5 Keys to Compelling Copy

Though literary and brand writing serve different purposes—the first to make sense of the elusive human experience, and the second, to drive goods and services into the hands of elusive customers—they have much in common when it comes to craft. Below are five quotes from classic and contemporary authors that writers, commercial and non-commercial alike, should heed.

Eliminate the Fluff and Flowers

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. – Mark Twain

Tip: Only use adjectives that offer specific information (‘summer morning’) add sensorial color (‘sizzling steak’), or contribute emotional meaning (‘fantastic fall day’). If you can have a noun or verb carry the weight, do so. And always try to substitute a verb for an adverb—‘whispered’, ‘murmured’, or other verbs are superior to ‘he said softly’. And whenever you can, let nouns and verbs do the work, as the Apple demonstrates here: “Set off fireworks. Stick a sticker. Share a secret with invisible ink. You can even reply in your own handwriting or scribble letters on the display and let Apple Watch turn it into text.”

Sharpen your shears

I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. – Truman Capote

Tip: Every word should serve an idea. If it doesn’t serve that function, eliminate it. Also, cut away verbal flab. A particular culprit is adding the word ‘very’ for emphasis. And whenever you can express an idea with one word rather than two—weather vs. weather conditions—opt for one.

Balance long and short sentences

There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences. But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness. – Verlyn Klinkenborg

Tip: A mix of long and short sentences creates rhythm and varied rhythm keeps your reader reading. But with today’s attention spans, toggle between short and shorter. And don’t be afraid of fragments. They create a conversational tone, as Apple does with this iPad copy: “With the right accessory for iPad, you’re covered. Or connected. Or docked. See how accessories let you do more with iPad.”

Paint a picture

Arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the mind’s weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style. – Alain de Botton

Tip: Powerful metaphors not only make your copy more vivid and compelling, but they expand meaning. “All day I was up and down” conveys high and low feelings whereas the image of a rollercoaster ushers in fear, anticipation, and stomach churning sensation.

Get specific

If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. – Strunk and White

Tip: Pay special attention to “the details that matter” but be sure they aren’t empty calories. Take a look at the specifics in this Apple Watch copy: “Now you can see up to five workout metrics — distance, pace, active calories, heart rate, and elapsed time — all at once, without having to swipe.”

Punctuate please

When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly — with body language. Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, and wrinkle your brow. – Russell Baker

Tip: As a copywriter, you’re probably good friends with the comma, question mark, and exclamation point (though that should be a distant relationship). Less well known is the em dash (—), a nifty tool used in informal writing. This dramatic dash serves multiple functions — signaling a change of thought, adding emphasis, or creating a dramatic pause. Here is the em dash at work for Apple watch: “All your options — including larger emoji, sketches taps, and your heartbeat—are now in the same place, so you can send and respond to messages faster than ever.”

Good writing is both airy and filled with description, but never bogged down by superfluousness. No matter the subject—business or literary — your job is to seduce your reader and give them a reason to read on. If you can do that, you’ve succeeded.

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