7 Fast Ways to Improve Your Copy

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By Donna Baier Stein

Here are seven quick and easy tips you can put in practice right away to improve your copy.

Your main job as a copywriter, of course, is to…

  • Focus on benefits instead of features (answer your reader’s question “What’s in it for me?”)
  • Create and emphasize a compelling offer and call to action (CTA)
  • Write to sell

The seven following “tricks” can help you write more clearly and succinctly. Use them as a step toward making your sale online or in print. Remember, t: people read copy on a computer screen 25% more slowly than on paper.

Tip #1:

Use “You” More than “We”

Your readers don’t care that much about you, your company, or even your product or service. But they DO want to know how you and your company, product or service can improve their life.

So when you write, use mostly second person point of view: YOU

Here’s an example from a subscriber acquisition mailing for MIT’s Technology Review:

Dear Visionary:

Tim Berners-Lee. Sherry Turkle. Bob Metcalfe. Lester Thurow. And you.

This letter brings a very exclusive invitation for you to join today’s best minds in under­standing how technological innovators are even now preparing to remake your way of life — changing the way you work, earn, and live.

You already know how powerful a force innovation is in the modern world. And you know that innovation can be unkind to those who ignore it or don’t see it coming.

And here’s another mailing from Health Newsletter:

Notice how in the Health example the copywriter switches to 3rd person point of view (“In just its first few years, Health has won 51 awards…”)

The second person point of view is the preferred viewpoint in direct marketing copy because it focuses the reader on his/her own needs… and forces the writer to dwell on benefits.

Tip #2:

Remove Every Unnecessary Word

Your reader will almost always scan your carefully-written copy. You need to make sure that your copy layout – on screen or in print – is easy to scan. You will write short sentences and short para­graphs and leave good-sized margins.

After you’ve written your first draft, go through carefully and take out every unnecessary word.

Here’s an example:

This sentence is from an email written to promote an executive leadership training seminar. It is wordy!

“We separate the wheat from the chaff and bring you the critical intelligence you need to keep your winning edge.”

A simple and powerful rewrite leads to this:

“We bring you critical intelligence to secure your winning edge.”

Here’s a page from a company’s web-based certification program office:

Notice how this copy is not only wordy but also betrays the rules of focusing on BENEFITS and YOU.

Here’s a rewrite in progress on Track Changes:

Much shorter and easier to read, yes? And much more targeted to answering the reader’s question: “What in it for me?”

Tip #3:

Know Everything You Can about Your Prospect or Customer and Flatter Your Reader

All of us like to be recognized and complimented. As a copywriter, it’s your job to let your reader know that

  • You know his/her relationship to your company (as prior donor/current poli­cyholder/etc.)
  • You know that he/she is a worthy person specifically suited to the products and services you sell.

Here’s an example from a snail mail package for the American Express Gold Card:

And here are some other copy lines that recognize and flatter:

As a long-time and generous supporter of our cause, you…

It has been a month since your last order and…

I believe you’re someone who travels well, eats in fine restaurants—and appreciates the difference between dinner at a four-star restaurant and a sandwich on the run.

Tip #4:

Avoid Jargon

Years ago, in a classic bk called On Writing Well, William Strunk bemoaned the existence of what he called “creeping nounism.” Today, we’re immersed in an ocean of “creeping nounism!”

How about:

  • Communication facilitation skills development intervention
  • Single Sign-on Solution
  • Selected alert action self-enablement
  • Data center resiliency
  • Network constraint issue
  • Committee action effectiveness
  • Home loan interest declaration

As Zinsser himself wrote, “precipitation activity” can easily be called rain!

What examples of creeping nounism can you find in your company’s copy?

Tip #5:

Forget What Your Grammar School Teacher Taught You

It’s okay to use contractions:

  • “You’ll enjoy” is better, more conversational than “you will enjoy”
  • Don’t bother to read this unless…
  • You’ll save time and money.
  • Here’s a sample of what you’ll miss…

It’s okay to use sentence fragments and even single-word sentences:

  • How to lose 10 pounds in 10 days.
  • Intimate. Risky. Engaging.
  • One in every state!
  • A moment. A voice. Then an idea that can change your life and career. One idea. Bright. Sharp. Like a diamond in your mind.

And it’s okay to begin your sentences with “and” or another “bucket brigade word”:

  • And while I hope you have a place of your own where you can connect with wildlife…
  • But there’s no need to spend thousand of dollars to high priced information services.
  • Nearly a thousand deaths per day from breast cancer.
  • Yet, there is hope.

A bucket brigade words moves the reader from paragraph to paragraph – like old-time firefighters used to pass buckets of water from hand to hand.

Other examples of bucket-brigade words are:

  • That’s why…
  • Here’s how…
  • Since…
  • Because…
  • Instead…
  • There are many more!

Here’s an email that shows how the bucket brigade phrases can work with the use of ‘Because now” and “Best of all.”

Tip #6:

Use Active Verbs

Your reader is overwhelmed on all sides with invitations and demands for his attention. Using vital, active verbs can keep your reader interested. One example of how dull and vague the passive voice can sound is President Nixon’s infamous line, “Mistakes have been made.”

Here are two ways to change passive verbs to active:

If your enthusiasm for cooking has been dampened by lack of time… BAD

If lack of time dampens your love of cooking… GD

We can have information appended for virtually every business across the globe. BAD

We’ll attach information for virtually every business around the world.

Tip #7:

Pay Attention to the Rhythm of Your Sentences

One way to do this is to vary the length of your sentences. Look at this paragraph from a successful long-term mailing for The Nature Conservancy:

So besides being after your $10, we invite you to see a sample of our lands. We have 59 chapters in 50 states. Check your phone bk. Our field offices will guide you and yours to a nearby preserve where you’re most welcome to walk along one of its paths, sit on one of the long benches, look about, and say to the youngster we hope will be with you, “This will be here, as is, for your grandchildren.” –The Nature Conservancy

Note that this paragraph includes one short sentence, another short sentence, a 4-word command, and one very long sentence. This keeps the reader’s interest

Another way to build good rhythm in your writing is to follow the “Rule of 3” to make sentences sound more complete and readable.

In fairy tales, many items come in threes:

  • Three bowls of porridge
  • Three bears
  • Three Billy Goats Gruff
  • Wynken, Blinken and Nod.
  • There’s also red, white and blue or here, there, and everywhere.

Here are examples:

“We can definitely save you time, we can save you headaches, and we can make dealing with your car insurance easy.”

(Note: this could be shortened to “We can save you time, save you headaches, and make dealing with your car insurance easy.”)

“Dedicated reps, online claims tracking, and more than 65 years of experience.”

“You’re in the middle of an important project. Or a report that’s due tomorrow. Or a phone call to a prospective client.”

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1 Comment

  1. Our field offices will guide you? Hmm. Even barefoot writers need subbing…
    Thanks, Donna; I’m enjoying exploring this new world of opportunity. Love the Rule of Three.
    Yours,
    Jolyon

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