(This is an update and extension of an earlier blog that proved popular: “21 rules for writing killer copy”.)
I wonder how long you’re going to stay here with me.
Linger a little while.
Your finger’s getting twitchy, I know.
Like a nervy gunslinger in the old Wild West, you caress the trigger. You’re only a click away from something new.
Something which could change your life.
And that is the first golden rule of writing copy
- Start strong
- Don’t hang about.
- Address the reader.
- Use simple words.
- With the occasional outlier for good measure.
- Use them judiciously, then they’ll stand out.
- Use short sentences.
- With short paragraphs.
- And contractions such as “you’re”.
- Write as you speak.
- Break the rules of grammar as it suits. (It should really be “Start strongLY”, but you knew that, right?)
- Don’t deal in stereotypes: use archetypes (here the outlaw).
- Appeal to emotions.
- Weave in a little escapism.
- Don’t invite. Tell.
- When you don’t tell, show.
- Use imagery.
- Use drama.
- Dare to be different.
- Use sound effects such as alliteration and assonance, but sparingly.
- Above all things, make it memorable.
And a bonus rule for good measure...
And, since you’ve stuck with me this long, heartfelt thanks and let’s go back to the beginning.
Let’s look at some of the whys and wherefores.
Get on with it
We’re all plagued with limited time, limited patience, and jaded attention spans. That’s our Faustian pact with the internet: an “all you can eat” banquet of riches that has eroded our ability or desire to think for ourselves.
Why should it be any different with your readers on or offline? Web visitors skip and scan. They spend seconds rather than minutes on most websites, especially if they are trying to solve an inconvenient problem or having to make an unwanted purchase. Which is why they rather like short or incomplete sentences.
And short paragraphs.
So, say it clearly and say it quick.
Clear and concise sells.
Prioritise your core message
The path of least resistance rule seems to have been written for the internet. Work out what your customers want to know. Heaven forbid you make them work too hard for it.
They want someone to remove an old sofa or fix their drain. The problem ain’t interesting or pretty. They don’t want witty wordplay or information overload. They aren’t especially interested in your own new office furniture or a new site opening. Keep things brief and to the point. Just give them what they came for.
If someone stops you in the street to ask you for the time, you don’t start showing off your new watch.
If you try to emphasise everything, you emphasise nothing
The novelist Henry Green offers this nugget: “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”
Ogilvy warned: you don’t bore the reader into buying from you.
In that spirit...
Cut ruthlessly. Hack away at the verbiage.
Imagine you are shouting out your message to your customer when they are already walking away.
Headlines may be all they read
Make those headlines work. Make those headlines sweat. I write about this again and again. Headlines are a huge deal.
80% of people will read only your headline; just 20% will then go on to read the body copy of your content.
Plan for both possibilities. Weave your core message into your headline, and do your very best to keep them with you a little longer.
Context dictates concision
And form dictates approach.
Of course, there is a time and a place for long-form content, and this is what much content marketing is all about: having the time to leisurely converse with past, present and potential customers.
Brevity is the soul of much copy, however. Time and place demand it.
Take hoardings on the side of the road, for instance. Near where I live, four words adorn a poster on a building site of newly constructed homes: “We don’t do boring.” That is all we have time to read and digest as we drive by. Furthermore, the high-spec eco homes, as they rise from the ground day by day, sell themselves.
Email marketing means establishing instant rapport and communicating a core message in the first 30 words or so. The subject line itself is even more important. What isn’t opened isn’t read. Cliff-hanger openers work because humans are curious souls and can’t stand not knowing. Think FOMO.
Questions are a tried and tested formula for headlines or banner ads.
While I’m researching this article, the following banner ad flashes up on my screen:
“What’s more important than binge-watching boxsets?”
For many people, nothing surely.
“Sight tests” comes the answer 7 or so seconds later. And I find that I’ve waited around, even though I’m busy writing this article.
Just be careful. Click-bait tactics backfire when businesses don’t deliver on their content promises.
Highlight benefits rather than features
This is the oft-repeated mantra. Tried and tested. End of debate.
But, better still, try to weave in both.
Some of the best copy gives prominence to benefits AND the features which make them possible.
The pen in my hand, for instance, boasts an “ink flow controller system (FEATURE) [which] keeps the flow consistent until the very last drop (IMPLIED BENEFIT – makes writing with the pen so easy)”. The online copy goes on to say, “You'll never be caught out with an empty pen thanks to the ink viewer window in the barrel of the pen either!” In this case, the benefit precedes the feature. It’s a question of making a claim and then proving it, or citing a problem and then solving it – rhetorical structures as old as they come.
Think in pictures
As a copywriter, I sell convenience. All well and good, but it all sounds a little abstract.
I often say, “I do people’s homework for them,” which is better as this resonates with childhood memories of winging it and they can perhaps picture something.
