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(and four other tips for writing better copy – faster)
John Cleese said it took him 30 minutes to write a good 30 second sketch – and that it took Peter Cook only 30 seconds to do the same. When it comes to writing, most of us are more Cleese than Cook – very few of us are ‘born writers’. But here are five tips that will help to improve your copywriting – and get it done much faster.
#1 Writing’s easy – it’s knowing what to say that’s tricky
An academic once told me that the optimum number of rewrites of a piece of work was six. That’s not an option in the commercial world; but neither is it necessary. If you are constantly rewriting material, then you are using the act of writing as a mechanism for figuring out what it is you want to say. This is an utter waste of time and you should stop doing it immediately. Instead, ask yourself, “What’s my point?” (see below). If you can answer the question properly, you can stop with the rewrites.
#2 Have a point of view
You’re going to invest some time in writing your piece. More importantly, you are going to ask people (hopefully lots of people) to give up their time to read it. So, have something worth saying. Typically, writing assignments break down into three sections:
1. The world is changing. If it’s not, why are you talking about it?
2. S**t is happening. What impact are these changes having upon your audience?
3. We can help. How, in your view, can you mitigate or exploit these impacts?
They’re all important but the third is critical. If you (or your clients) don’t have a point of view, get one. (Only one – a good piece of writing is a single point made well.) Then write confidently about it – if you don’t believe in it, your readers certainly won’t.
#3 Aim for transparent intelligibility
I love this phrase for its oxymoronic nature: it is neither transparent nor readily intelligible. What I’m talking about is copy that can be ingested effortlessly. In the same way that people reject a perfectly suitable candidate on the basis of a typo in their CV, attention-deficient business people will reject your proposition if they have to work too hard to comprehend what it is you are saying to them. Why fritter away their hard-won attention by forcing them to re-read a sentence in order for it to be understood.? Why cause a “Huh?” moment through the use of a, misplaced comma? Why confuse people through the juxtaposition of thoughts that don’t sit comfortably together?
It’s hard to provide many hard-and-fast rules for this: try to keep your sentences short and use as few worlds as possible – but no fewer. The best advice is simply to sleep on any piece of writing and review it with fresh eyes. (Also, read it aloud – if it makes sense as the spoken word, it will definitely be understood as written text.)
#4 There is a straight line from your fingers to your head – don’t forget that
At the very start of his career, ‘David’ handed me his first-ever by-lined article. It was not very good. Rather than provide a detailed critique, I turned over the paper on which it was written and said, “What’s your point?”. He then gave me a very cogent and concise take on the subject. I pointed to the piece of paper and said, “Why is none of what you’ve just told me in here?”. David smiled, said he didn’t know and set about re-writing it. No further input from me was required and David went on to be a great writer with a very successful career in marketing.
The point of this story (apart from the fact that I love telling it) is that many people think of writing as a black art, one that can only be successfully practiced by jumping through a series of convoluted stylistic hoops. Nothing good be further from the truth. In a B2B context, good copy is the simply the structured articulation of thought: you need to put well-formed ideas on the page with as little fuss as possible. Don’t over-think it.
#5 Reading is a user journey – erect signposts.
Marketing folks are obsessed with user journeys: this is top of mind whether they are designing a web site or a nurture campaign. Copy has its own user journey.
In some agencies, the role of content is to explain: prospects are moving through the funnel and the copywriter must articulate why the client’s solution is appropriate for the problems it claims to solve. However, I started my career in PR where my audience had yet to enter a funnel and much of my writing aimed to persuade – to convince people that my client’s approach to solving their problems was the right one. So, particularly if you are creating content for the top of the funnel – and beyond – then changing behaviour is your ultimate goal: you are therefore asking people to go on a journey and they are entitled to know where they’re going and how you plan to get them there.
This means being clear about the content your readers will encounter if they click through. I’m okay with them not stepping aboard if the destination is not to their liking: this is a far better outcome than them discovering half-way through that the promise in the headline hasn’t been fulfilled in the copy. I personally feel cheated if this happens to me and I am unlikely to read anything else from that source. If readers can quickly determine whether the content is for them or not, then you have cheated no-one nor squandered your credibility when presenting them with content in the future.
Signposting the rest of the journey is a matter of intellectual rigour. Is the journey logical – are you navigating your way through the argument in a way that makes sense? Are the transitions from one stage of the journey to the next clearly flagged up and identified? Have the expectations you set at the start been fulfilled? Making your content easy to consume is a necessary first step to having it understood.
The tips above barely address the technical process of writing – sentence structure, tone of voice, etc. As I said at the beginning, writing’s easy – most of us have been doing it since kindergarten. Instead I’ve focused on what to say and how to say it. This should be a comfort to the many people who claim that they ‘can’t’ write. I agree that there are few ‘born’ writers that can write great copy; but, equally, I believe that writing good copy is within reach of anyone with a decent grasp of their subject matter and the patience to figure out what it is they want to say.
When it comes to writing, we can’t all be Cooks but anyone can be a Cleese.