Readers don’t notice poor copywriting – They FEEL it. Here’s why…

September 22, 2009 •
Feeling poor copy

In her recent excellent post, Is Quality Copywriting Worth the Expense?, copywriter Angie Haggstrom suggests that copywriting clients who accept poor quality (i.e. cheap) copy are endorsing that poor quality. They’re associating it with their own offering and brand – “it’s a reflection of you”

I couldn’t agree more. But I think it’s important to note that people don’t necessarily notice poor quality copy – not consciously, at least. I think it’s mostly sub-conscious. That’s why, in the copy on my own website, I say, “When it’s quality copy, you can feel the difference. And so can your audience.” Just as the foundation of trust is elemental, so, too, is the reader’s awareness of it.

Here are some examples of my copy which readers would recognize as quality, without knowing why. For most, I’ve written a version of the same thing WITHOUT the characteristic that makes the original good.

See if you can feel the difference…

1) Transitional devices

Transitional devices connect ideas to provide coherence. Read more about transitional devices and copywriting.

Example: “Why Formit? Because we make rainwater tanks easy.” By starting the second sentence with the transitional device, “Because”, I’ve adhered to the natural flow from question to answer. ‘Old-school’ grammarians (and quite a few clients) would have me write this in a much more unfriendly manner. Something clunky or unnatural like this: “Why Formit? Formit makes rainwater tanks easy.” Or this: “Why Formit? We make rainwater tanks easy.”

Example: Here’s another example: “we focus a lot of resources on ensuring our tanks are attractive and unobtrusive. Some even hide away altogether. Of course, rainwater tanks also have to be tough and practical.” Without the transitional device, “Of course”, there’d be no flow between the last two sentences. Read for yourself: “Some even hide away altogether. Rainwater tanks also have to be tough and practical.” Seems very disjointed, right?

2) Contractions

A contraction is the shortening of a word, syllable, or word group by omission of internal letters. Contractions make copy more conversational, which means it’s easier to read. Less stodgy. More like talking with a person. And let’s face it; people connect with people far more easily than they connect with websites. So anything we copywriters can do to emulate the interpersonal experience has to be a good thing.

Example: “Every customer we send you is ready to buy a new car right now. In fact, they’re more than ready; they’re committed. They’ve already paid us $100 to find the best price and availability. So they’re just one step away…” Now let’s try it without the contractions, and see how disjointed it sounds: “Every customer we send you is ready to buy a new car right now. In fact, they are more than ready; they are committed. They have already paid us $100 to find the best price and availability. So they are just one step away…” Hmmmm…

3) Second-person narrative

When copywriters use the second-person, they address the reader directly, as “you”. This is a much more personal and engaging approach than the old-school method of using “the reader”, “the customer” or (Oh the pain!) “the user”.

Example: “…you’ll finally be able to identify precisely what behaviors are holding your organization back, and exactly how to overcome them. You’ll foster a high-performance environment.” By addressing the reader directly, I’ve not only made the copy friendlier, I’ve also put the reader in the position of power. They’re actually the do-er. (This overlaps with point 19 below.) Here’s the same copy, but in the third person: “…the customer will finally be able to identify precisely what behaviors are holding their organization back, and exactly how to overcome them. They’ll foster a high-performance environment.” Not quite the same thing, is it?

4) Metaphors

Metaphorical language is when we say something is like something else, or that it IS something else. It’s a great way to create associations and evoke emotions.

Example: “Welcome to Sabbaba, where food’s a journey. A cardamom camel train, from the grape-vines of the Mediterranean to the deserts of the Middle-East. Where every dish is for every sense, and where heat-haze, blue sky, ritual and philosophy are all standard ingredients.” This entire piece is just one big series of metaphors. I wrote it like this because the client wanted to describe his restaurant without specifically categorizing it with any particular region. He couldn’t call it Middle-Eastern because it’s also Mediterranean. And trying to actually describe the fusion of regional styles would have made the restaurant sound like a patchwork quilt: “Welcome to Sabbaba, where the food is a unique combination of Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and everything in between.”

