In college you learn to abide by AP style, write in neat paragraphs and an academic tone. In the traditional writing format, these rules transferred nicely. However, when it comes to modern mediums, otherwise known as web writing, these rules generally don’t apply. While grammar should still be pristine, it’s more about the content than anything else. As an editor, it’s important that you have an eye for these key differences. [Read more…]
It’s something many people forget because freelance writing can be a self-defeating endeavor even for those with strong academic skills. It isn’t like completing a math problem where everything has a logical place and you’re guaranteed to do fine so long as the dots are properly connected.
Writing is the brooding cousin of painting. Whereas painters use brush strokes to convey an image, writers craft visions with words. The picture is framed by words designed to influence the reader’s perception of whatever is being conveyed. Word choice and flow are important in capturing and maintaining the reader’s interest.
In the course of more than a decade as a full-time writer – mostly for U.S. metropolitan daily newspapers – I have learned from extremely talented wordsmiths who passed on practical advice.
Their tips will help fine-tune your writing for maximum clarity and effect:
• Keep it simple, stupid! This design principle dictates use of sentences that are focused and clear. Any writer is more likely to get into trouble using long sentences with complex punctuation. Clunky sentences should be divided up so they are easier to read. Writing this way helps build and maintain momentum.
• What’s in it for me? It’s an old sales adage, but it applies equally well in writing. By the third or fourth paragraph at the latest, the writer must answer this question for the reader or risk losing their attention. In general, people want to be led and the writer must be firm in explaining why the article has value. This “nut graph” spells out, in one or two sentences, why the article is important and relevant to the reader.
• Word echoes are redundant. This one can be tricky, especially for those writing Search Engine Optimized content that relies on repetitive use of keywords. But even SEO has a limit. Generally speaking, an echo is when a writer uses the same word more than once in a sentence, or even paragraph. Repetitive use of words –except for search engine optimization – is boring and distracting. Avoid doing this at all costs.
• That “that” has got to go. In many cases, use of “that” is unnecessary and should be avoided. It may seem trivial, but “that” acts in a similar fashion as “umm” – overuse detracts from the author’s message. For example: “I hope that we go to the baseball game” should instead read, “I hope we go to the baseball game.”
• Read it out loud. Even after writing, editing and conducting a spelling and grammar check, it’s still not time to hit the send button. Read it out loud. This simple act is a perfect way to catch – with fresh ears – errors that may have been missed by fatigued mind and eyes. Reading every sentence out loud also helps identify awkward word arrangements that may slow the reader and cause them to veer off-course.
J.P. Cawyer is an east coast-based professional writer. When he isn’t mulling the dictums of the written word, he enjoys playing on his Galaxy S and the iPad.
I’m not opposed to finding work via advertisements or “help wanted” listings. I’ve never been a fan of the bid boards, but I know they work for some people. I know that countless writers benefit from the job listings here at FWJ.
However, I don’t spend a lot of time tossing my hat into the ring with hundreds of other applicants for advertised writing positions. I’ll do it occasionally when a particular call for a writer really appeals to me, but it’s not my preferred way of generating business.
I know there are plenty of writers out there who would really like to be busier, so I thought I’d talk about an approach that has worked for me. It’s not revolutionary or anything, but it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as other strategies. I like creating my own gigs.
Here’s the plan, in its simplest form:
- Find someone who has a great product or idea–something that’s right in your wheelhouse or in which you see remarkable potential.
- Think about how your skills could help them.
- Pitch them.
Example One: Occasionally, I’ll watch press releases roll along the river of a popular distribution site’s RSS feed. I’ll look for releases that involve interesting topics or ideas. I’ll pay close attention to those that evidence a need for a much better copywriter. The contact information is right there on the release. The pitch is simple in terms of offering them more effective releases and it doesn’t take long to investigate their web presence and to see what else they might need.
Example Two: Have you ever been searching for something that you wanted or needed and then discovered a real diamond in the rough of a website? Of course, you have. When I find these sites, I will follow up with the owners, telling them how we might be able to work together to improve their business.
