Five rules how to write copy that sells (and when you should break them)

copywriting rules

Every copywriter battles with their faults and insecurities.

Some of us tend to procrastinate, multitask, go into panic mode, or even into a lethargy (also known as “blah” days, meaning no inspiration to be found). Then we come up with a piece of 2,000 words in one afternoon. Mainly because the deadline is hanging over our heads and we don’t have anywhere to escape.

Others have strict rules, like writing 1,000 words every day – to reinforce the habit of writing. They are the ones who get s*** done before the deadline, have enough time to edit the piece a few times, AND continue working on their novel.

I belong to both groups. And I learned to accept the good and the bad from both categories. I also learned how, as long as I’m following a few fundamental rules, I’ll (almost) always deliver solid work.

Mind you; these “rules” aren’t unbendable. Often, I find myself breaking them depending on the audience I’m “talking” to or to give more juice to the messaging.

Here are five rules on how to write copy that brings sweet dibs:

1. Skin and bones

Did you know a phrase “less is more” was adopted in 1947 by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe? He called his buildings “skin and bones” architecture. Apply this principle also to your copy.

Get rid of anything unnecessary or unhelpful – stick to the minimum number of words that explain your message concisely. Not sure if you get the same feeling, but if I read a copy that has too many words, I lose my interest pronto.

Beware of: actually, really, indeed, kind of, more or less, pretty, sort of, a little bit, etc. These are tricky modifiers that sneak into your copy faster than your cat stealing a piece of chicken.

Too many words bore your reader, and then your message doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Go straight to the point, or as Ogilvy once said: “Don’t beat around the bush”.

2. Details matter

If your copy isn’t selling, maybe it’s because you use ambiguous statements. Give your audience facts. Details. The more information you provide, the more trustworthy you become. The more you describe your product, your readers get the better picture. Easy peasy, right?

Well, not for everyone.

Many businesses have websites swarming with buzzwords failing miserably to say what the company does. Steer away from generic statements, and instead focus on answering the question: what do we do? Make your message obvious and straightforward, so every visitor can tell what you do within seconds.

Now, this rule is fickle when it comes to writing emails that are meant to incite curiosity. For example, you send out a short newsletter to announce the launch of a new product coming up. You don’t want to reveal everything, right? Instead, you can share bits and bobs that will keep your audience at the tip of their toes. If your copy needs to trigger a desire and a want, then maybe try writing a more elusive copy.

3. Fancy down your writing

Unless your audience is a group of university lecturers of philosophy and quantum physics, it’s better to write in a conversational language.

In 1946, Rudolf Flesch published The Art of Plain Talk, which became a bible for copywriters because it teaches how to simplify your copy without losing its meaning and value. Flesch advised how “when you write, you write to educate and inspire people, not to confuse them”.

So, write as you talk: be it on the street, in a shop, at work or with their friends and family. Make your message universally readable and understandable.

Then, when you’re done writing, read your text out loud. If any sentence sounds weird coming out of your mouth, or you lose the meaning along the way, change your copy. Your eyes should glide effortlessly through the text, and your tongue should follow it.

As Flesch says: “Let’s write for the reader and not for ourselves. Make the writing do what it is intended to do.”

4. Toss out any used up sayings and buzzwords

People get used to reading or hearing some words, especially in the business sector. Many words start to pop up like mushrooms after the rain, and soon we’re all used to them. And if you get used to something, it doesn’t have the same power as before.

We’re all guilty of this. Buzzwords like cutting-edge, thought-provoking, business-savvy, disrupting technology, probably sounded neat the first time somebody used them. Now they are a sad bunch that most of us don’t even register while reading. Let’s compare it with that cute guy in your high school, let’s call him Brad. He was cool and handsome. All the girls went crazy for him, at least at the beginning. Then Brad dated half of the town. And at the end of high school, you didn’t think he was that cool anymore. It’s not thrilling to go after what everyone had.

Sorry, Brad.

Sorry, buzzwords.

To create a potent and crisp copy, the first thing to do is scan your draft and toss out any buzzwords and clichés. Marketers end up writing stuff that sounds right to them because they hear it everywhere. Try to cancel out the background noise, look at your text and be relentless. Exercise removing anything unnecessary. As with your copy, also with everything in your life.

But, you don’t have to always withhold from using metaphors or buzzwords. Use them in the copy, but take them out of their usual placements and put them in another, unexpected place. Consider using buzzwords from other industries or take them out of their context. It will make your copy colourful and charming. For example:

“They are passionate about each other” becomes more vivid if you say “they sizzle around each other”.

5. Abandon all adverbs, ye who write here

I adore adverbs. Regularly, I’ll willfully add them in somewhat unreasonable high amounts. While adverbs are a great add-on to help paint the whole picture around the words, often they are seen as an unnecessary evil.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft slashed any use of adverbs: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t getting himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.”

Though I admire Mr King and his mastery, I don’t always agree with him on the subject of adverbs. Yes, you should delete any modifiers that don’t help you make direct and energetic sentences. Also, maybe you don’t always need to use an adverb to intensify another word if the same can be said with a stronger verb or a noun. Leave something for the reader’s imagination.

But if you add adverbs with a twist, then your copy will be more original.

For example, Cole Schafer came up with a wickedly good CTA on his website to sign up for his newsletter: “Gently caress this mysterious black bar if you want to sell like hell…”

If he left it at “Caress this mysterious black bar if you want to sell like hell”, the intrigue would be gone. “Gently caress” sounds like there is a wild beast that you can tame, and it gives the reader a sense of excitement.

And one rule to rule them all…

One rule that is above all is to write as you are talking to a real person. No matter if your copy targets consumers directly or if you’re in B2B business, remember there is a human on the other side of the screen. Try to imagine how you would describe something, tell a story or convince someone in person. Answer the questions they might ask. Place yourself in their shoes. That way, it’s going to be easier for you to keep the customers’ perspective first, instead of falling into the trap of talking only about yourself and your business.

Nobody ever liked a blind date where another person talked about themselves the whole time, so don’t be that jerk in business either.

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Five rules how to write copy that sells (and when you should break them)
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