In a classic New Yorker cartoon, a man approaches the pearly gates. Saint Peter, greeting the new arrival, gestures to a sign saying "Birth, Death & Beyond" and comments, "Actually, I preferred 'Heaven,' too, but then the marketing guys got hold of it."
Ah, the dreaded "m" word. Instead of inspiring awe and admiration, it's now more likely to prompt contempt and eye-rolling.
And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to copywriting. Whether your medium is direct mail, Web site text, advertising, or simply, an e-zine article, your reader has less time and less inclination to read than ever before.
The traditional advice for copywriters, of course, is to engage readers by focusing on problems rather than benefits. For example, software marketers shouldn't talk about RAM or gigabytes. They should describe how the software will allow a client to pull a report in half the time (solving, say, a customer service problem).
Now I can't quibble with this counsel. It's spot on. Unfortunately, it just doesn't go far enough. In truth, a host of techniques can improve your readability. Here are seven of the best:
1. Begin with a story
Always try to start your writing with an anecdote. This can be a story from one of your sources, a story from your company's history, even a theoretical story about an imaginary customer.
We human beings are hard-wired to love stories, and it's possible to make almost any business point you want with an anecdote as I did at the beginning of this article, recounting the New Yorker cartoon. Most of all, remind yourself that the beginning of your story does NOT need to "sum up" your subject; your main job is to get the reader interested enough to read more.
2. Use short words
Did you know the English language has 2-3 times MORE words than any other Western language? This might sound like a good thing, but it means trouble for you when you're writing.
English is a mixture of several languages. Many of our words are from French and Latin. And they can be spotted by their endings—ion, ly, ous, ity, and ence. The trouble is, these French and Latin words are often abstract and don't give you a visual image when you read them. Our words of Anglo-Saxon origin, on the other hand, trend to refer to concrete things: straw, dirt, hill. Read those words, and your mind will race form a picture, which, in turn, encourages more reading. Anglo-Saxon words are also usually short.
So my tip for you is to always try to use one- and two-syllable words over three- and four-syllable ones. A few longer words are fine, but mostly aim for short.
3. Write shorter sentences
Just as you should use short words, you should also use short sentences. This habit will turbo-charge your writing. Short sentences force you to marshal your thoughts. They expose the underlying weakness of any argument. They prevent so many sticky grammatical problems.
So, how short is short? Research into "readability" shows you should aim for an AVERAGE sentence length of about 14 words. Note the essential word "average." Some sentences should be really short. The previous sentence, for example, was just six words. But some should also be longer, so your stories don't sound like refugees from a grade 1 reader.
Long sentences are like salt and pepper on your meal. They are an accent, a seasoning. Without them, the food might be bland. But don't overuse them!
4. Remove clichés
Most marketing writing is larded with clichés? You know what I mean:
- Think outside the box
- Roll out the red carpet
- Mad as a hatter
- Put your ducks in a row
- Make or break a situation
- Don't know which way to turn
Once upon a time, those expressions were fresh and carried meaning. (For example, hat makers in the 19th century used mercury compounds which truly did affect their brains, making them "mad.") But, today, such expressions are, well, dead as a doornail. Of course you won't be able to stop clichés from spilling out of your brain as you write—that's like trying to stop the rain from falling. But you can remove them when you rewrite.
Let's say, for example, you're promoting Manhattan's garment district and you write: As you're driving through New York City's garment district, keep your eyes peeled so you don't miss the signs advertising sample sales. Just circle the cliché, "eyes peeled" and build on it to create a fresher image. It really doesn't take a whole lot of sweat: As you're driving through New York City's garment district, keep your sunglasses polished so you don't miss the signs advertising sample sales.
5. Use bridges or connectors
Do you remember the last time you were driving somewhere and had to stop to ask for directions? Did the directions help? Or were you just as thoroughly befuddled at the end of the exchange ("Do I go right at the gas station, or do I wait for the three-way stop? Hmmmm...") Writing is also a little bit like giving directions. As the writer, you know the landscape. You've had the benefit of doing the research, conducting the interviews, pondering the material, and then writing it.
Pity the poor reader, however, who is coming to all this information for the first time and finding it confusing. But "bridges" (also known as transitions, links, or connectors) can help prevent this confusion.
Bridges are the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct the reader through your article. Here is a list of bridging words you can use to help make your copy easier to read:
- Contrast: but, however, though, nevertheless, still, yet, on the other hand, conversely
- Comparison: likewise, similarly, as well, besides, also, too
- Example: specifically, for instance, here, there, for example, to illustrate, in fact
- Time: now, then, in the past, soon, later, after, meanwhile, following, preceding
- Sequence: first, second, third, next, last, finally
- Cause and effect: as a result, therefore, because, hence, thus, consequently, so
- Addition: moreover, furthermore, besides, in addition, also
6. Use concrete examples rather than concepts
I read lots of e-zines and online newsletters, and I'm struck by how often writers obsess on concepts. You know what I mean: reliability, effectiveness, customer service, information overload. All of these things are important, worthy topics of course. But readers will have a hard time focusing on something that's so abstract.
Fortunately, this problem is easy to solve. Just bring your abstract idea to life by giving concrete examples. That is, write about a customer who had this problem. And show how you (or they) solved it.
If you're uncertain about how to incorporate anecdotes into your writing, get any self-help book out of the library and see how it's liberally peppered with stories about real people. It's no accident that these books are best-sellers. Treat them as swipe files—teaching you how to write lively, concrete, must-read copy.
7. Pay attention to your verbs
There's a mistaken notion, perpetuated by grade-school English teachers, that really zippy writing comes from adjectives. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you want to write copy that readers can't resist, focus on your verbs.
Often described as the "workhorse" of the sentence, verbs power your writing. Consider these, for example: squander, obstruct, bluster, poach. Each a single word, and each freighted with meaning.
To make your writing spring to life, try replacing "state of being" verbs—is, am, were, was, are, be, being, been—with true action verbs. (Use the search key—control + F—then type in "is" or "was" and whenever you find it, try to remove it.) For example: "XYZ cola is a drink that will give you energy" could become "Jolt your body alive with XYZ cola."
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Follow these seven tips, and, unlike Saint Peter, you won't have to be embarrassed by your team's marketing efforts.