5) Closure

Quite often, in web copy, the call to action acts as the closure device. It’s not always smooth, but it sometimes does the job. But for those times when the call to action is, say, graphical (driven by a banner instead of the copy), the copy needs its own closure. Otherwise the reader is left hanging.

Example: “The Art of Original Thinking invites you on a journey with a profound and defining destination. Through original thinking and thought leadership, you chart the course.”
The preceding copy (omitted here) discussed the book at some length; these two sentences summarize that discussion. Without this summary, the reader would have been left thinking about only the last bullet or two from the discussion, which are quite granular, and entirely inadequate as a wrap-up.

6) Contrast

Sometimes the most effective way to explain what something is, is to explain what it is NOT. (Or to combine both.)

Example: “Chifley Tower is more than just part of Sydney, it is part of Sydney’s identity.” The first clause, here, reinforces the second. The italics illustrate how this technique works. Without the contrast, the sentence would have read simply, “Chifley Tower is part of Sydney’s identity.” (No justification for italic emphasis in this construction.)

Example: “That’s the difference between a pretty website, and a profitable one.” Without the contrast, we’d have something like, “That’s what makes a profitable website.” It doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t draw the reader’s attention to the fact that pretty websites aren’t necessarily profitable, and that we (i.e. my client) know how to make yours profitable.

Example: “At Leá Bella Creative, we don’t simply plan your wedding – we nurture your dream.” Without the contrast, it would be: “At Leá Bella Creative, we nurture your dream.” This simply doesn’t work in isolation. We could be talking about any dream.

7) Weight, balance & length

This is a very difficult one to explain. Some combinations of clauses and sentences just balance each other nicely. The best way to explain it is to illustrate with an example… (It helps if you read these examples out loud.)

Example: “If you’re new to fish, that’s a pretty tall order. It all comes down to feed. You need to
make the most of every single pallet, which means closely controlled feeding and accurately monitored growth.” In the first sentence, both clauses ‘weigh’ about the same. They balance each other nicely. The same applies to the last sentence. The second sentence is a single clause, so it has no need for internal balance. Nonetheless, it DOES still contribute to the balance of the paragraph. Being shorter, it spices it up. It provides impact, and also offsets the coupling of sentence one and the rhythmic list of sentence three. Sentence three then counteracts that brevity and also balances the combination of sentences one and two.

I’m not saying this is a formula. Far from it! As I said above, it’s difficult to explain (and I’ve done a pretty poor job here, I think); some combinations just work. To me, this is the true art of writing. I’ve never been able to explain how to do it, ‘cos when I’m writing, it just happens.

Example: “It’s longer, it’s wider, it’s higher. And it’s good news for families.” (Of the Toyota Kluger.) Sentence one, here, has excellent internal balance. All three elements are very alike – the same subject (“it”), the same intent (describe a physical characteristic), the same number of syllables (three), the same contraction (“it’s”). And it’s not overbalanced by the insertion of an “and”, which might have seemed tempting with a list of three. It’s also a staccato sort of sentence. Short and jagged. And that’s where sentence two comes in. It simultaneously balances the ‘weight’ of sentence one and softens the overall impact.

Very scientific, huh?!

8) Rhythm

Rhythm in copywriting is another tough one to explain. (Perhaps if I’d studied music, it’d be a bit easier. Angie? You’re a classically trained muso. How would you describe it?) The best I can do is to say that sentences and paragraphs demand a specific number of elements (clauses, items, sentences) in order to maintain their innate/desired rhythm, when read aloud.

