5 Ways to Write a Damn Good Sentence

Image of a newspaper ad

Average copywriters write average sentences. You, I’m guessing, don’t want to be average.

You want to be great. You believe you can be remarkable.

That means you need to write damn good sentences … without even thinking about it … day in and day out.

Do that and you’ll become an unstoppable writing machine. You’ll become a killer copywriter.

See, everything you write … every blog post, every landing page, every email, short story, or Google+ post … begins and ends with a sentence. Bone up on your sentence-writing skills and those pieces of content will only get better and be more widely shared.

Want to learn how? Follow me …

More than mastering freshman English

“The skill it takes to produce a sentence,” Stanley Fish said, “the skill of lining events, actions, and objects in a strict logic — is also the skill of creating a world.” In other words, sentences are the engines of creativity.

Take this sentence for instance: “Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth.”

There is a mountain of meaning buried in those eight words. Sure, change the sequence and you change the meaning, but as long as you don’t screw with that framework, people will stay with you (unlike the misguided James Joyce).

But as a copywriter it’s not just about mastering freshman English. There’s more to it. Eugene Schwartz has the answer:

No sentence can be effective if it contains facts alone. It must also contain emotion, image, logic, and promise.

Here’s a great example: “Baby shoes: for sale, never worn.”

That’s Ernest Hemingway, and that little six-word story is possibly his best (his own estimation, not mine). Why? It’s a story selling a pair of shoes … shoes with an intense emotional connotation.

See, your sentences don’t have to say much. They just have to say the right things. Our imaginations will fill in the blanks.

So, when you are trying to get people to respond to your requests, subscribe to your email newsletter, or donate to your cause … you need to write seductive sentences, and you need to do it naturally.

Here’s how it’s done.

1. Insert facts

This is nothing more than basic subject and verb agreement: “Moses ate a muffaletta.” Logical and consistent. The building blocks of a story.

You insert facts by thinking through the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why. Think specific and concrete, but how you say it matters, too.

Compare “On the first day of winter Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth” to “On the last day of winter Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth.” The significance is heightened in the first sentence, minimized in the second. All by one word.

And notice how your sympathies change when I write, “On the first day of winter, Moses fed his muffuletta to the three-day old woolly mammoth.”

Those new facts heighten the emotional appeal of that simple story. It’s the same sort of feeling you get when you read “Baby shoes: for sale, never used.”

2. Create images

It’s not a coincidence that the root of “imagination” is “image.”

Imagination is the capacity for people to see the world you are trying to paint. Intelligent people like to use their imagination. Don’t insult their intelligence by over-explaining, but also don’t abuse their intelligence by starving it.

Use active verbs and concrete nouns and you will naturally create images. “The buzzard bled.” Introduce one, two, or all of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound), and you’ll enhance those images: “The screaming buzzard bled.”

Use phrases like “imagine this” or “picture this” to signal to your reader you are about to paint a picture. That’s how I opened up the 10 Productivity Tips from a Blue-Collar Genius:

Imagine a fifty-something man in a blue long-sleeve shirt, the cuffs unbuttoned, his knuckles thick and coarse. He’s on the side of the road, quibbling over a stack of used cinder blocks with a merchant.

In those two sentences you learn the color of the shirt, the state of the cuffs, the condition of his knuckles. I tell you where he is and what he is doing in concrete language.

I use very precise language to tell you what he was doing: he wasn’t talking, he was “quibbling.” Something entirely different than chatting.

3. Evoke emotion

You can naturally get mood into your sentences if you follow the two steps above, but as a copywriter you don’t want emotion to be an afterthought. You must carefully plan and manufacture emotion.

This starts by asking: what is the dominant mood of your reader or customer? What problem is he or she trying to solve? Is it fear over losing a job? A spouse? A scholarship? Pride of donating to a good cause? Joy for finally getting muscular definition in his calves?

You must know what keeps your ideal customer up at night. What makes him get up early? What are his hopes, dreams, and fears? And then you must insert that emotion into your sentences.

In a post introducing the benefits of our Authority membership site, I wrote:

How often are these little tragedies repeated in your life?

  • You write something clever, but everyone ignores it.
  • You hear about a new opportunity, but don’t pursue it because you don’t have the skills or confidence to attempt it.
  • You get overlooked by everybody – including your boss – because the guy in the next cubicle seems to know everything about SEO, email marketing, or copywriting.
  • You hear about all the new clients your peers are picking up … but none are showing up at your door.

