Most writing could be better.
Not just a little better — significantly better.
If you start out with a solid topic, a good knowledge of your audience, and a reasonable degree of writing ability, you’ll usually end up with a pretty good piece of writing.
But you don’t have to settle for “pretty good.” A little attention to the final details can kick “pretty good” to “magnificent.”
Whether you’re creating blog posts, special reports, sales letters, a video script, email autoresponders, or whatever else, you can take your writing up a level just by applying some simple principles:
1. Write drunk; edit sober
Now you don’t have to take this literally. I don’t really mean you should be downing rum as your fingers meander with increasing sluggishness and inaccuracy over your keyboard.
I’m looking at the principle behind this gem from Papa Hemingway. The principle which is absolutely vital to producing compelling copy that gets people reading and buying: you must sound real.
Persuasion is mostly a matter of education and building trust, and it’s hard to build trust when you write like a corporate drone.
Too many copywriters slip into an overly formal style because they think it makes them sound important. Bad idea. No one wants to read stiff, formal copy with all the personality of a fax machine.
Better to put too much personality in and have to edit it out later than not put enough in to begin with.
When you write, make sure you have some passion for your topic — and then just tell your reader what you want to say. Don’t self-consciously write. Just tell.
Enthusiasm creates reader involvement. Most writing has too little enthusiasm, not too much. But if you really feel you went off the deep end, you can always tone it down in the edit.
It’s hard to insert life into copy that never had any to begin with.
2. Sleep on it
If this isn’t the most important technique for improving copy, then it’s definitely in the top two after “learn to read and write.”
Simply put: You can improve any piece of writing by letting it sit overnight.
Look, I know you’re in a hurry. I know you’re really excited about what you just wrote. So am I.
I know you’re like a kid at Christmas and you just have to send it off right now to receive the praise and glory you absolutely deserve.
In the cold light of a new day, all writing seems slightly less marvelous and slightly more open to improvement.
With the perspective that a night away from writing will give you, you’ll see that what you thought was a flawless masterpiece could actually do with a tweak here and a sharp cut there. The changes you make at this stage are 80% of what you need to turn good copy into magnificent copy.
3. Get a friend to read it aloud
Now that you’ve slept on your copy, it’s the perfect time to read it aloud.
I know this is the most overused piece of advice to writers ever. But do you know why that is?
One: it works. When you read your work aloud, you pick up on problems with the flow that your eye would otherwise skip over. It’s even better to get someone else to read it aloud, because they aren’t expecting odd turns of phrase, whereas you, after spending ten minutes obsessing over it yesterday, are.
Two: no one friggin’ does it. Even writers who offer this advice (yes, me too) seldom follow it. When other aspiring writers ask them how they can improve, they purse their lips and intone sagely, “Are you reading your work aloud? It really does make a difference, you know.”
Uh huh. It sure does — if you do it. It’s not just a technique for people learning to write. It makes any writing better.
No one is too good to read their work aloud.
4. Use the breath test
While you’re reading your latest masterpiece out loud (or being a step more cunning by having someone read it for you, thus saving you effort and increasing your reward), you can also watch for another problem: sentences like this one, which are just too … damn … wordy.
Stick to one idea per sentence. And express your ideas succinctly.
Once you hit 20 words in a sentence, every additional word can lose you up to 10% of your readers.
A simple way of testing this is the breath test. (Sean D’Souza wrote about this for headlines, but it works for all writing.)
If your reader has to pause for breath in the middle of a sentence, it’s too long. Either cut out the fat, or whack the sentence into two or more manageable pieces.
5. The passive voice should be rewritten
“Passive voice” is a fancy term invented to make writers feel bad for not having a better technical knowledge of grammar. Don’t worry; it’s easy to spot.
If someone’s doing something, it’s active. If something was done by someone, it’s passive.
Passive sentences feel wordy, limp, and lifeless.
Active sentences feel tight, energetic, and immediate.
- Passive: The magnificent copy was written by the copywriter.
- Active: The copywriter wrote the magnificent copy.
Passive voice isn’t always a bad thing, and the Copyblogger police won’t show up at your site and write you a ticket for using it. Just keep it to a minimum.
Summing it all up …
Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a novice writer just starting out, these five principles can always improve your copy. By writing in an authentic voice, taking the time to get perspective, reading your work aloud, testing for long sentences, and rewriting for active voice, you can keep your reader engaged and score more conversions.