“There is little sales value in fine writing. It is what you say that counts, not how you say it. A valid argument presented in blunt language will sway the reader more than a less valid argument beautifully presented.” — John Caples, Tested Advertising Methods, (p. 27)
Let’s get one thing clear before we get started: the purpose of copywriting is to produce results. If you agree, then continue reading. But if you think copywriting is about being creative, clever or expressing yourself then stop right now. Because you will only get frustrated at what I’m about to share.
If you’re still here I’m assuming you want to discover how to harness the power of the written word in order to grow your business. And one way to learn how to do this is to first learn what not to do.
One sure way to sabotage your marketing message is believing “good writing” will lead to more sales. This is not true. In fact, good writing will do more harm than good. This is why many good writers fail to get results with copywriting. They don’t understand why their beautiful ads fail while other, “poorly written” ads succeed. They’re confused. But after reading this you won’t be.
After you read this you’ll know why good writing gets in the way of your marketing message.
The reason good writing fails to produce results is because the focus — the emphasis — is on the writing and not the reader or the product. Since the purpose of the copy is to get results nothing else matters. Style, grammar, punctuation, and creativity are all secondary. The desired action — the result — is primary.
When the reader picks up the phone and calls you, that’s a win. When your sales letter beats the control by 15% you know your copy is accomplishing the purpose for which it was designed. You cannot measure success in any other way. To do so would be to deceive yourself.
Good Copy Is Like a Window
A glass case serves it’s purpose by not drawing attention to itself. If it’s dirty or has stickers on it then you notice the glass. But when it’s clean you see what’s inside. And it’s the same with good copy.
But when your copy draws attention to itself (through good writing) it makes it hard for the reader to see the product. A well-written article may cause a reader to laugh, cry or think. But those responses are not your goal. Your only objective is to get the reader to take a specific action.
If you want to be recognized for your literary skills then write a novel. But don’t use novel writing when you should be writing copy.
So when you have someone read your copy pay close attention to their response. If they say, “Wow, that’s some great writing. I like how you said blah, blah, blah,” then you know you need to rewrite it.
But if they say, “Wow, this sounds like a great product. I feel like I want to buy it right now. What’s the phone number?” then you know you’re on the right track.
Write To The Subconscious Mind
It’s no secret people buy based on emotion and justify their decisions with logic. Apple has sold 84.1 million iPads as of March 31, 2012. Ask someone why they bought the iPad and they’ll say it’s because of the usefulness, the touch screen or the memory.
But according to Dr. A.K. Pradeep, author of The Buying Brain, the real reason people love their iPads is rooted in their subconscious. “When you move an icon on the iPad and it does what you thought it would do, you’re surprised and delighted it actually happened,” he says. “That surprise and delight turns into a dopamine squirt, and you don’t even know why you liked it.”
Good copy speaks to the subconscious mind. The reader may not even know why they like it but they do. But good writing has the opposite effect. It speaks to the intellectual, logical mind… which unfortunately doesn’t drive human behavior like the subconscious does.
This is why clear, concise and simple writing is better than clever writing.
Cleverness requires the reader to think which engages the conscious part of their mind. And to connect with the subconscious mind you need to use short words. Simple phrases. And brief sentences. Which brings us to our next point.
What’s The Reading Level of Your Writing?
The average reading comprehension of American adults is at a ninth-grade level. So if you’re writing at a college-level then most people will have to work to read your copy. And most people won’t work to read your copy.
If people struggle to comprehend what you’re saying they’ll simply delete the email. Leave the website. Or throw away the letter. You’re writing to one of the most busy and distracted readers of all time. And the overworked mind is looking for a reason to ignore something and move on. Don’t give it a reason by attempting to sound sophisticated in your writing.
Master copywriter Lee Euler practiced this principle as he assembled the Plague of the Black Debt, one of the most successful book-a-logs in direct-marketing history. Euler mailed more than 14 million pieces, generating over $7 million in revenue. And he covered a complex subject using just a 6.8-grade reading level.
Review Your Copy
So now that you can see the reasons why good writing is not good copywriting you’re ready to improve your copy. After you’re finished here go read through your email messages, landing pages, sales letters and your other marketing pieces with fresh eyes. As you read ask yourself:
- Is my writing fogging up the glass?
- Am I speaking to the unconscious mind or to the logical mind?
- What’s the reading level of my writing (to find out use this free tool)
Remember, the purpose of your copy is to get results. Do whatever it takes to accomplish this. And remember, as John Caples said, “It is what you say that counts, not how you say it.”
About Josh Monen
Josh is a direct response copywriter and marketing strategist who makes a living by achieving remarkable results for his clients. His unique understanding of human psychology and marketing principles make him a valuable asset to the clients he serves.