I know. It’s pretty simple.
But here’s the interesting thing… It works.
You might think that the percentage of contacts that turn into business would be minimal. That’s not the case. The conversion numbers are surprisingly good. I’m relatively sure that my contact/conversion rate in these situations is higher than most people’s success rate when responding to “writers wanted” ads.
I believe that one reason writers aren’t in higher demand is our collective shortcoming in marketing our gifts and their value. We have a tendency to wait until people see a need for us when we should be telling them why we’re so damned valuable. When you’re rainmaking, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
The trick, of course, is the pitch. You need to be able to show value to the prospective client. You need to demonstrate an understanding of what they seem to be trying to accomplish as well as a vision for what they should be trying to accomplish. You need to make yourself accessible and to let them know that you’re friendly, helpful and something other than a moneysucking mercenary with a keyboard.
I generally make contact with an email. I’ll follow up with a phone call. It’s not a chore. It’s fun. After all, I’m not hoping to find an ad for a job that would be tolerable. I’m isolating opportunities that interest and excite me.
Give it a shot. Take some time to find someone who isn’t necessarily looking for you but who could really use your skills. Pitch ’em. See what happens. You might be surprised.
Time for another lesson in copywriting! Today, you’ll learn a critical element of every copywriting project you take on that you should memorize and never forget — when it comes to making purchase decisions, consumers care about themselves.
When I teach copywriting to business owners, I always start off this section of the lesson with a sentence that quickly catches their attention, “No one cares about you.” They don’t like to hear this news from me, but if they can’t understand it, their marketing messages will fail to deliver the results they want and need.
So how does this apply to the copy that you write for clients (or to market your own freelance writing business)?
It provides you with a very simple rule that you should always follow: Your copy should include far more references to ‘you’ than ‘we’ or ‘me’.
Let me explain.
When a consumer reads copy, they want to hear how the product or service being marketed will help them. They need to understand that the money they pay for that product or service will make their lives better or easier. In other words, they need to believe that the product or service will benefit them in some way that is worth the monetary investment and time required to make a purchase. They don’t care about the fact a business is a member of the local Chamber of Commerce. No matter how proud a business owner is about his longstanding membership, that piece of information is not going to close a sale. When a business has limited space or time to communicate messages to consumers, that space needs to be used as effectively as possible in order to compel consumers to action.
Bottom-line, don’t clutter copy with references to ‘me’ and ‘we’ (i.e., the business talking about itself). Instead, fill your copy with references to ‘you’ (i.e., the consumer) so they can relate to the messages and apply them to their own lives. Following are two simple examples for a computer retailer to help you understand this concept:
- We or Me Copy: We offer low prices and our employees are experts in the computers we sell.
- You Copy: You’ll get low prices and personal service from a staff that’s ready to help you find the computer that’s right for you.
As a consumer looking for a computer, which of the above copy examples is more compelling to you? The first is loaded with references to ‘we’ while the second is all about ‘you’, the customer. Clearly, the second example would be more effective at moving consumers to action.
The rule-of-thumb that I suggest following is the 80-20 rule of marketing that tells us 80% of a company’s business comes from 20% of its customers. By applying that rule to copywriting, 80% of your copywriting should refer to ‘you’ while just 20% should refer to ‘we’ or ‘me’. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but follow this guideline to achieve a good balance, and your copywriting will improve. You can read more about the you not we rule in my book, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps.
If you missed them, follow the links to read earlier parts of the Lessons in Copywriting series:
Part 3 of Lessons in Copywriting teaches you how to make sure the marketing copy you write is succinct using a tool I call the Red Pen Rule, which I discuss in detail in my book, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps.
Let’s take a step back first.
The most powerful copy is clear, concise, and leaves no room for confusion. We’ll talk more about that in Part 4. Today, you need to understand the importance of not getting too attached to the copy that you write. Chances are, a third of it could go and you’d actually have a much better final piece.
