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How to write copy that doesn’t want to be written

Leif Kendall, the ProCopywriters Director, asked me to write this piece.

He did!

At least, I think he did. The request reached me by way of email and, being a copywriter, I know how often such emails are ghostwritten.

Either way, the email noted that ProCopywriters was putting together a book on freelancing and copywriting which would offer advice to freelance copywriters, and would I like to submit a piece for consideration?

I decided I would. So I sat down to write.

I wrote the line, ‘What every freelance copywriter should know’.

Then I deleted it.

Then I wrote the line, ‘Writing copy the way it’s read’.

And then I deleted that line, too.

I wrote a few more lines, deleting each in turn. After a few minutes I realised what was going on:

I was trying to write copy that didn’t want to be written.

When you find yourself in such a situation – which, if your level of incompetence is anything more than a tenth of mine, will happen frequently – what should you do?

My advice is to stop trying to write.

When trying to write copy that doesn’t want to be written, there is, for whatever reason, some kind of noose wrapped around your soul.

With every key you tap, the noose tightens. Tense, squirm and shake and you might squeeze the copy out.

But whatever you write is going to be clunky and forced.

More often than not, you’ll want to scrap the whole thing.

So stop. Instead, think about the structure of the piece as a whole. Make a bullet-pointed list that maps out the copy from beginning to end.

Incidentally, this mirrors how people read copy. As much as us writers like to pretend otherwise, people don’t read copy from beginning to end.

Instead, they scan copy from top to bottom in an effort to discern whether or not the copy is worth their attention. And, if they decide it is, they’ll begin reading from whichever word, phrase or section interests them most.

This isn’t conjecture. The 1970’s eye-scanning research of Siegfried Vögele proves as much. Jakob Nielsen, meanwhile, sums up his research on how people read web copy by saying they ‘don’t. People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.’.

So, when trying to write copy that doesn’t want to be written, the chances are you’re actually trying to start from the middle.

Zoom out. Try writing in the same way your prospects read.

Start with the overarching structure. Because once you’ve done that, it’s easy to inject your skeleton with life.

And while we’re at it, here’s another tip.

Read a few more books on writing and advertising. And not just those by Andy Maslen.

Read Claude Hopkins, Drayton Bird, John Caples and Lester Wunderman. Read David Ogilvy, Steve Harrison, Howard Gossage and Byron Sharp. Read Paul Feldwick, Robert Heath and Al Ries and Jack Trout. And, read the books that all those authors recommend.

Don’t add to the slippery reputation our profession already has.

Learn the basic rules of copywriting. For example, learn that your copy should be about your reader, and that the word ‘you’ should appear about twice as much as the word ‘I’.

Learn the rules. Your copy will improve.

Plus, it’s only when you know the rules that you can break them.

And that’s when writing copy becomes really, really fun.

What do you think?

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