Write Like the Pros
Ever read something that just doesn't sound right? It may be hard to put your finger on, but the copy feels awkward. You find yourself devoting more attention to the writing than to the message it's trying to convey.
Or maybe you've tried to write something, and the words that sounded so good in your head don't quite make it onto the paper in front of you.
Whether you're the writer or the reader, you may be a victim of amateur writing. It's not that it's bad necessarily. It's just not quite good enough.
If you're struggling to find that bit of je ne sais quoi that makes copy come alive on the page, maybe this will help.
It's an abbreviated "Pro-Am" checklist that contrasts a few writing techniques. It's arbitrary and not remotely complete. There are thousands more; enough for someone to write a book (hmmmm...). See if any of these sound uncomfortably familiar:
- Ams can't write unless they're "inspired."
- Pros write every day. They know that, just as with musicians, there's no such thing as too much practice.
- Ams Just want to get it down. Because they don't write every day, it never becomes second nature, so they feel relieved when the chore of writing is done.
- Pros want to get it as right as it can be. They revise. And revise. And keep revising right up to the deadline.
- Ams want to cram everything they think is relevant into a package. They try to say it all and, as a result, say nothing.
- Pros stick to one point. They establish the thesis early, and stay with that topic, and emotional response, until they've led the reader in a straight line from the attention-getting lead to the motivating conclusion.
- Ams are drawn to adverbs. They don't trust the verbs to convey enough action and feel the need to dress them up. They write, "The lion roared ferociously," even though there is no other way for a lion to roar.
- Pros eschew adverbs. They stick to strong, simple words and let them do their jobs.
- Ams talk at the reader.
- Pros talk with the reader.
- Ams love or hate clichés. They either lean on them like a crutch, or avoid them like the plague.
- Pros know clichés are like any other tool. When they can serve as a shortcut to the reader's heart they're good. When they make the correspondence trite, they are not.
- Ams can't avoid the temptation to show what clever writers they are. They draw attention to their writing at the expense of the message.
- Pros try to disappear into the text. They adapt their style to fit the tone of the organization, the message and the voice of the letter signer.
- Ams believe being creative means being different, colorful, making sure the package has plenty of pizzazz.
- Pros know "it's not creative unless it sells."
- Ams write to themselves, structuring the ask to fit their personal preferences. They say things like, "I would (or wouldn't) give to that."
- Pros know they are almost never the audience. They do all they can to understand the audience they're writing to, then write to move those readers first and anyone else second.
Anyone can become a copywriter. No degree or professional certification is required. There is no copywriting equivalent to the bar exam. And, as with most things, the good writers make it look easy. That's why so many people think they can do it.
And to a degree they can. But the difference between copywriting and effective copywriting is night and day. Still, it is a craft, not just a sullen art, and a great many of the techniques can be learned. The checklist above is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.