And that brings us to the Red Pen Rule.
The Red Pen Rule states that once you have written your copy, edited it, and believe it is complete, perfect, wonderful, and ready for the world to see, you should delete at least 30% of it.
Remember, succinct copy is more powerful than wordy copy. It’s is very likely that at least 30% of your copy is not necessary in terms of driving home your core messages. In fact, at least 30% probably clutters your core message. Don’t hide your core messages behind clutter! Instead, take out your red pen and start deleting words, phrases, sentences — whatever it takes to cut that copy down and make it more concise and powerful.
Keep in mind, 30% deletion is not required, but it’s a good goal to try to hit. The point is to delete more than you think you can bear to see on the cutting room floor.
If you can’t step back far enough away from your copy to be able to clearly judge what parts can be deleted to make your copy tighter, ask colleagues, friends, or family members for their opinions. They might not be copywriting experts, but they’re consumers. Their thoughts might help you look at your copy from another angle and suddenly the parts that can go without being missed will jump off the page at you.
Avoid offering too much information (TMI) and show no mercy for filler words! These are some of the first things that have to go. Stay tuned for future Lessons in Copywriting where I’ll talk more about TMI and filler words and why they can kill even the best marketing copy.
I’m often asked by beginner writers or seasoned writers who want to branch out in new directions about how to get started as a copywriter. Therefore, I think Freelance Writing Jobs is a good place to offer some lessons in copywriting.
Everything I discuss in this series comes from my own education and experience writing copy for some of the largest companies in the world (including AT&T, HSBC, Citibank, H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and more) as well as many small and mid-sized companies around the globe. The content in this series is covered in detail in my book, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, if you’d like to learn even more about copywriting.
Let’s get started at the very beginning with what I call the first tenet of copywriting. If you can’t understand the first tenet of copywriting, then you need to stop immediately and take some more time to process and believe it before you try to actually write copy.
The first tenet of copywriting states that a product (or service or business) is far less important than its ability to fulfill consumers’ needs.
Write the first tenet of copywriting down or print it out and tape it to your wall or above your computer. Never forget it! Effective copy always focuses on consumers’ needs, not the product being marketed. In other words, the product is secondary to its ability to meet a customer’s needs.
Keep in mind, the best marketers and copywriters are able to make the distinction between real and perceived needs. In fact, the best copy actually creates perceived needs in consumers’ minds. In other words, consumers might not even realize they have a need for a specific product until they read or hear marketing copy that makes them think they have that need.
You’ll see in future copywriting lessons in this series that the concept of creating perceived needs as they relate to determining a target audience, identifiying features and benefits, and researching consumers and competitors will come up again and again. In other words, when you’re crafting compelling marketing messages, all roads lead back to the first tenet of copywriting. Memorize it!
Stay tuned for future copywriting lessons here on Freelance Writing Jobs, and be sure to read my post that answers the question: Can Anyone Be a Copywriter?
Some of us played a game on long bus rides. We called it “Three Bags of Gold”. It wasn’t much of a game. It was primarily an opportunity to concoct horrific, stomach-churning, soulless scenarios and to half-heartedly consider them in the context of our greed and morality. It was like a hypothetical version of Fear Factor with ethical elements.
Someone would yell out a test. “Would you cut off your little finger, grill it and eat it for three bags of gold?” We’d iron out the details. How would the amputation occur? Would there be immediate medical treatment for the lost finger prior to the barbecue? Could we season our severed digit when it was time to dine? Right hand or left? We discussed the current market price of gold and the size of the bags at great length again and again.
The scenarios weren’t always gross-out exercises. “Would you frame a friend for a crime that would result in his imprisonment for three bags of gold?” “Would you ‘pull the plug’ on a stranger who had requested to stay on life support for three bags of gold?” Under what situations would our morality bend in the face of three bags of gold? When would we finally lie, cheat or steal? Why?
