Had an interesting conversation the other day with the new breed of agency writer – the search writer. He was querying some changes I’d made to an article of his.
‘You’ve started a sentence with ‘but’. You can’t start a sentence with ‘but’.’
The irony wasn’t lost on me. A writer spawned by the new digital age trying to champion a very traditionalist grammatical approach with someone who was writing copy when art directors still ticked in headlines, tracing type over blown up photocopies of the font. But (see what I did there) I let it go.
Instead I suggested it was entirely acceptable nowadays to start a sentence with a conjunction, before coming out with that age-old advertising chestnut: ‘Anyway, the first rule of advertising copy – there are no rules.’
Which got to me thinking.
If there were rules for writing good ad copy, what would mine be? So, here are the first ten that flew into my head:
1. bang. Start with a
Grab attention. Oh, if I had a pound for every time an account handler’s briefed me to ‘grab attention’… Seriously though, you know what I mean. If you lose your reader right at the outset, that’s it. You have one chance, don’t blow it. Hit your reader hard with something impactful that makes them sit up, take notice, read on. Promise something in those first few opening words.
2. Familiarity breeds content
Only connect. With apologies to fans of E.M. Forster and ‘Howard’s End’. Not forgetting the quiz show, of course.
What I mean is, get to know your audience. Talk to them in a language they’ll understand. So, don’t just write – think about it first. Find out about the marketplace, so you can use the right vocabulary and gauge just the right tone. Maybe leaf through a few target audience magazines.
Look, writing copy, advertising per se, indeed, any kind of marcoms – it’s all about empathy, all about engagement. It’s all about connecting with your target audience. So, poke, probe and prod them, before you try to talk to them.
3. Have a nice little chat
Suffering from writer’s block? Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. I always think the best and easiest way to unblock yourself, in a non-constipation way, is to imagine you’re having a one to one conversation with someone – you’re talking to them confidentially. Maybe even visualise someone you know who might be representative of that particular target audience. Now, what would you say to them? Simply imagine you’re having a cosy chat with them. Do that and you’ll be amazed how quickly the words come spilling out.
4. A paragraph doesn’t have to be a paragraph
I often think writing good copy is, in part, ignoring everything you’ve ever been taught by your old English teacher. So, don’t be surprised to see paragraphs comprising just one word.
Why not one word, if it creates impact, if it’s powerful, arresting, attention-grabbing? At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is communicate. If that means throwing common grammatical notions out of the window, then hey-hoh.
Use short paragraphs if it aids communication and understanding. Use short sentences too. Obviously, it’s horses for courses and there will be some copywriting tasks where bigger words and longer sentences are more appropriate. But, for the most part, it’s all about making life easy for the reader. Keep it short, snappy and punchy and there won’t be any confusion. Don’t make life difficult for your reader. Good copy’s as tight as a drum.
5. Forget features, bang on about the benefits
Okay, don’t ‘forget’ the features. And don’t ‘bang on’ about anything. But, you know where I’m coming from. Concentrate on what the product or service is going to do for the reader. Don’t simply reiterate and regurgitate what the product does. You need to make it obvious how the reader’s life is going to improve as a result of purchasing.
6. Make sure you cut out all meaningless waffle wherever possible
Don’t go on. I know what it’s like. Sometimes, you want to impress. You want to visibly demonstrate your copywriting prowess, your undoubted wordsmithery.
As we say in Stoke, ‘Dunna bovva.’
I often think the best writers are those equipped with the best editing skills. So learn to perfect them. Whenever I write a piece of copy, no matter how long, I always read and re-read, ruthlessly cutting out whatever I perceive to be superfluous. Even when it’s borderline superfluous, even when it’s got only the slightest whiff of fluffy, it gets booted out. And, without exception, the end result is always better. The best ad copy isn’t something that’s just magically appeared out of thin air on the screen or page; it’s something that has been crafted and finely honed over time.
7. Windows in a glass of their own
Puns can be good. Puns can work. I’m not averse to opening a piece of copy with a nice catchy pun. Especially if it spills fairly effortlessly out of the headline.
Just don’t overdo it. If you’re trying to sell windows, don’t crowbar every window pun known to man into five lines of body copy. Because, sooner or later, it gets in the way of the communication – eventually, it filters out the message you’re trying to convey.
8. Make. Every. Word. Work
Probably touched on this already. But, every word in a piece of ad copy should be doing a job. After all, it’s not like there’s much space for copy normally. I think I read somewhere once that the best newspaper headline they’d ever seen was ‘Beatle John shot dead’, because it told you everything you need to know in just four words. In the same way, if you’ve got words not adding something, words not performing a function, you’ve got to be brutal and ask yourself: ‘Why are they there?’ If you can’t think of a good reason, get rid.
9. And, yes, it’s okay to start sentences with ‘And’
Better cover this off, seeing as this is where it all started. Forget everything anyone’s ever told you about not starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ or any kind of conjunction. You’re in advertising now, it doesn’t matter. You are not required to adhere slavishly to overly prescriptive grammatical rules. With ad copy, the first thing that goes out the window is grammar. All that matters is getting the message across. All that matters is communicating in the most effective and most persuasive and most compelling way. And if that means starting your sentence with ‘And’, you go for it.
10. with a call to action. Finish
Simple enough, really. But don’t forget to give the reader something to do. A call to action is an absolute pre-requisite of any piece of advertising copy. You’ve got to make them do something. You’ve got to encourage the reader to act. Give them a response to complete. Make them pick up the phone. Email for more information. Go to the website. Send for a brochure. Visit instore. Order one today. Order two even. Hell, knock yourself out, order the lot…