By guest writer Dean Rieck of Direct Creative Blog.
Your English teachers taught you all the rules of proper grammar, punctuation, and style. But what they didn’t realize is that all those rules could crush your chances of making a living writing marketing materials, ads, and other commercial copy.
Why? Because copywriting is not about good writing, it’s about helping businesses sell things. Successful businesses have to connect with real people to sell their products and services. And since real people don’t speak “proper” English, commercial copy must speak the way real people talk.
In other words, the key to being a successful copywriter is to write effectively rather than correctly. You must be willing to bend or break the rules to accomplish the business objective of your writing project.
Here are a few examples of how to become a kickass copywriter with “bad” writing:
- Write in the second person. Standard styles rules dictate that you write in the third person in most cases. But when you write commercial copy, you are no longer a writer, you are a sales person. And like any good sales person, you must speak directly to your prospects to make the sale. This often means writing in the second person, using words such as you, your, and yourself. You can occasionally use the first person (I, my, mine, me, we, our, us) in letters and other one-on-one communications. Unless you’re telling a story about someone, third person (he, she, they) is rarely appropriate.
- Use command language. You can’t be shy in the copywriting business. There’s no such thing as implying, intimating, or subtly suggesting an action. You have to bark orders firmly and clearly to get people to do what you want them to do. If you’re creating “teaser” copy for a direct mail envelope, write “Look inside” or “Open immediately.” At the bottom of the first page of a sales letter, write “Turn the page” or “Read on.” On an order form, write “Complete and mail today” or “Order your widget now!” No matter how obvious you think the action is, you can’t leave it for people to figure out. You must tell them directly.
- Avoid rambling sentences. Nimble, experienced writers love to weave long, complex sentences. But according to readability research, your average sentence should be about 16 words and express a single thought. Once a sentence exceeds 32 words, it becomes harder to understand. So despite what your creative instincts tell you, when you have a long sentence with two or more ideas, break it into separate sentences. Of course, you should vary individual sentence length – some short, some long – for variety.
- Keep most paragraphs short. Long, idea-laden paragraphs are fine if you’re writing the great American novel, but not if you’re writing an ad for acne cream. In effective commercial copy, your paragraphs ideally should run no longer than 7 lines, especially in sales letters. If a paragraph gets too long, break it into shorter chunks. Forget standard paragraph development. Your goal is to keep people reading. Short paragraphs are easier on the eye and make reading “feel” easier and more pleasant. Look at any newspaper and see how short most paragraphs are.
- Drop in one-sentence paragraphs – they’re punchy and add variety.
- Begin sentences with conjunctions. This includes and, also, besides, furthermore, likewise, moreover, or, else, otherwise, but, however, nevertheless, so, then, and therefore. These words can help you break long sentences into shorter ones and still make your copy flow smoothly. This is particularly helpful when you have a number of items you want to include which are difficult to fit together. For example, “The new RX9 is twice as fast as the RX8. Plus you get 12 new features.”
- End sentences with prepositions. Ouch! This one’s gotta hurt. And it will send the persnickety into a dead faint. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the preposition commandment is a rule up with which you should not put. In ordinary conversation, do you say, “With whom are you going?” or “Who are you going with?” Allow yourself the freedom of putting of, for, with, and other prepositions at the end of a sentence. Strive to be natural, not slavishly correct.
- Add occasional fragments. This helps add excitement. Urgency. Picks up the pace. And creates a firm tone. Don’t overuse this technique, though, or you’ll annoy readers.
- Write like you talk. Use dialog and conversational writing. “People especially like to read anything in quotation marks.” Use pronouns such as I, we, you, and they. Use familiar expressions, including a sure thing, rip-off, O.K. Use contractions such as they’re, you’re, it’s, here’s.
- Use intelligent redundancy. Free gift, actual fact, call anytime 24-hours a day, and other such constructions may get you poor marks in English class, but in the real world they help to emphasize your point and clarify your meaning. You can argue this one all you like, but a “free gift” sounds more valuable than just a “gift.” Embrace what works.
- Punctuate headlines lightly. Periods signal a stop, so you should avoid using them. To draw the reader into the body copy, you can use ellipses (…) at the end, but no punctuation at all is often best. Avoid colons and semicolons, because they also signal a stop and are too formal for most copy. To separate thoughts in long headlines, use a dash – like I’m doing now – or use ellipses … both signal a pause, but don’t stop the reader.
Remember, copywriting is not about writing. It’s about communicating and selling. It’s about getting people to act – to call, order, visit a Web site, or go to a retail store. For the successful copywriter, words are tools. If you are willing and able to wield them in a way that is proven to get results, you may have a lucrative career ahead of you.
Dean Rieck is a leading copywriter who has worked with more than 200 clients in the U.S. and abroad. Visit hisDirect Creative Blog.
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