Alternatively, I say that I write people’s copy so that they can get on and do the fun stuff.
I sometimes leave it to their imagination.
I sometimes elaborate.
They can do what they do best and then get onto the golf course or get home early to their loved ones. Or take the kids to the park and push them on the swings. You get the picture.
And the swings are the thing. A little detail goes a long way to bring copy to life.
Poets and artists exploit our love of imagery.
Psychologists studied 402 people responding to classic Japanese haikus. Those with images proved the most memorable. They sear themselves on the grey cells; they stick. Not too many images, mind. Just one or two. Don’t overegg the pudding. And let the reader do some of the imagining.
An image acts as an enticement or a hook. It makes the abstract concrete.
Philosopherdisruptor, Nietzsche proclaimed: “I am not a man. I am dynamite.” He set out to blast away all competition. Blow it out of the water.
In the world of advertising, Esso told us: “Put a tiger in your tank.”
Both images seize us by the collar. Both conjure up the impression of irresistible brute force.
And note the power of short sentences. The simplicity of the syntax in both cases means we can concentrate on the connotations.
You may also notice the importance of well-chosen impactful verbs in this section: sear, stick, seize, conjure. They all contribute to strong images.
So, paint word pictures. Otherwise, readers think: “I hear you, but I just can’t see it.”
Storytelling is where it’s at these days, but that’s nothing new.
Stories, our own and other people’s, make us feel something. Man is a story-telling animal, so weave your message into narrative. Keep asking the question: “Where’s the story in that?” Phrases such as “Imagine …” or “Do you remember...?” are immensely evocative and invite instant engagement.
Go back to campfire stories or fairy tales, or Aesop’s fables, Jesus’s parables, Shakespeare’s plays, the printing press, the emergence of the novel. Consider the golden age of radio and television, or today’s boxsets, or the rise and rise of social media offering an endless stream of people and places and their stories and struggles.
Even in the professional world of LinkedIn, many of the posts that prove most popular tell stories. I wrote about this in my blog Welcome to the new LinkedIn. They’re open, honest, often confessional; they tap deeply into those ideas and concerns we’ve been sharing since we were able to communicate: triumph over adversity, tales of human adventure and endurance, tales of folly, hard-fought for wisdom, maturation, discovery, excess.
Stories are the best way to encapsulate a brand’s core values and show them in action. Smiling, happy families and beautiful landscapes in car adverts epitomise this.
Big hat, no cattle copy
Once we’ve been won over emotionally, we all like to have reason to justify it to ourselves and others. You don’t want your copy to be all mouth and no trousers OR, as they say in Texas, “Big hat, no cattle.”
Making big claims without the evidence can arouse suspicion. Numbers convince and reassure. Numbers make you and, in turn, your reader an authority. We all like to think that we know stuff. Cynics, seeing themselves as immune to the well-turned phrase, prefer to be wooed and won over with numbers. They can then impress fellow cynics.
Studies show that “10% reductions” elicits more of a response than “reductions”. You know precisely what you are getting.
Knowing stats for high-performance cars – 0-60 in less than a second type thing – is exactly what their target market laps up.
Some of us are price-sensitive – I do love this euphemism. An advert in the Spectator for aspiring authors who wish to self-publish reads: “BOOK YOUR OWN BOOK TODAY FOR JUST £795”.
There is an honesty to numbers. Vagueness makes us a little uneasy. Especially when we’re parting with money – or just as importantly, time.
I write in style guides for clients, “This 5-minute read will save you hours of time.”
Nestlé Purina North America tells me: “500+ scientists [are] behind our research”. A wildlife advert states “350 Sumatran tigers remain – down from 500”. Both make me sit up and take notice.
The devil is in the detail. Find out those killer facts and make them work for you. We all like factoids.
I enjoyed a recent mailshot which began:
“The average Brit cooks 12 recipes a year.
Our customers cook around 156.”
This is instantly engaging. It calls for a reaction. It’s a challenge. How many recipes do I cook over the year? What are they?
So much copy sounds kinda familiar
It’s all a little obvious. Especially in B2B copywriting.
These days, everyone’s a disruptor. Honestly?
One flyer recently arrived on my doorstep: “How to get huge growth!”
Now if it had said, “How to get rid of a huge growth!”, they’d have had my undivided attention.
Marketers get excited about the latest shiny jargon and forget themselves. Worse still, they cling onto it, well past its prime.
A little mystery and intrigue go a long way. We are wired to home in on what is new or unusual.
Be innovative. Be inventive. Dare to be different.
You’re not a spy behind enemy lines. It isn’t your job to blend in with the crowd. Ask yourself: what are you saying that is different from the rest?
The first thing I do when I take on a new job is to research the competition. I look at what they’re saying and set out to say something else altogether. A website on asbestos management will highlight accreditation and show men in hard hats. Why not play up the experience and expertise of the family-run business that goes back generations? What about work done on a national stadium or local schools, and that tarantula found in an attic?
