I was reminded yet again last week that writing encompasses many tasks. I often feel that if I’m not actually producing words I’m not really working. I know that is untrue even though it’s not unusual for me to measure progress by word count. Yes, the end product is always words in some fixed form. But there’s so much more that goes into getting the words out and adequately arranged.
Last week I set aside the book manuscript I’m working on to travel to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to conduct in-depth interviews and have long conversations with the central character of the story. I’ve anticipated this trip for nearly three years. I wasn’t sure how it would go or what it would yield. I just knew it could be an important step in the process.
I was not disappointed. It was fruitful in two main ways. First, I collected additional and more-detailed information on a number of topics. Second, it was good for the relationship, an opportunity to increase understanding and trust. Being in the same room and having 60 or 90 minutes at a time to talk allow one to go much deeper. And in between talks, hanging out, sharing meals and doing other mundane activities together have a bonding effect.
Writing is writing. But before or even during the actual writing part, there’s thinking, researching, talking, thinking, eating, sleeping, thinking, interviewing and, for me last week, traveling. I realize I did some meaningful work on the book even though I didn’t add a single word to the manuscript.
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.
Steve Slaunwhite is an accomplished copywriter, author and speaker. He is a B2B specialist who sends out a monthly email that always has solid nuggets about copywriting and related topics.
Following are three tips Steve recently shared about how to write faster. It’s simple but powerful advice for novices and veterans.
1. Schedule writing time.
“I find that putting writing into my daily schedule, like an appointment, works best for me,” Steve says. I agree. This is also a must for me. It includes ignoring all other distractions.
2. Plan what you’re going to say before you say it.
“Some writers create a detailed outline,” Steve says. “Others make a simple list of bullets. I prefer mind-mapping ….” My plan varies, depending on what I’m writing. Longer, more complex pieces might necessitate an outline. For short pieces, a list or informal notes and scribbles can do.
3. Ask the editor to leave the room.
Again, Steve scores a bull’s-eye. Nothing can kill the spirit of a writer like the fussy editor (that’s you, of course) who is dissatisfied with first efforts. It’s paralyzing. In fact, you might have to tell (instead of ask) the editor to leave the room. Walk him or her to the door, if necessary.
Way back in the early 1990s, Seattle-area advertising and creative legend Dick Paetzke gave me a copywriting assignment. Dick had opened his own shop, a solo firm, and he gave yours truly, a novice, a chance to help him with his heavy workload.
Because I was green and the deadline was tight, I did a very mediocre job. (Not that I didn’t try my hardest.) Dick rewrote much (if not all) of my copy. He paid me more than my work was worth. He treated me kindly. I’ll never forget it. He is a creative whiz and a gracious man. I’ve been fortunate to be associated with him through the years.
Dick has published a small book called Postcards: Little Letters from Life, “an eclectic collection of illustrated essays written from home and abroad.” He has hatched and written many award-winning campaigns for major clients and brands, but his past personal essays have perhaps made an even bigger impact because they are so insightful, heartfelt and thoroughly human.
Postcards is in the same mold. If you read the reviews (nearly all are five stars) at Amazon, you’ll see what I mean. I recommend it.
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)
I’ve been writing some direct mail lately for an ad agency client. While they are B2B pieces (the audience is small- and medium-sized businesses), they do have a bit of a B2C feel. As such, an occasional exclamation point has been in order, especially in the call-to-action language.
Generally, I see too many exclamation points in business communications. They’re everywhere—in Tweets, emails, blog posts and more. I find it even more distressing when I see exclamation points littering B2B marketing pieces.
Business people wouldn’t continually shout in face-to-face meetings or sales presentations, would they?
Besides, continual use of a particular punctuation device tends to diminish its effectiveness. Too much seasoning spoils the stew.
My advice: Refrain from widespread usage of exclamation points! Especially in B2B.
In my post, The 4 C’s of Killer Copywriting, I mentioned that copy needs to be credible, otherwise the first three C’s (clear, concise and compelling) might be all for naught.
A commenter asked, “How does one accomplish the fourth ‘C,’ being credible?” Following are four ways.
1. Tell the truth.
Yes, be completely honest. Sure, you’re going to focus on the positives, but don’t even stretch the truth. The BS alarm will go off. This leads to the next point.
2. Back up all marketing claims.
If you make a marketing claim, back it up. Period. Think you’re the best, biggest, smartest, most experienced, most reliable, or whatever? Prove it. Give concrete reasons.
3. Use testimonials.
What do others say about your products or services? Get it in writing and get their permission to use their words. Third-party endorsement builds confidence and increases credibility.
4. Offer a guarantee.
Whatever you’re selling, boldly stand behind it. A guarantee shows your commitment to satisfying customers and clients, perhaps the greatest credibility booster of them all.