We’d respond to the scenarios with a collective, reactive “no”. As the conversation progressed, someone might admit a willingness to engage in whatever twisted behavior under consideration.
It was all a silly diversion designed to kill time on empty stretches of interstate with open conversation and jokes. We didn’t take it very seriously, though we sometimes learned a bit about one another. Sometimes those lessons made folks a little less attractive.
I hadn’t thought about Three Bags of Gold for nearly twenty years. Yesterday, I realized that I was playing the game professionally now.
The email included a job offer. The client needed a variety of materials to assist in the marketing of Product X. He was willing to pay a fair rate.
The problem? I don’t like Product X. I don’t particularly like it in principle and I certainly don’t like it in practice. Product X isn’t dangerous and it isn’t obviously immoral. I just happen to believe that the world would be marginally better off if it and its competitors didn’t exist.
“Would you write copy for Product X for three bags of gold?”
I said it aloud as I considered the offer.
Then, I found myself thinking about the size of the bags and just how much that gold was worth to me right now.
Would I compromise my personal integrity for a check? Would the number of zeroes on the check influence my thinking? How should I weigh the value of that gold to my cash-strapped family against contributing to the potential success of something I dislike and wish would disappear? Would I be able to create compelling words in favor of Product X, considering my disposition toward it?
When you’re in your early twenties cruising down an empty highway late at night, Three Bags of Gold is all theoretical. No one has a knife and a portable barbecue grill waiting for your left pinky. No one has three bags of gold.
Now, the gold is real. It pays for electricity, cars, daycare, shoes for the kids, food for the fridge and laundry soap. The gold even makes payments on the student loans that financed Three Bags of Gold in the old days.
And the decisions are real. We all face them. We all make them.
“Would you write an anti-Semitic screed for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write copy for a crappy product for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write a political essay contrary to your personal beliefs for three bags of gold?”
Would your current bank account balance guide your decision? Would necessity force compromise? Would greed flex your morality?
These questions matter.
I believe that we are responsible for our words. Even if the contractual terms of a ghostwriting project relieve us of legal liability for our efforts, we are creating something that has the potential for impact and we carry with us some level of responsibility for any outcomes it generates. We’re also responsible to our clients. And to our readers. And to ourselves. And to the profession. I tend to believe that writers have a somewhat elevated responsibilities to use their gifts for the betterment of the world. Maybe that sounds hokey to you, but I believe it.
That’s a heap of responsibilities and they don’t always match up nicely. When they compete and cause dissonance, either we walk away or we compromise in some way. Compromise is all but inevitable in so many cases.
Sometimes, we just say, “screw it”. We take the three bags of gold.
Are Your Hands Clean?
My hands aren’t clean. I’ve written half-assed pieces of web content in order score a quick buck even though I don’t embrace the idea of filling the world with half-assed web content. I’ve written sales copy for things that probably didn’t impress too many buyers, if you know what I mean. I’ve made furniture sales seem like the second coming of Christ.
I can rationalize those transgressions. We needed the money. I’m not responsible for what people do, I’m just imparting information. If I didn’t do it, someone else would. Who am I to decide what’s valuable and what’s useless or to draw lines separating good from bad? This is how the world works. No one can advance through life in a market-based economy without compromise. Etc.
In the end, those rationalizations don’t really mitigate my irresponsibility.
I’ve chopped off my finger. I’ve betrayed my friend. I’ve pulled the plug. I took the gold and ran.
I bet you’ve done it, too. Maybe you’ve stayed pure in ways that I haven’t, but you’ve compromised your responsibilities. You’ve done something short of your best work. You’ve pandered to an audience, to a client, or to your own writing vanity. You’ve made your deals with devils, even if your devils are incredibly cute and small.
If you haven’t, I bet you will. Someday.
You’ll get that call about a project you don’t really love. It will come shortly after the water heater goes bad or on the heels of a medical bill. It will come a week before your daughter’s sixteenth birthday or right when your son’s tuition payment is due. The three bags of gold will be large enough to break a mule’s back and you’ll find yourself accepting the offer.