You gotta write different
It pays to play with language.
Consider: “A diamond is forever.” This doesn’t quite feel right – forever is an adverb not an adjective. Elvis sings, “Love me tender”, not “tenderly”. Grammatically correct they ain’t. And that’s the point. They stand out for their rich and strange newness.
Actually, there’s a term for it: ENALLAGE (pronounced e – NALL – aj – ee). As with all tricky pronunciations, just say it with confidence.
Apple is no different when it apes the technique with its slogan “Think different”.
Why are they so successful? Because the brain craves new stuff, stuff to make us sit up, stuff that is a little different from the same old same old. If all we read is blah blah blah, the blah blah wahey stands out. The brain – to get technical – is tickled and titillated by anything new. And that goes for grammatical structures. The best copywriters twist and tweak, without the reader even knowing.
So be playful, albeit with care.
Deviant spellings – Toys R Us, FCUK and the like – stop the reader in their tracks.
Break the rules of grammar and spelling. But, as with imagery, do it sparingly. Simples.
‘Great art begins where grammar ends.’
PEDRO HENRIQUEZ URENA
Simple stealthy words
And that’s another golden rule of writing copy: the old KISS mantra – “Keep it simple, stupid.”
Simplicity means understanding who your audience is and speaking their language.
Trump’s 2016 “Make America great again” campaign did just this. It proved so effective he plans to roll it out again next year, with just one minor alteration: “Keep America great!” Theresa May, with her 2017 slogan “Strong and stable”, showed how it can be overplayed.
Simplify word choices. Copywriters steer clear of language that their readers wouldn’t use. They write “ask” rather than “enquire”, “buy” rather than “purchase”, “use” rather than “utilize”. Polysyllabic sprees are off-putting. Big words alienate. They don’t make you sound clever. And, anyway, you aren’t trying to sound clever. You are trying to sell stuff.
George Orwell wrote that, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” The idea is that the writing shouldn’t ever get in the way of the message. I love words and a little style goes a long way, but they’re no substitute for substance. Everything in moderation.
Fine phrases can be a distraction.
Copy shouldn’t sound like copy
There is an art to hiding the art.
Don’t overplay it. Overkill is deadly.
This applies to adjective use. Super smashing great doesn’t sell. It’s all too shouty. The reader recoils. Their guard goes up. “I’ll be the judge of that,” they (rightly) think to themselves.
Modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs are like condiments: they’re to be used sparingly. If you use too much ketchup, everything just tastes of, well, ketchup, and it detracts from the subtleties of the main dish when that is what you are trying to showcase.
“I” or “we”, or “you” or “they”?
There are other words to avoid. Pronoun use is a neglected part of rhetoric. Or, more precisely, it’s the part we don’t always notice, hence its stealthy effectiveness.
I have said that the best copy is personal. Therefore, write in the first person. And, if you’re writing on behalf of the company, it is better to write “I” than “we”. Too many “we”s can sound very corporate. (Unless the “we” is you and the reader.) Speaking one-to-one is far more intimate.
Primarily, it’s not about you. Copywriting is all about the reader: their worries, their problems, their hopes and fears. (There we are – back to stories again!) You are only there to offer succour or solutions. Don’t get too carried away with your own merits or that of the company. Get the right balance of “you”s to “I”s right. Andy Maslen in his excellent 100 Great Copywriting Ideas book suggests “two to three ‘you’s to every ‘I’”.
When editing, the Find function will help here, as well as running the grammar check and word count. Pay particular attention to those words that get overused. Watch out for needless repetition.
Read your copy aloud
Get a real sense of how it sounds. Then you’ll hear how jargon jars. With such words, there is a herd mentality among marketers: “Those guys provide ‘solutions’? But hey, so do we. We can solutionize, disruptivize and transformationalize with the best of them.”
I think it is less about showing off and more about FOMO. It’s also a smokescreen for lazy and unoriginal thinking – or, worse, a lazy or unoriginal product or service. At best, it annoys; at worst, it alienates. The cattle get nervous. Customers want to know what you are offering.
My advice – if you want to be heard, don’t follow the herd.
Ideally, you want to sound human.
My own test – would an elderly relative or your young nephew or niece understand it?
“Impossible is nothing … Just do it … It could be you … because you’re worth it …” With the simplest words and syntax, copywriters weave a little magic. They know “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” (Leonardo de Vinci)
And apologies if that sounds a little familiar. The last paragraph has been recycled from my blog 10 Reasons to hire a freelance copywriter.
And that would be my final golden rule.
Don’t forget what works and don’t be afraid to recycle with a twist what has been tried and tested, by yourself and others. I’m not talking about lifting swathes of text wholesale. I mean learn from the greats, borrow their ideas, make them your own.
For more on this, read How to be a better copywriter.