I identified the relevant pain and agitated it so the solution was a no-brainer. In other words, if you can identify with those conditions, then the solution is probably a good thing for you.

But notice those four conditions are all about rejection. Yet I didn’t use the word “reject,” or a derivative, once. I didn’t tell you the emotion you should feel. I simply showed it to you. Big difference in the quality of writing.

4. Make Promises

But as a copywriter you aren’t merely interested in heightening people’s emotions for the sake of heightening emotions, otherwise you’d be a novelist or screenwriter. Entertainment is not a copywriter’s bread and butter.

Getting action is.

So, you need people to see hope in your sentences:

  • What promises are you making to the reader in this sentence?
  • What advantages will the reader gain?
  • What pain will they avoid if they obey you?

In the opening to The Dirty Little Secret to Seducing Readers I wrote:

I’m guessing you want to write copy that sells. You want to write copy so irresistible it makes your readers scramble down the page — begging to do whatever it is you want when they’re done reading — whether it’s to make a purchase, send a donation, or join your newsletter.

The promise is that you can learn how to write in such a way people can’t resist your words. And that’s compelling for the right people.

5. Practice, practice, practice

Writing great sentences takes work.

At first it may feel mechanical, wooden. That’s okay. The goal is to get to a point where you unconsciously blend these elements so they feel natural in the sentence and can’t be pulled apart.

Sort of like when a golf instructor stops your swing to adjust your mechanics. That may feel mechanical and unnatural, but eventually your swing becomes natural and he stops interrupting you.

Here are some exercises to help you improve your sentence writing:

  • Copy great sentences: Hand-write 100 great first sentences. Memorize portions of great sales letters. Dissect killer lines.
  • Opening and closing paragraphs: It’s arduous to consciously think about each and every sentence you write in a 500-hundred word article. However, you can pour energy into every sentence inside the opening and closing paragraphs.
  • Headlines: Your headlines won’t be complete sentences, but they offer you an opportunity to focus closely on what you are writing.
  • Subject lines: Unlike headlines you can use your subject line in an unconventional way. Write complete, robust sentences. “Thought of you while I was at the steam bath.” Who’s not going to open that email up? Measure responses, adjust, and test more ideas.
  • Tweets: Twitter is the perfect mechanism for perfecting your sentences. You are forced to say a lot in 140 characters. And you get feedback. People either respond — or they don’t. Check for retweets, favorites, and replies. And if you don’t get a response, try sharing it again.

Your turn …

Each sentence in a 500-word landing page may not be great, but the more you pay attention to the fundamentals above and practice the techniques, the closer you are going to get with each draft.

Don’t give up. Keep plugging away.


Want to learn more about this topic?

Then listen to this short podcast episode called How to Write Damn Good Sentences with Jerod Morris and Demian Farnworth. And don’t forget to subscribe to The Lede once you’re done!

Image via id-iom

About the author

Demian Farnworth


Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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Comments

  1. What’s up with you Copyblogger writers lately? Seriously, you guys are on fire lately with the quality of your writing. It’s always been great, but something’s put it into overdrive. Perhaps you guys have an office pool going for the best post or something? #endPraise

    I’d add one thing to the “Copy Great Sentences” advice — Don’t throw out that junk mail. Study every word of it. Those guys get paid big dollars to create those mailings. Most of the writing is solid and follows Damian’s advice.

    • Yes, there is an inner office competition. Not official or even spoken. Just is. That’s what happens when you put competitive people in the same room. The cool thing about it is we applaud each other for our successes because we understand the company wins when someone on our team wins. Just brings up the level of the play in all of us.

      And yes, great point about the junk mail. I would say the same thing about spam, too. I think it’s a helpful exercise to look at the headlines in your spam folder for ideas. There is a reason those guys won’t go away. Their copy works (whether it’s ethical is another story).

    • That’s exactly what I was about to add to the list!

      I’ve been going through mail and keeping every new brochure or letter that I receive. Of course, I don’t want to end up with boxes of mail, so I’m only picking the unique ideas from various fields so that eventually I would know how to best write to attract audiences for let’s say photographers, road safety, computers, cars, banks, children — you name it.

      Another thing I was going to add is to try reading your copy in reverse order, from last sentence to the first. Each sentence should make sense on its own even if it’s just a short, blunt statement. They should contain something that is useful for the reader. Just a thought.

