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Blackford Centre for Copywriting
Tips on writing better copy
This checklist covers some of the points you should consider when preparing to write copy.
On these pages, we look at how you write better copy. This relates to all kinds of copy, whether for brochures or web copy.
For whom are you writing?
Think about the people who will read your copy. Firstly, they're busy (isn't everyone, these days?). So they won't tolerate sloppy words or slow writing.
Secondly, your product may not greatly interest the customer. (People are interested mainly in themselves!). So it's vital to communicate well.
Readers need to know what benefits your product will give them. They'll be impressed by clear words, simple explanations and a logical flow - not by flowery words or long sentences.
The first task is to identify your customers. Where and when will they see your communication?
Exercise: Stop and make some notes about your customers. What kind of people are they?
The right kind of writing
Having got a clear picture of your reader, you should decide on the right sort of writing. From a postcard to a 36 page brochure, every type of writing is different. You'll find some suggestions if you click here.
Use the right sentence length
The sentence length depends on the medium you're using (whether a press ad or a sales leaflet). 10 words per sentence is about right for press advertisements, while 15 word sentences suit direct mail and brochures. Any sentence that exceeds 25 words will be difficult to follow.
Adopt the right paragraph length
A paragraph of more than 15 lines is off-putting. 100 years ago, people had greater powers of concentration. But 30-second TV commercials and 10-second sound bites have reduced readers' attention span.
Use strong headlines
A headline should always encourage people to read the text. It should make them curious, or make them think they will learn something to their advantage. Be bold when it comes to headlines: they're the secret of getting people to read your words. Use long headlines freely: they work as well as short ones.
Never make the headline obscure. Never use words that people won't understand, as in this charity headline:
More women are victims of intestacy than divorce.
Even ordinary brochures need stimulating headlines. Brochures often waste an opportunity by using dull headlines like 'Introduction', or 'Product Characteristics'.
Use cross heads
Cross-heads (or subheads) are the small headings that break up groups of paragraphs in newspapers. Their role is attract the eye to the text and make it easier to read. Newspapers have the advantage of being able to add words like 'Crisis' or 'Sex'. You're unlikely to be able to use words like this. But you can still select the most evocative word from a group of paragraphs.
Use at least two headlines or sub-heads per page of text. They will guide the reader through the page.
Banish abstract words
Avoid using abstract words, like 'adjustment'. If you find you have written one, change it into a verb or use a concrete noun.
People like using abstract words because they sound weighty. They help the writer feel grand, but they also reduce the reader's understanding.
In the following ad (from a telemarketing company), underline the abstract words.
A telephone marketing campaign takes experience and intelligent planning. It means co-ordinating the message, the execution, the fulfilment and the analysis.
And it requires a telephone marketing service with the technological and human resources to make every call count.... With expert account handling from initial consultation to smooth implementation.
The answer is at the bottom of the page.
Avoid using this abstract noun:
by using a more easily understood word:
Don't use long words
Long words are more difficult to read, and fewer people understand their meaning. Even PhDs find it easier to read 'big' than 'considerable'. True, you lose subtle shades of meaning when you only use small words. But think of the rewards: more readers, more understanding, more interest and more sales.
Instead of a long word like:
Use something simpler:
You: the most powerful word in advertising
Don't be afraid to use the word 'you'. No piece of writing needs to be unfriendly or pompous. Think of the least friendly piece of writing: it would probably be a legal contract. Here is a real piece of legal jargon from an order form:
The Customer is strictly liable for any loss or damage to the magnetic tapes however caused while they are in the Customer's possession.
Wouldn't it be clearer to say:
You are strictly liable for any loss or damage to the magnetic tapes, however caused, while they're in your possession.
Use the active tense
Take an active sentence such as 'The cat killed the mouse.' You can turn it into the passive by saying, 'The mouse was killed by the cat'.
Two things have happened:
- The sentence has become 40 per cent longer.
- It's more difficult to understand, because the relationships (cat - kills - mouse) are less clear.
So the moral is, avoid passives where you can. You can spot passives because they often use the words 'be/been' and 'by'. For example, 'The mouse has been killed by the cat.'
Exercise: See how many examples of passive tenses can be found in this document. You'll find the answer at the end.
In chatty copy, you can use words like 'couldn't' or 'won't'. This means you can use them in most advertisements, but take care about using them in more formal copy.
If in doubt, ask yourself whether the unabbreviated words look too stiff. Or perhaps the short form looks a little vulgar? See what other copywriters have done in a similar context.
Abstract word exercise: There are twelve abstract words.
Passives exercise: The only ugly passive is in the exercise question itself. The third paragraph has a passive verb whose use is reasonable.
Click here for more tips.
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