Example: “Kluger’s designers have capitalised on substantially increased overall dimensions, creating an open, airy space that’s easier to access, sophisticated and eminently usable.” The two noteworthy elements here are the two ‘lists’: “an open, airy space”; and “easier to access, sophisticated and eminently usable”. For some reason, it’s always tempting to make your lists consist of three items (as I’ve done in the second). But that’s not always what’s called for. Thus, my first list consists of only two items. Had I given it three, we’d have had two lists of three items, and the sentence would have been too methodical, too formulaic, too lulling. Too boring: “Kluger’s designers have capitalised on substantially increased overall dimensions, creating an open, airy, light-filled space that’s easier to access, sophisticated and eminently usable.” It just doesn’t work. Also, you’ll notice that I used “eminently usable” as the final item in my second list. That’s because it’s the longest (seven syllables), so it doesn’t stop the reader from recognizing that she’s reading a list. (Incidentally, it’s also the most grandiose and abstract, so it works well as a closure device, whereas it wouldn’t have worked well in either of the first two positions, because it lacks the meaning required to signal the overriding intent of the three list items.)

9) Brevity

Brevity lends clarity, confidence and – sometimes – class.

Example: Headline: “89 Facets. One story.” Body: “A world first. A single, stunningly brilliant diamond, comprised of 89 facets and – deep inside – a remarkable eight-pointed star.” The brief was to focus on two main points: the unique number of facets and the story behind the diamond. Without the brevity, the headline wouldn’t have been able to achieve this as effectively, because I’d have been forced to explicitly relate the two elements. E.g.: “The story of the diamond with 89 Facets”. Similarly, introducing the diamond, in the body copy, as simply “A world first” is emphatic. Without the brevity, I might have written, “The Swana is a world-first diamond…” But why muddy the waters?

10) Narrative

One of the best ways to keep your reader reading is to tell them a story. Stories are immediately recognizable, and many readers will read on simply to find out what happens in the end.

Example: The true story I tell on the sales page for my SEO ebook.

Example: “It started three-and-a-half billion years ago. With Intense heat and unimaginable pressure. Where the earth’s crust meets its mantle – 150km beneath our feet. Then a deep-origin volcanic eruption. Followed by… very little. A few hundred-million decidedly passé Round and Brilliant cut diamonds. But nothing outstanding. Until now…” Without the story, this may have read as follows: “Every diamond is three-and-a-half billion years in the making. Intense heat and unimaginable pressure, 150km beneath the earth’s surface, combine to form…” Yuck! This is sales copy, not a white paper!

Example: “Like all solid companies, DevProducts didn’t just ‘happen’, it evolved. Two of our company’s foundation members, Ronald and Karl, had been freelancing together since 2001…” The non-story alternative would be little more than a timeline.

11) Scannability

As we all know, many/most readers don’t actually read, they scan. So your copy should be scannable. i.e. Readers should get the full story from just the headings, the bolded bits and the bullets.

Example: Once again, I’d have to point to my SEO ebook sales page as a prime example. Particularly the headings:

My business was struggling
I ran out of money
I thought I was in real trouble
But it was a lot easier than I thought
I worked on my own site at night
I ranked no.1 in Australia within 6 months
Then there was no looking back
My only problem was handling all the work!
And I did it all with very little knowledge, time or resources
You can do the same!
See a sample chapter & the Table of Contents
Buy it now…

If my visitors read only these headings, they know the full story behind my ebook. Had I not used headings, the copy would have been simply one VERY long block of text.

12) Repetition

Used appropriately, repetition can lend a sense of drama to your copy. (Think along the lines of inspirational speeches. Or even David Attenborough’s narration of the stunning high-definition BBC documentary, Planet Earth.)

Example: “We create visuals that leave lasting impressions. Visuals that do justice to the world of your production.” The repetition of “visuals” implies that they somewhat out of the ordinary. A little inspiring, perhaps. Without this repetition, we’d have, “We create visuals that leave lasting impressions and do justice to the world of your production.”

13) Omission

Sometimes there’s no need to spell everything out. Readers are typically pretty smart creatures. They can often fill in the gaps. And the omission not only gives you more real estate to play with, it also gives you the opportunity to be a little more creative, and to sound a little ‘more cleverer’.