    • Great post once again. I always put a lot of thinking in my sentences, this will help.
      And as someone else mentioned, I also keep some spam / marketing emails in a special folder when I could “not” resist opening them, so much it was attractive :) (Just like the Copyblogger ones!)

  2. Hi Demian,

    You are correct — no one wants to be average.

    I’d like to add the following to your excellent post:

    Research and read anything by Leo Burnett (ad man) and Mary Wells (ad woman). A popular advertising campaign from Wells Rich Greene is “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” – Public Service Announcement. This is just one sample. Simple, yet effective.

    Create a swipe file consisting of direct mail, flyers, e-blasts, newsletters, advertorials, infographics, blog posts, articles, white papers, magazine headlines, etc. Refer back to your file, especially when you feel stuck. Take a break and walk away from your writing, come back and refocus.

    Read “Confessions of an advertising man” by David Ogilvy and study his ads. You can find some of them online, like the one for Rolls-Royce. Print it out and place it in your swipe file.

    Ask for feedback from trusted sources; it doesn’t hurt to get a second or third opinion. This is how you learn and hone your craft.

  3. Better than just writing, great copywriting is about connection. Connecting the reader to the world that you want to create and to the picture that you want to paint.

    Fantastic Demian – I’ve really been enjoying the last few articles you’ve written, because you teach so much about storytelling and how to simply but effectively jump start the reader’s imagination to heighten the effectiveness of your message.

  4. Great post! Writing is such an essential skill for anybody looking to make waves online..

    I always have my clients buy books on writing well, and anything that has to do with storytelling..

    Stories sell!

  5. You did it again Demian-This is a great, informative and helpful post. I don’t regret clicking the email link to this post.

  6. Well done article, my friend. Fantastic ingredients, baked to a golden brown. One of the most emotional pieces I’ve ever heard was the story of a copywriter who passed a blind man on his way to work. He noticed that the blind man’s sign was not very compelling as he only had a few coins in his bowl. It just said, Blind, Please Help. He picked up the sign, turned it over, and created a new sentence. He left it in front of the bowl and continued to work. On his way to lunch, the copywriter passed the blind man again. The bowl was now overflowing with money. The blind man sensed who he was by his footsteps and reached out and grabbed the man’s pant leg, “Tell me sir, what did you do to my sign?”
    The copywriter replied, “I just painted a picture with words.”
    The new message simply read… It’s spring outside and I can’t see it.

  7. I love how Perry Marshall puts together a sentence. I open his emails even when i know I’m not going to buy

  8. Very nice. I think the best writers (notice I didn’t just say copywriters) are artists. They are able to paint a picture in the mind’s eye. They use descriptive writing that doesn’t just “tell” someone something. You need to show someone “why”.

    I am a copywriter and a story teller and I can tell you that the two overlap each other more often than not.

    That, sir, was an excellent post. But, then again, what else is knew?

    Am I right?

    Josh

  9. What a smashing article! Thanks for writing it and for sharing it with us.

    And all from a great starting point too (the Hemingway quote) – I’m now interested to know what it’s doing in a piece of old newspaper from my home-town….

  10. I read every copyblogger post in my RSS reader and never comment (just soak up the awesome info). This is the one I need to comment on because it’s just that great.

    Amazing article, and very timely for me as I’m trying to build out content for my membership area.

    I know it takes years of practice and work but it’s grueling writing an article for my site and then reading it aloud and saying to myself “so what?” But I’ll get there, thanks to you guys.

    • Writing great sentences, writing great content is a long game. Your first ten thousand posts might be crap. But that’s okay. You are building an audience and getting better every time. Deliberate practice is a proven method to mastery. See the latest Robert Greene article (The Path to Mastery).

  11. “your sentences don’t have to say much. They just have to say the right things. ”

    I think when we talk, and when we write, we try to fill up the silences with anything because the silence makes us nervous. This leads to a lot of extra fluff and noise and junk. Your sentences don’t have to keep going and going…and going. Say what you mean and move on!

    • Ain’t that the truth. We are afraid of silence, uncomfortable when someone isn’t talking. In person I tend to ask the questions, but if the person isn’t answering well, then I’ll turn into a gas bag.

      I never really thought about this, though, from a writing standpoint. We are afraid of the short post. The to-the-point comment. We feel validated at 2,000 words.

