple sentence of more than 16 words using the active voice without interrupting the flow of the main clause with subordinate clauses or any punctuation. (It’s not impossible.)

But even if you can pull off this little parlour trick, you’re still forcing your reader to wade across a very wide river. More often, what happens is that you have two or three points you want to get across and they all get run together.

Three, they make added demands on your reader. If you’re writing for an international audience, many will only have English as their second language. That means long convoluted sentences will trip them up and force them to reread.

Is your market entirely made up of native English speakers? Then you may still be making assumptions about their willingness or ability to decode overlong sentences. So, let’s look at the solution.

Ten practical tips for achieving brevity

First, let’s be clear: long sentences are not universally a bad thing. Just when they could be cut down. Or replaced by two or more shorter ones.

1. Read your work aloud

This is such a powerful technique, I’m amazed so few of the people I train use it. I still do it myself to check not just style but tone of voice. If you’re pausing for breath, your sentences are too long. Restructure them, teasing out the separate ideas and placing them in separate sentences.

2. Weed out subordinate clauses from your copy

Even if you’re not familiar with the terminology, you’ll recognise these slippery little fellows every time. Why? One, the give-away comma-pairs that enclose them. Two, the draggy quality they impart to the writing they interrupt. Here’s an example…

MazCo, which was established in 1986, and is based in the heart of London’s financial district, helps its clients, who include household names in the UK and Europe, write shorter sentences.

Have a go at rewriting this. You should aim for a minimum of three sentences (four would be better).

3. Consider sentence fragments

Sentence fragments may be frowned upon in literary circles. Though not always. But they are a valuable tool in your copywriter’s bag of tricks. So don’t be afraid to ignore what Mr Doggett told you in fourth year English.

Sentences (or at least those phrases topped with a capital letter and tailed with a full stop) don’t need verbs. (I can hear the shrieks from the traditionalists as I write this, but hey, they don’t have to earn a living parting people from their money using nothing but writing.)

4. Check for the ideal length

Do you want a “rule”? How about this: aim for an average of 16 words per sentence. That’s the level at which most people can understand the meaning of a sentence in one go.

Shorter sentences are even better, though you need to vary the length to create a sense of pace in your writing. Too many short sentences tire your reader. They’re breathless. They’re choppy. You’re message gets lost. Give your reader a chance to relax and be seduced by what you have to say and they’ll thank you for it.

5. Write a plan for every document

If you start writing without a plan, you have to think of two things simultaneously: what to say and how to say it. As you strive for the right words, it’s all too easy just to keep on writing as your brain struggles to cope with the lack of structure.

Write a plan first and you can see what needs to be said, and in what order. The result? A concise document that leaves nothing out except the irrelevant, the unimportant and the unnecessary.

And remember, state your main commercial goal at the head of your plan. If your aim is to sell 1,500 new 3-year subscriptions within 30 days of the mailing dropping, say that.

6. Revise your text

View your first draft as just that: a draft. It’s never going to be good enough to send. Leave it for a while then go back to it. Ideally overnight, but if you have to get it out the same day, at least an hour. Although it has been shown that 37% of statistics are unreliable, you should aim to cut your first draft by at least 10% to produce your second.

What should you cut? Anything that doesn’t move your reader towards your goal, whether that’s subscribing, renewing, taking a free trial or signing up for a free e-zine.

7. “Omit needless words.” – William Strunk Jr.

Look for redundant adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “he walked slowly” you can say “He sauntered”. Instead of saying “It fell noisily” you can say “It clattered”. Prune all flowery language (‘genetic inheritance’ just means ‘genes’, for example). Tautology (eg ‘pre-planned’). Clichés (which you should avoid like the plague). And, more generally, words that add nothing to your message. One of my favourites is ‘A loud bang.’ (As opposed a tiny little quiet bang, I assume.) A much better writer than I am recently shared one of his favourites with me: ‘Crisis situation.’ Presumably ‘crisis’, unadorned, was not felt to be sufficiently weighty.

8. Don’t tell people what they already know

If you are writing a proposal, don’t include a lengthy description of your client’s industry/market. Or of their business. Especially not near the beginning. If you feel you need to demonstrate that you were awake at the pitch meeting, include a couple of very short bullet-points in an appendix.

In sales letters, don’t start by lecturing your reader about what they need to do to be good at their job. They know this. And even if they don’t, they won’t thank YOU for pointing it out to them.

I remember very clearly the advice my first boss gave me when I was writing copy for market research reports. “If you’re ever stuck for how to start, Andy, just say, ‘Recent years have witnessed…’ then tack on some facts from the report.”

It kept me out of trouble (or so I thought) for years till I realised the people I was writing to KNEW what recent years had witnessed in their industry because they’d witnessed them too. If you need to show your reader you’ve done your research, just add the phrase “As you know,” to the front. Now you are flattering them rather than lecturing them. Big difference.

9. Avoid repeating yourself

Yes, presenting the same points in different ways can help sway your reader. But straight repetition—either because you have contracted a mild case of Cutandpastitis or because you haven’t revised your text (see 6 above)—will only put them off.

10. Use short words

Let’s suppose you’re launching a new management journal (and Lord knows, we could do with something better than the slew of badly written rags that clutter up our in trays every month). You might have an editorial mission statement that said, “It is our intention to identify and disseminate current best practice in strategic management methodologies.” If you did, you’d score a lamentable 2.7/100 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale, which measures the readability (or ‘understandability’) of narrative text. On the other hand, you could say, “We aim to spot the best new ways to run your business and tell you about them.” This would add 70 percentage points to your score on the same scale.

In conclusion

It’s easier to discuss brevity than to achieve it. However, work on it and your reader will thank you for every step you take. And grateful readers are responsive readers. But let’s not mistake brevity of style for brevity of content. Long copy still works.

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