10 copywriter’s secrets to better writing
In college, I used to work on Saturday mornings in a place called the Writing Resource Center (sounds very college-y doesn’t it?). I got paid hourly to help students make their research/thesis papers or essays better. The works varied in length, subject and competence. I read everything from biology research to critiques on Renaissance art. But all the students had one thing in common: They were in a complete panic. The job felt less like a tutoring facility and more like a mental help center.
A lot of people freak out over writing. Just the thought of grammar, syntax, and organizing your thoughts makes hearts palpitate and armpits gush. I think it’s because writing is so subjective—you’re bound to not please somebody.
Professional writers and copywriters have a knack for words, of course. And most have considerable training, whether it’s in journalism, communications, English (like me) or marketing. But most also have little bags of tricks they rely on to make the process go smoother. I have my own, which I’ll share with you today.
You can use these tips for just about any type of business writing—from brochure copy, to presentations, reports, marketing briefs and more. They’re my favorite methods, and I use them almost daily.
1. Know thy reader. The first and most important commandment. You’d think you wouldn’t need this one, but you’d be surprised. So many things I read—even professional stuff—are written in a vacuum. Shove your feet—corns, socks and all—into your audience’s shoes, and take a good walk in them. Give your reader context… be clear… and structure your work so it’s easily understood and read.
2. Verbs—not adjectives—make marketing copy sing. I can often tell a newbie copywriter by the gobs of adjectives he slathers all over his copy. But it’s verb-filled copy that grabs eyeballs and holds them hostage. Verbs paint moving pictures in people’s minds, whip up emotions, and can jolt even clichéd concepts to life.
A quick tip: Once you’ve written your piece, comb back through it and swap out every drab verb with one that’s a little more interesting. You’ll be amazed at how it completely transforms your writing.
3. Think big idea > sequence > details. I’ve seen so many writers stalled before their first paragraph ends—tripped up by commas, semicolons, or some other rules from seventh grade English class. It’s time to tell that teacher to shut it. The first thing to conquer is just getting your thoughts down. Don’t worry about the mechanics or grammar. Worry about what you’re trying to say, your big message or idea.
Next, think of the most logical, yet interesting, way to reveal that to someone.
Here’s a great trick: Pull out a Sharpie® and some Post-its®. Think about your subject, then write one thought down per Post-it. Be totally random and fluid. The goal is to jot down as many single thoughts as you can. Once your brain is tapped, you’ll have a little pile of Post-its in front of you. Organize them into a mini org chart on your desk, on the wall, or wherever. Soon you’ll have a working outline of all your thoughts, organized and ready, for you to start writing from.
Then, and only then, do you need to worry about the mechanics and details of your writing. Sweat over all those prepositional phrases and compound adjectives. Make it tight, don’t waste a single word and be a ruthless editor.
4. Read it out loud. This is a tip I picked up from a radio writer, but it works for anything you write. Once you’re done editing, read your work out loud, to yourself. Hearing your words is much closer to how your audience will experience them, reading it to themselves, in their heads.
As you read aloud, you’ll vocally bump into all the clumsy phrases, trip over the awkward words, and sludge through the really long sentences. You’ll know where to tighten up, hack, and fix, right away.
5. Write in a clear, crisp, conversational style. If you’re writing to impress, you’re writing for yourself, not your audience. I’ll paraphrase the insanely prolific Isaac Asimov: Don’t use a $10 word when a 50¢ word will do. When you write directly and well, people will focus more on what you have to say and not gag on your vocabulary.
6. Slash the passive voice’s throat. Allow me to get English nerdy for a second. The passive voice is when the object of a sentence appears to be the subject:
The memo was distributed by our accounting division. (Or worse: The memo was distributed.)
Weak! Now, let’s take the same words, but put it in the active voice:
The accounting division distributed the memo.
Suddenly, there’s action! It’s clear, direct and better! It’s very easy for folks to fall into the passive voice, especially in corporate writing, where they don’t want to sound too declarative or bossy. But after a mental plateful of the passive voice, you’re pretty much left flat. If you’re going to write, then say what you have to say, clearly.
7. Dust off the thesaurus. Scholars claim William Shakespeare had a nearly 30,000-word vocabulary. He even invented some words—like advertising, assassination, bump and puke, among hundreds of others. An average person today has a paltry lexicon in comparison… some 2,000 words used in everyday conversation.
I’m not suggesting you walk around using those $10 words Mr. Asimov just slammed. But you don’t always have to use the same words either. A simple word like “use” can easily be replaced with utilize, make use of, employ, operate, wield, apply, maneuver, and so many others. Mix it up. It’s good for your brain, too.
8. Toss in a metaphor here and there. Nothing colors a piece of writing like a metaphor… I stumbled right into the trapdoor of office politics. Metaphor helps people get your meaning in an instant. Just don’t go overboard.
9. Watch for the three deadly questions. This relates directly to our first technique about knowing your audience. Always be on the lookout in your writing; if you can help it, try not to elicit any of these questions from your reader:
What’s in it for me?
In this age of delete, opt-out and easily accessible trash cans, that’s death.
10. Write visually. What do people spend their time on these days? Pinterest. YouTube. Instagram. That tells you that we, as connected souls, are more visually attuned than ever. If you’ve created a wall of text that rivals the Great Wall of China, chances are it won’t get read. Break up your words with bolds, underlines, images and the like. Write in shorter, digestible chunks. Remember, unless they’re really, super interested, most people don’t read—they scan.
I shared many of these tips with my students on those Saturday mornings in college. My hope is that they were able to use them, long after our sessions—and that you’ll find them useful for a long time, too.
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group