The Secrets of Copywriting Success

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Being a copywriter is like a real-life version of Mad Men, right? Not really. Most of us don’t spend our time drinking expensive booze for breakfast, wearing snazzy suits, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, or generally being horrible to each other. Instead, the real-life copywriters could care less which brand of booze is in their morning coffee because they’re more concerned about things like weasel words, value propositions, and impact.

Would Have, Could Have, Should Have

Freelance copywriting – more than any other kind of writing except, perhaps, poetry – depends on excellent grammar and word choice. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with descriptive words or bend punctuation rules occasionally. But it does mean that anything with an indirect meaning – namely weasel words and passive voice – must go.

For the most part, weasel words are obvious. Things like would, could, try, may, and hope make readers narrow their eyes. Would you hire a painter who said, “I’ll try to paint your living room?”

Some weasel words are sneaky, though. For instance, wrinkle creams promise to reduce wrinkles with regular use. What does that mean? By regular use, do you mean hourly, daily, or weekly? “More” is another sneaky weasel word, as in “Our floor cleaner offers you so much more than other brands!” More what? Are you giving people more ounces of product for the same price or is this some kind of airy-fairy promise that alludes to a deep spiritual satisfaction that comes with the use of your product?

Passive voice is another great way to muddy up your meanings. An easy way to tell the difference between active and passive voice is to look at the relationship between the subject and the verb. Active voice is when the subject is actually doing something. When you use passive voice, the subject is having something done to it. There’s a big difference between a weak, passive sentence like “Ten new flavors were formulated” instead of the stronger active sentence, “We formulated 10 new flavors.”

What Makes You Better than the Rest?

The value proposition is the heart of all great copy. It needs to contain the most important selling points of the product or service you’re describing. To develop a value proposition, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why would anyone want to buy this product?
  • How does this product fulfill a need or desire?
  • What makes this product better than other product?

The trick to writing a great value proposition is to remember that you’re not answering these questions for yourself, but for the target customer. If your client hasn’t provided you with a fleshed-out profile of their consumer group, you might have to do a little mind reading.

Hit Them Where it Counts

Your copy should also contain some sort of powerful message. It could be humorous, frightening, empathetic – but it can’t be cliché.

Imagine you’re writing copy for a children’s photographer. After doing some research, you’ve probably seen a million websites featuring adorable smiling children and text that promises lasting memories. While they show the skill of the photographer, the problem with these kinds of cookie-cutter messages is that no one photographer really stands out over any other.

In this particular instance, you could ramp up the emotional impact easily with a couple of quick modifications that tug at a parent’s heartstrings. Swap out the smiling kid photos with an image of a baseball glove, add a caption that goes something like “Catch These Memories While You Can,” and edit the copy to emphasize the fleeting nature of childhood. Emotional appeals can add a sense of urgency, make something seem more desirable or make the brand unforgettable.

Come to think of it, now I know what the people in Mad Men are so mad about. Give me a few hours to stress out over 100 words of copy, and I’ll be tipping scotch into my coffee cup and reaching for the Lucky Strikes too.

Amber K loves to write compelling copy for clients across several industries. And, unlike her fictional counterparts, she actually doesn’t spend most of her time drinking, chain-smoking or causing highly entertaining drama.


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