A beautiful article Joshua. Writing to please the English teacher will likely kill your message.
I’ll never forget the time I wrote a fundraising letter for an animal rescue group, and the “Committee” was allowed to have input. By the time they finished, the letter was trash – but by golly it didn’t contain any of those nasty contractions any more. That member who “knew” English corrected all my errors.
I don’t write for volunteer committees any more, by the way.
Marte, I once heard a good quote about committee’s: “Nobody ever built a statue to honor a committee.” And your experience is a perfect example of why that’s true.
Grudgingly, I agree. I can lay down the sweet, sweet word lovin’, but if the content doesn’t match the drapes, who cares?
People tend to get caught up on the “writer” half of copywriter. But it’s the “copy” that makes the difference between “good” and “effective.” Copy is about pitching, selling, marketing — providing something that meets a need (real or imagined) in the reader, to put it to a point.
On the flip side, a salesman could be silver-tongued and a master of reading body language, but if he’s trying to sell an Aston Martin while wearing flip-flops and cut-offs, he’s getting nowhere. So the “art” of writing copy is equally important. The key is to know more than words — it’s about knowing the audience. Actually, it goes deeper than that. You know the audience, but you also know the heart that beats within. People are the point of good copy. Write in the tone, rhythm, and language they understand, and make the message, “You NEED what I’m giving you. You can’t live without it. And no one can give it to you any better than I can.”
That’s good copy.
Kevin, you’re right on the mark. Copy is about pitching, selling and marketing. And I agree, “The key is to know your audience.”
Nice article, and interesting/controversial.
Here’s my $0.02:
I have run into lots of folks who are “writing geeks”. They love their prose. They get all flowery. They construct long compound sentences. They often belong on local or online “scribes” clubs, they badly, in the worst way, want to get published, and they prize their precision with words and correct grammar.
I’ve seen a few reviewers on “Yelp” that are infatuated with their writing voice (for whatever reason, Yelp restaurant reviews draw the breed like flies. I prefer Urbanspoon’s earthy, semi-inarticulate blue collar focus. Anyway. 🙂 )
I am not certain that what you are describing is necessarily “good” writing. It may be writing that gets a grade A in a composition class. But even if it’s *not* copy, will anyone bother to read it or care? Then, when you make the observation about the prevailing 9th grade reading level, that clinches it – what you are describing is really mediocre writing masquerading as “self consciously good” writing.
I wrote AWFUL stuff in honors English class in high school that gained A grades. It fits my definition above of mediocre-but-masquerading. Too formal, too stilted, too pompous, too complex. It wan’t until a few early writing projects in which the client told me to bugger off (or worse) and for what reasons, that the brutal truth about writing for pay started to click.
I really like the book “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. It’s a generalist writing book. It is absolutely superb. Reading it and trying to align with the views of the author will make anyone a better writer, IMO, and that includes people who write copy for a living. It was first published in the 70s and it’s evergreen. It’s a strong kick in the crotch to the “get all flowery” crowd.
I agree with Don. Considering the quality of your own writing in this article I don’t think you are actually encouraging “bad” writing. Poor writing always makes for bad copy, but so does pompous writing. I’m actually reading On Writing Well and it is a great book for any writer.
I’m late the party, but I just discovered this post and had to chime in! As someone who can get caught up in $5 words and using 10 when 4 would do, this stings a bit. And, I know it’s true. My best writing is direct and economical. That style doesn’t always come naturally, but I’m working on it.
There’s one point you make that I would challenge: “Style, grammar, punctuation, and creativity are all secondary.” Style and creativity being secondary when it comes to copywriting, yes, I agree. Grammar and punctuation, though, I can’t compromise on. Your post gives me a case in point (and while I know the post isn’t an example of copywriting, it still applies… and I am *sure* this example is a typo… for many people, it’s not!).
“A glass case serves it’s purpose by not drawing attention to itself.” What was previously a “glass case” was marred by the smudge of “it’s” instead of “its.” I’ve learned that incorrect grammar and punctuation are like speed bumps in my mind. My thought process is hitched by the error, and the flow is gone.
My experience tells me there’s a balance: don’t let flowery prose get in the way of a clear call to action, and because of the concise nature of said copy, don’t let poor grammar and punctuation sabotage those efforts.
[Unless, of course, you’re e.e. cummings or a clever ad writer intentionally using “incorrect” punctuation to make a point!]
See what I mean about 10 words when 4 would do!? 😉
My guess is that you’re not advocating for lazy grammar and punctuation – you’re advocating for an approach to copywriting that focuses on what’s most important. I’d simply argue that proper grammar and punctuation are critical – part of the primary concern – to making the sale.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post! This is definitely a growth area for me, and I appreciate how well you made your point.