19 ways to be a good marketing copywriter
Ian Lurie May 13 2010
Not everyone can be a great marketing copywriter. But anyone can be a good one. Here are the things I’ve done to work towards ‘good’ over the years:
- Forget what grammar school taught you. Your 3rd-grade teacher – the terrifying one with 4 layers of lipstick and big hair – was well-intended but never wrote for real people. All she did was teach you to fear spelling and grammatical errors, and how to suck all the fun out of your own language. She taught you nothing about communication.
- Forget high school and college writing. These teachers taught you to fear word count. If they asked for 500 words, you’d better use 500, and God help you if you could communicate effectively in 450. Yeah, that’s a recipe for great writing.
- Learn to love active voice. “Passive” voice sounds like this: I was taught awful writing habits by listening to too much Rush Limbaugh. “Active” voice: Rush Limbaugh taught me awful writing habits. There are times when passive voice makes sense. Usually, though, stick to what works: The [noun] [verbed].
- Read the classics. No, not James Joyce. Are you insane? I mean Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and maybe some Ken Follett. All of them talk to broad audiences, paint compelling pictures (c’mon, you liked Christine and you know it) and translate. ‘Translate’ means “take stuff we don’t normally think about and help us care about it”. Hmmm. Sounds like marketing.
- Write without punctuation. Sometimes its fun to just slap some letters down on a page Dont worry about punctuation since no one else will read it anyway You can always add the punctuation later
- Dictate. Instead of writing down your next blog post, record it. Then play it back and write it down. For most people, speaking doesn’t carry the stigma that writing does, so they edit less (that’s not always a good thing).
- Beware of big words. I once met a prospective employee who used ‘ameliorate’ about 3x per sentence. Problem was, he thought ‘ameliorate’ meant ‘crash’ or ‘those funny double doors on some people’s patios”. I never figured out which. I love learning new words, and using them. Just make sure you do it in that order.
- Use vernacular when appropriate. Did you know that, outside the northeastern USA, no one uses the term ‘pocket book’ to refer to a purse? I didn’t, until I wrote what I thought was a fantastic sales letter for a purse, but used pocket book as the term. For a client in Seattle. They thought I’d been hit on the head. Avoid vernacular unless it’s native to your audience.
- Write about your business every single day. Pick one product, or your whole company, and write about it. For 5 minutes. 15 minutes if you can. Don’t give me crap about how you don’t have time. If you don’t have time to improve the way you communicate with potential customers, you should quit.
- Don’t write sales copy. If you sit down to write sales copy, you’ll end up sounding like either Mr. Rogers or William Shatner. Neither is great for sales.
- Show your copy to people but don’t tell them who wrote it. If you hand a friend your latest creation and say “I wrote this,” they’ll probably go easy on you. Instead, tell them someone at the office wrote it and you need some help.
- Test stuff. Write two versions of a best-selling product’s description. See which one performs better.
- Write descriptive headlines. Any headline you write should make sense on a blank sheet of paper. I’ve ranted about this before.
- Ignore stupid criticism. Deep in your soul, you know that someone who says “I didn’t understand this part” as they lick a light socket is probably not the best source of feedback. Pick your editors carefully. Learn to know good advice from bad. It’s not easy, I know, but you have to do it. Otherwise you’ll be paralyzed. (let the flames commence)
- Never write by committee. One person writes. Another person edits. If a piece of writing passes among more than 3-4 people it ends up as intelligible as a George Bush speech. Or a John Kerry speech. I try to be even-handed.
- Never exploit. One of the worst pieces of marketing copywriting I ever saw was for a September 11, 2002 ad. It talked about how the company in question would send you a gift certificate to make you feel better. Really? A gift certificate? Utterly tasteless. Don’t exploit people’s feelings around tragic or infuriating events. Leave that to crappy politicians.
- Avoid cliches. If you write “In the blink of an eye, the world can change” or “In a world where…” I’ll puke on your shoes.
- Write to the customer. Say “you”, not “customers”. Imagine you’re pointing right at the reader when you write.
- Watch shows like Phineas and Ferb. First, this is the most awesome show on TV. Second, it’s written to appeal equally to 8-year-olds (like my daughter) and 41-year-olds who have the maturity of 8-year-olds (me). The writing is brilliant. Just watch it. Learn to write for that same, absurdly broad audience. Hell, write an episode or two. Curse you, Perry the Platypus!
There are lots more things you can do, but it boils down to reading, listening and practicing. Tell me I’m an idiot, ignore everything I write. But if you read, listen and practice you’ll probably still end up pretty damned good.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More