      I’ve been reading the Proverbs out of the Bible lately and a chunk deal with a wise man and a fool. The fool is a gas bag, and people eventually tune him out. The wise man who carefully chooses his words, who seldom speaks — people listen. Great insight, Nick.

  12. I was just thinking to myself today, I really wish there was a simple, comprehensive list of what makes a quality post or sentence. Then boom! here it is. Great post, Demian.

  13. If you’re in need of advice on how to write good, simply refer to George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing. I’ve followed these for over 10 years and they’ve always done proper reet good, innit. I’m sure many millions of others feel the same way. #YOLO

  14. Demian, gotta love “Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth”—it takes that alluring alliterative angle as well as employing that imagistic magic. Though it might seem a shallow mine for copywriters, digging into literature can strike a golden sentence vein.

    I’m thinking of painterly people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, stark, flinty stuff like Cormac McCarthy’s, the lilting pulsings from Annie Dillard, the flashing diamond facets from Rilke—teachers all, and so many more to dip into. Copywriters can polish their prose by reading some of the pros, and not just those from the business world.

    Thanks. This was great stuff, and your recent “10 Productivity Tips” piece on your grandfather’s legacy was stellar as well.

  15. I’m fairly sure it’s been established that Hemingway didn’t come up with the baby shoes story? I love it though.

  16. Yup, this one’s a keeper.

  17. This blog post was so good it hurts. Keeping it bookmarked. Thank you.

  18. This is an incredibly instructive post that I’ve bookmarked. I intend to go step by step to develop this skill.

  19. My Hemingway summary of this post:

    Sharp facts + technicolor image = deep emotion.

    #schwing!

  20. Would there have been a way to make the post title equally as effective and compelling without the word “Damn”?

    • Yes. Alternate titles might have been “5 Ways to Write Great Sentences” or “5 Ways to Write Remarkable Sentences” … and frankly there are probably 100 more that would have worked well. But the “damn” good gives it a little extra punch the headline writers felt worked best.

  21. this, was awesome.

  22. Great post! I think if we all could make each sentence like the above in our blog posts, they would be viral posts waiting to happen. :)

  23. Sometimes freshman English can work against you. In that class, you are taught to write long, complex sentences. In the world of blogging, that method can work against you.

  24. A brilliant article. English is not my native language, that said the article content was so lucid and easy to understand I enjoyed reading every paragraph.

    Made so much of sense, I could not put it down. Thank you.

    Regards

    Ivan Bayross

  25. Really helpful tips to make as well as feel good for sentences. The 5 w’s can really prove a charm for the deadly sentences and i am using them mostly…

  26. I’m hesitant to write a first sentence after this post! Thanks for the tips! I’ll be using in my professional and personal writing!

  27. Well damn! You knocked it out of the park again. I don’t know what they put in the Copyblogger water, but if you could send some out into the world, I’m sure we’d all appreciate it.

    Sometimes the words come effortlessly, but even then there is always room for improvement. I’m continuously amazed by the difference one word can make to tone and meaning.

    This has sparked some ideas for a guest post I’m working on – off to implement!

  28. This really a good article about writing tight sentences, opening and closing strong, and grabbing a reader by the throat. But accuracy is also important. Regarding the Hemmingway example, I would have said often attributed to Hemminway.

    http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/babyshoes.asp

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/01/31/for_sale_baby_shoes_never_worn_hemingway_probably_did_not_write_the_famous.html

    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/28/baby-shoes/
    That aside, there is at least 2000 pounds (a ton) of good information here.
    Have a great day.

  29. I love this post! the title grabbed my attention right away because it’s such a simple topic, yet so important. I always think about how to write compelling articles, posts, etc. But it seems so much more clear tome when I think of it in terms of writing 1 compelling sentence at a time. And until now I had never thought of it like this.

    Great tips overall.. I can’t wait to try them.

  30. Thank you for these awesome tips. I blog to support my book. However, book sales could be better off of my site. People seem to come for the blog alone and it seems I have outdone my book with my blog? I need to write a more effective ‘call to action’ i.e. ‘buy my book to help you get through one of the worst experiences of your life’

    Thanks for your help, Demian. I just love your work and all the writers here!

  31. Demian,

    Thank you for this article!

    My biggest takeaway? Start focusing on my writing one sentence at a time. Yes, it make take longer to produce articles, but my content will be much more inviting.

    I am really looking forward to putting your suggestions to the test. Thank you!

