Today I got some feedback on two fundraising letters I wrote for a university client. My immediate clients apparently were satisfied with the letters, but their boss wanted some changes. The feedback: “Less flowery. More brief and should be toned down a little.”
Actually, it made sense as I thought about the audience, a board of trustees who, I imagine, is a conservative bunch. My copy was too peppy and, well, flowery. In a way, I was proud to receive that type of feedback. I can remember a time in my writing career when I was so straightforward and inhibited that I probably couldn’t be accused of writing flowery copy no matter how hard I tried. That’s changed.
So, how did I “deflower” the copy?
I’m still working on it, but two things I’ve done is cut the copy and remove modifiers. I’ve also removed or changed language that has a lofty ring. In addition, I’ve taken a more direct and businesslike route to the ask. My goal is for the copy to sound more like a business letter than a fundraising letter. Hopefully, that will do the trick.
Would you spend an entire week on your opening for an ad or other marketing or sales piece?
According to Brian Clark of copyblogger, it was a normal practice for Eugene Schwartz, a copywriting legend and author of Breakthrough Advertising.
“Master copywriter Eugene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words of a sales piece,” writes Clark, “the headline and the opening paragraph.”
I know it might sound crazy. And I admit I’m not able to devote that amount of time to my current projects. Workload and deadlines don’t allow it. But I do remember spending long hours writing headline after headline after headline when I worked on high-visibility advertising campaigns while on staff at a B2B agency. I might spend several days refining a concept, searching for the perfect headline, and writing body copy for a new campaign.
No matter the communications project and time constraints, it’s a good reminder to concentrate your effort on those first 50 words. Because if you lose the audience at the outset, it doesn’t matter what comes after, or how much polish you applied to the rest of the piece. They’re already gone.
I like to write things down in the evening. Ideas. Headlines. Copy. It could be anything related to what I’m working on. But, as important as it is and as much as I like it, I get tired of being on my laptop. Like a lot of people, I’m on the computer a lot. It can turn into a kind of sickness.
So it was quite enjoyable for me to scrawl ink on real paper last night while I was sitting on the couch with the TV on, my daughters close by. The pen was a cheap ballpoint and the paper was from a wire-bound notebook I bought at the drug store a few years ago. Nonetheless, it just felt good to write and doodle. It also felt especially satisfying and healthy to leave the laptop upstairs in my den.
Recently, I read an article about “unkeeping” a journal. The idea presented in the article was to not “keep” a journal, treating it as a writing regimen or chore, but rather to “unkeep” it, using it whenever and however you like.
That’s appealing to me, especially as a break from being on my laptop and the Internet. I can play with ideas and, if something emerges, transfer it from the notebook. The pen and notebook are fun and liberating, creative toys without rules.
I was reminded of my old friend, FUD, this past summer on a direct-mail project. FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. The creative director said, “Let’s use FUD.”
Wikipedia calls FUD “a manifestation of the appeal to fear.” It’s used a lot in politics and propaganda, which I usually find distasteful. Of course, it’s used because it’s highly effective.
Can FUD be used responsibly and honestly?
Yes, I think so. It was a staple of our B2B marketing communications for corporate clients when I worked at a Seattle ad agency.
Following is an example. I wrote it for a document destruction company. The copy was used in a capabilities brochure and as home-page content for a new Web site.
Your business is at risk.
Every day your business generates confidential, sensitive information. And every day someone in your company decides what to do with that information: keep it, recycle it, shred it, or simply throw it away. If your sensitive business information falls into the wrong hands, the consequences can be devastating.
Sound a bit ominous? It’s supposed to.
FUD can be a legitimate and ethical approach for B2B marketing situations. Use it, as appropriate, and with care.
Last night my 14-year-old daughter asked me to complete an evaluation form for her English class essay on Romeo and Juliet. I really had to think about what level of critique was appropriate for a ninth-grader and how to give constructive comments.
It’s always good to start with positive comments. Fortunately, there were plenty of positive things to say about my daughter’s essay. The exercise got me thinking about reviewing and approving copy. As the writer, I’m usually on the receiving end of comments.
Contained in my free report 66 Proven Tips for Writing Copy That Sells, following are four helpful tips for reviewing copy in a business setting:
1. Keep approval levels to a minimum.
2. Read copy from your audience’s viewpoint, not as an editor.
3. Provide specific comments.
4. Let the copywriter do the rewriting.
(Note: To add a fifth tip, as mentioned above, begin with some positive comments.)
Download the complete FREE report here:
66 Proven Tips for Writing Copy That Sells
Unfortunately, we’re living during a time when the business news is often bad. That means clients have assignments that require delivering bad news. I worked on two such projects in recent months, which got me thinking about important elements of “bad news” copy.
Here are three:
1) Be direct.
Get the bad news out early, quickly and completely. Don’t bury it. To borrow from Nike, “Just say it.”
2) Be clear.
This is a key element of all effective copy, but it’s especially important when you’re delivering bad news. This is no time to be fuzzy or cute. Your message needs to be crystal clear.
3) Be honest.
Don’t try to gloss over the bad news or give it a slick PR or marketing spin. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it. You won’t fool many people. In fact, you could lose credibility. Once you get the bad news out, you can move on to the positives and any plans for overcoming difficulties.
Recently, I’ve undertaken a major rewrite on a long-copy project. I won’t explain the project at this time, but I can say it’s a new form of writing for me. My challenge is to make the writing better after completing a first draft. I need to elevate the prose to storyteller level.
The task has caused me to me wonder, “What is rewriting? How do I do it?”
Of course, I’ve rewritten lots of things. Mostly it’s in the form of revisions on relatively short copywriting projects. Rewriting is probably too ambitious a term. It’s more like making a few changes.
But this has been much different. I had produced a long-copy draft that’s pretty good. In fact, I was fond of much of it. Now I needed to use it as a basis for a second, better draft.
Here’s one way I finally came to look at the task: How do I make each sentence better?
It doesn’t mean every sentence must be changed for change sake. It does mean taking a critical look at each sentence for any possible improvement.
I just brainstormed this list. It’s by no means comprehensive. Consider it a starting point for improving a sentence:
1. Find a better verb.
2. Get rid of the adverb(s).
3. Make sure it’s free of clichés and buzzwords.
4. Add a simile.
5. Make it clearer.
6. Shorten it.
7. Lengthen it.
8. Delete it.
What else? I’d love to create a long list: 99 ways to make a sentence better. OK, maybe not that long.
(Image: Pierre Metivier/Flickr)