You’ll hold your breath while you peddle the snake oil or while you make the not-so-bright subject of a press release into an eminent expert in her field. You’ll crank through an article at Mach III, knowing that you’re not providing readers with enough meat for their information sandwich or you’ll realize that the client for whom you’re working doesn’t have the world’s best interests at heart.
Rationalization, Blissful Ignorance or Discomfort? Choose.
Three Bags of Gold isn’t funny when it’s real. The easiest way to handle the game is to pretend as if you’re not playing. Don’t think too hard. Keep yourself on the right side of the “morally reprehensible” line and don’t sweat the stuff that isn’t really obnoxious. Just keep on truckin’ and try to make up for the sell-outs with acts of kindness, confession and penance. Whatever gets you through the night, right?
The alternative is scary.
And that’s where I am right now. I’m tired of playing and I’m looking for a way out that can serve all of my responsibilities and that can be consistent with my worldview without all of that uncomfortable compromise. When I take the three bags of gold, I want to do it with plenty of pride and without even the slightest shred of regret.
This is all proof that ignorance is bliss, of course. Life is easier when you don’t realize the back stories of those with whom you’re working or the repercussions of your actions. Three Bags of Gold is an easy game when you don’t have a conscience, but it’s almost as easy if you’ve found a way to keep your head in the sand.
Writers, however, tend to be aware. We see through things. We dig, research and think. That’s what allows us to do remarkable things. Ignorance isn’t an option.
We play Three Bags of Gold and eventually we realize it.
Let’s play a round right here, right now.
What would you do for three bags of gold?
What would you refuse to do for three bags of gold?
And let’s create a little opportunity to come clean, while we’re at it.
What compromises have you made? What responsibilities have you ducked? How did you justify it at the time and how do you feel about it now?
I’d love to see some answers.
If you take a trip across the Internet to learn about copywriting or find a copywriter, you’re likely to walk away with the impression that anyone can be a copywriter. Unfortunately, there are many people out there who claim to be copywriters but have no experience and no knowledge of how copywriting differs from narrative, expository, or any other form of writing. And let me just say right now that I do not think hard sales letters which promise you’ll be a millionaire if you buy this 10-DVD set or similar pie-in-the-sky claims can be included as copywriting. They’re a different animal all together.
So that brings us back to my original question. Can anyone be a copywriter?
My answer to that question is yes — if a person takes the time to learn how to put a sentence together and learns the fundamental theories or marketing, consumer behavior, and targeting. That doesn’t mean you have to have a degree in marketing from a top university (although that can help), but it does mean you need to understand that writing marketing copy requires far more knowledge than grammar, spelling, and the ability to put together clever phrases.
Frankly, I think copywriting should be taught at the university level as a required course for undergraduate marketing majors because the ability to craft effective marketing messages can benefit even the less-creative marketing majors (heck, I had to take 2 semesters of accounting at the undergrad level and another semester in grad school, and I will never, ever be an accountant – copywriting should get the same face time). It would also be a useful course for writing majors, giving them exposure to a completely different form of writing than they’ve ever done before.
I cover all of this and more in my book, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, which was written for small business owners, entrepreneurs, and beginner copywriters. I’ve written copy for some of the largest companies in the world working on multi-million dollar campaigns, and I’ve written copy for solopreneurs and small businesses around the world. With all of that experience and knowledge, I can tell you that you can learn to be a copywriter, but you need to think more like a marketer and less like a writer to be good at it.
Stay tuned for my upcoming series, Copywriting Quick Tips, here on Freelance Writing Jobs where I’ll offer simple tips to become a copywriter who can actually create compelling copy that moves customers to action and helps businesses attain the return on investment they want and need. In the meantime, do you have any specific questions about copywriting? If so, leave a comment and I’ll incorporate them into upcoming posts in the Copywriting Quick Tips series.