Example: “Website design & development – Simple, no matter how complex” I’ve intentionally omitted the subject from the second clause here. This enabled me to write a sentence with at least four subjects – the reader is free to interpret it as she sees fit, and my client is happy with each interpretation: The design & development process will be simple, no matter how complex your business / requirements / website / audience. Without this omission, there’s no way I could have said it as elegantly: “Website design & development – Simple, no matter how complex your business, requirements, website or audience…”

14) Personality & intimacy

People connect with people. Moreover, when they share, they tend to feel closer. This works in copy too. Where appropriate, introduce yourself, your personality and your story, to the copy. Give of yourself.

Example: “I don’t design because it’s my job. Or because I’m good at it. Or even because I’m passionate about it. (Although all of those things are true!) I design because I can’t stop.” Everyone understands – and empathizes with – compulsive behavior. In this copy, I leverage that empathy.

Example: “When you speak with us (and we sincerely hope you do), you’ll quickly realise one thing… We love pearls.” I included “and we sincerely hope you do” because it’s a personal attempt to reach out. Without it, the copy would be a lot less engaging: “When you speak with us, you’ll quickly realise one thing… We love pearls.”

15) Incomplete sentences

Sometimes rules just get in the way. For example, a sentence is supposed to express a complete thought, and have a subject (the thing that the sentence is about) and a predicate (something about the subject). Usually, complete sentences are hunky-dory, but occasionally, something a little less orthodox is called for. Used appropriately, incomplete (grammatically incorrect) sentences can convey certainty and confidence.

Example: “But we judge that entirely from the perspective of your target visitor. Not by guessing, but by testing. Repeatable, scientific usability testing.” The last two sentences here clearly don’t – in isolation – express a complete thought. And they don’t have a subject at all (it’s implied). But take a look at how the copy would read if it were grammatically correct: “But we judge that entirely from the perspective of your target visitor. We don’t do this by guessing, but by testing – repeatable, scientific usability testing.” It’s only a slight difference, but the grammatically correct version definitely doesn’t have the same zing!

16) Familiarity

I don’t know if “familiarity” is the right word here. What I mean is, make everything as familiar as you can. Partly because most people are inherently resistant to change, and partly because they already understand the familiar, and you can leverage that understanding, rather than re-inventing the wheel.

Example: “With the Rain Reviva Pump, running water is as easy as turning on the tap. The Reviva automatically turns itself on when the tap is turned on, and off when the tap is turned off.” (In a discussion of a rainwater tank pump.) This clearly explains the benefit of the pump, in terms that everyone can understand. The reader is then free to read on, if she chooses, or skip to the next section, content in the knowledge that her outdoor tap will be just as easy to use if she has a rainwater tank installed. Without this familiar explanation, I’d have been left with just the techo description: “The Rain Reviva Pump automatically turns itself on when the tap is turned on, and off when the tap is turned off.” It’s not difficult to understand, but it’s not a succinct, comforting summary.

17) Honesty

By acknowledging your flaws, you’re signalling that you’re honest. Readers may not consciously think about it, but they pick up on the cue, nonetheless.

Example: “Why just the hotel industry? And why just online marketing? Well, to be honest, that wasn’t entirely a business choice. We didn’t just decide that hotels need specialist Internet marketing expertise, and that this requirement needed to be serviced more capably and professionally (although all of that was certainly true). The biggest reason is simply that we know a lot about just two things: The hotel industry and online marketing.” Without the forthright honesty, this piece would have been purely self-serving: “Why just the hotel industry? And why just online marketing? We recognized that hotels need specialist Internet marketing expertise, and that this requirement needed to be serviced more capably and professionally. Given our extensive background in both the hotel industry and online marketing, we were perfectly positioned to deliver that expertise.”

Example: “It won’t be easy. But it will be effective. And sustainable.” The brief on this job specified that the target audience is cynical. By openly acknowledging that the promised outcomes would be no walk in the park, I brought the audience one step closer to trust.

Example: The true and revealing story I tell on the sales page for my SEO ebook.

18) Emotive language

Without emotive language (language that makes readers feel a certain way), your copy can seem very dry.