  32. So, the moral of the story is “Show, don’t tell.”, right ?

    Paint the picture, show the scene, it’s in the details. That’s where you’ll find life for your paragraphs, where emotions hide and gently peak their heads around the corner, so we notice them.

    That explains why my writing felt off, it’s just too bland!

  33. Another great post, Demian. Your writing goes down like a glass of cold water on a hot day. Keep ‘em coming.

  34. Great post! I’m glad that I stumbled upon it :) Mastering the skills you described will definitely take time. Until then, it is time to practice, practice and practice :) !

  35. Excellent post! For me, reading books and various articles also helps a lot. Not only does it expand your vocabulary but it’s also one way of getting more ideas for future usage as inputs. Anyway, cheers for this and hope to see more from you guys!

  36. Writing a junk of content is both too easy and difficult. But the writers are the people aware of painting a cosmos inside their sentences. I see a great and active part of example inside this post itself. The point number 3 (i.e. Evoke emotions) is a piece of not an “average writer’s” approach, it really defies.

    Finally, Hats off!! Demian.

  37. This is some great sauce. Great copywriting takes a lot of practice but pays off in the long run. I try to keep an archive of some of the best marketers, copywriters, and authors to refer to when I am trying to construct a compelling sentence.

  38. Jane Pellicciotto :

    Poetry and quotes by famous people are always go-to resources for me when I need inspiration for interesting word combinations. I’m often blown away by the energy and lyricism of some phrases I find. A good exercise in loosening up.

  39. The articles struck my emotional cords perfectly, and gave me a great thought on the focus of my sentences as well as the personal bearing it has on the reader. Reading the article out loud helped me to fully understand the concept. Thanks so much.

  40. “Imagine a fifty-something man…quibbling over a stack of used cinder blocks …. I tell you where he is and what he is doing in concrete language.”
    What a groaner…cinder blocks in concrete language!

  41. My lunch went cold while I read your article. My lunch never goes cold! Next time I will have a salad.

  42. Did anyone else spot the QR code in the main picture of this article?

    I think we’ve spotted a time traveler.

  43. This is an amazing article! I keep coming back to it, hoping that each reading will imprint a little more of its content into my brain. It is a fantastic challenge to train yourself into writing sentences that rock. Thanks, Demian :-)

  44. Great stuff, as usual. I think even the most seasoned writers can learn a thing or two from this piece. Thanks, Demian!

  45. Thank you so much! I’m a life coach, not a copywriter and I continue to learn so much from your content and apply it to my writing.

    I went from this:

    “I won’t climb this mountain”

    to:

    “Imagine this – you’re standing on the rocky, ball bearing like ground of Everest base-camp. The sun is setting and the weather is ominous – your mind chatter is silenced by the screaming wind, your toes and fingers are like popsicles right out of the freezer on a summer day. You look up, cock your head as far back as it will go and what you see is a dimly lit towering wall of ice, snow, rock, and fast moving clouds. A thought flashes across your mind, I won’t climb this mountain”

    AHHHH!!!! Feels awesome

  46. kartik Prashar :

    i need sme help ppl…
    which of the two sentence is right….
    1. Which of your two colleagues is here?
    or
    2. Which of the two colleagues is here?

    • Either one could be right depending on the context, but #1 is going to be the more appropriate syntax most of the time. If you are talking to someone, and referencing people they work with, then #1 would be appropriate. Using the third person and then describing people as “colleagues” is far less common. It’s grammatically correct, but the situations in which it would be used are rare.

  47. Incredible tips …learnt alot from your article..so to see more good article soon

  48. Hi, great article.

    I’m creating a home page for a site. I want to grab the visitor’s attention from the first copy they’ll read on it, which will be the intro to the site’s purpose and benefit. I know to keep it short. My issue is that i’m going back and forth on which message to get across.

    One copy will tell the visitor what we do and how they’ll use the site to their benefit.
    The other copy is more like an elevator pitch to a potential investor where I tell him the formula of the site that makes it a win-win for the user, the site, the items being sold on the site, etc..

    How do I know which one is the correct one(if any)?

  49. Excellent writing! I love how you created a picture in my mind :-):-)

  50. Now that you think about it, it’s crazy and awesome at the same time. It’s not really possible to focus on all of those factors while writing a copy, not for us anyways. Yet look at Ernest Hemingway and the likes, and you’ll see all of them qualities blended together in their copies. Awesome! Isn’t it?

  51. Demian,

    Brilliant! How to. Made Visible.