“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
Those are the words of my buddy, Stephen King, in his 2000 memoir On Writing. I consider him my buddy because I’ve read so many of his books that I feel I know him, and he’s such a massive talent that I just slogged my way through all 562 pages of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle because Mr. King said to. And that, my friends, is four months I will never get back.
As a writer myself—of ads, brochures and blogs only, no great American novels under my belt—I can’t help but analyze everything I read, from clever one-liners on billboards to catch phrases on business cards. While normal people are oohing and ahhing over pretty pictures and fancy fonts, I’m dissecting what’s being said, word for word.
Sometimes I’m really impressed. More often, though, I’m annoyed. Disturbed. Borderline distressed. (They spent how much on that gorgeous annual report but don’t know the difference between they’re and their?!)
Without further ado, here are my Top Five Traits of Successful, Do-It-Yourself Copy Writing:
- Banish spelling errors and grammatical mishaps. There’s simply no excuse for ‘em in this electronic age, with dictionaries and spell check available at the touch of a screen. I still refer to my dog-eared hardcopies of the AP Stylebook and Grammar for Journalists, Third Edition © 1979 for the doozies, because proper grammar stands the test of time. Also, because nothing destroys your credibility faster than a marketing piece riddled with misspellings, typos and misuse of the English language. Social media is no exception; moments ago, I took a break and viewed a post inviting me to “Like this horse if you love it’s markings!” I did not.
- Know your audience and adjust accordingly. When writing marketing copy, ask yourself: To whom am I speaking? There’s a big difference between sharing your message with the owner of a metal fabricating shop and promoting your product to a soccer mom, and your writing style should reflect this. Likewise, the medium in which your writing will be published dictates style. For example, a printed annual report for a financial institution tends to be formal in voice, while blogging about the local children’s museum can be chatty and fun.
- Slaughter those sacred cows. Before you alert the ASPCA, let me explain: Some of the best writing advice I’ve received was handed down to me years ago by Kathy Velasco. I was struggling with a passage in an article, and I had an idea that I thought was clever and witty and by Tim Gunn, I was going to make it work. It was like jamming a square peg into a round hole. Kath gently explained that sometimes, we have an idea that only makes sense to us, and we hold it sacred until accepting the harsh realization that we must sacrifice that idea to make our writing better. Where the cow part comes in, I’m not really sure. But I think you get the gist: Don’t hesitate to cut copy to keep it clear and concise.
- Never push the limits of readability. You’ve got too much of a good thing when the collective eyes of your audience glaze over and their jaws go slack. Ah, if only it were this easy to tell: In reality, they’ll simply stop reading your marketing message. Too often, extraneous details are the culprits of a daunting written piece (Edgar Sawtelle, I’m lookin’ at you). And yes, it can be hard to let go; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve edited materials originally written by clients, only to have them add every word back in for fear the audience won’t “get it.” Remember, it’s not the job of your website, brochure, mailer, etc. to tell the whole story—that’s your job, once the marketing vehicle has delivered the eager reader to your door looking for more info.
- The eyes have it. My colleague and web guru Chris Kelley likes to say, “I’ve written this blog but I’d like a few more eyes on it.” He’s got the right idea, sharing his writing with coworkers and getting their feedback. So pick a few trusted folks—including one or two outside of your profession—to read what you’ve written and give their honest critiques. Then (here’s the kicker), listen to their opinions with an open mind, take mouse in hand and watch as your writing improves.
One final tip: Understand that your writing craft will change and evolve over time. The more experienced you get, the more you’ll find yourself thinking less and writing more of what’s on your mind—and in your heart. That’s where the work ends and the fun begins. Enjoy the ride!
Image courtesy of Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net