Example: “Nestled amid the lush rolling hills of Cedar Creek, Brisbane, awaits a unique promise. A promise of yesteryear. A promise of tomorrow. A promise that is Cedar Creek Estate – Brisbane’s finest executive acreage estate.” Nearly every word in this paragraph is emotive, right down to the repetition of “a promise” (it IS real estate, after all!). Without that language, the piece would be far from engaging: “Located in Cedar Creek, Brisbane, Cedar Creek Estate offers a number of executive acreages.”

19) Active language

Most readers of sales copy want to do something. And, generally speaking, people respond better to copy that positions them as the do-er.

Example: “What you’ll be able to do after your 3-day Private CEO Session” Had I written this using passive language, it would have read more like this: “Benefits of the 3-day Private CEO Session” or “Outcomes of the 3-day Private CEO Session”. Definitely not as engaging.

Conclusion

Obviously, there are countless other examples of techniques that characterize quality copy. And I guarantee, they’re a lot more than hot topics at those exciting copywriter parties you wish you were invited to. When you use them in your copy, readers can FEEL the difference. Even if they don’t know why (and most don’t), they can feel that it’s quality copy.

Can you think of any other techniques? Please comment…

Feel free to comment...
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Angie Haggstrom wrote on September 22nd, 2009

Thank you Glenn. Say, does the long post mean I'm starting to rub off on you? Careful, it's a nasty habit to break lol I've given up :) As for the rhythm found in writing, the points you bring up are absolutely correct. I addressed this when I talked about copy being music to a reader's ears (and some help from Dorthy Dandridge!) In music, it's the combination of notes, rests, and phrases that make a piece rhythmical. In writing, I truly believe it's the same thing: syllables, punctuation, and phrasing. While the syllables keep the sentence moving forward, the combination of punctuation and syllables also seems to create a slight tension and release (the internal drive you have to go on to the next word). Everything needs to ebb and flow with a climax in order to sound 'right'. For Example: “What you’ll be able to do after your 3-day Private CEO Session” You'll feel yourself quicken when you read 'be able to do' because they're light, short, and without emphasis because of the lack of nouns/verbs. It eases at the beginning and the end evenly. When I read it, the 'climax of the phrase' occurs on the '3-day Private', which is the most important part of the sentence i.e. the part that you want the reader to remember most. Make sense?

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Dean at Pro Copy Tips wrote on September 23rd, 2009

Excellent post. These things are hard to teach. Understanding such things as rhythm, transitions, and the proper use of contractions is so subjective, it's nearly impossible to create rules for their use. You might add "intelligent redundancy." Example: free gift. Yes, it's redundant and will give fainting spells to writing purists. But any experience copywriter will know that "free gift" is just not the same as "gift."

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Donna Spencer wrote on September 23rd, 2009

Thanks Glenn. This is fantastic. It will be sooooo handy when I'm stuck on a boring passage...which happens far too often!

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Martine Howell wrote on March 3rd, 2010

I am printing this post right now. Thank you for posting this. I've never written a blog before and now I'm keeping up with posts for two of my public relations classes. I never realized how much work goes into a blog. I've had a difficult time the last few months perfecting my writing skills and trying to become a better communicator. This post is just what I needed! You have given me some great tips on how to better my copy. I know this will come in handy not only for my classes that I blog in, but also for the rest of my classes.

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Blog Comments « PR Social Media & Writing wrote on March 3rd, 2010

[...] 3.  divine write, Glenn Murray [...]

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Glenn Murray wrote on March 3rd, 2010

Hi Martine. Thanks for your kind words. Don't worry; we're all busy trying to perfect our writing! :)

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Susan Greenberg wrote on April 22nd, 2011

Small point, but for wordsmiths an important one – There is a difference between "emotion/al" and "emotive". The word "emotive" carries a negative connotation of psychological manipulation. If you mean emotive, then I would question whether that is a desireable quality.

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on April 22nd, 2011

Thanks Susan. Appreciate your comment. And welcome! However, my understanding is that "emotive" means "appealing to or expressing emotions". Here are a few definitions: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/emotive, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/emotive, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/emotive. Cheers.

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