What's Wrong With That? THIS Is What's Wrong With That

I hope this is an unnecessary imperative: If you're a "creative professional," be professional.

As creative professionals, our income and reputation depend on the obvious combination of professional image and professional output.

This means every one of us who claims professionalism has to safeguard both. I've met many copywriters who talk a good game, know all the standard claims, and have a nifty collection of samples … then lard their copy with useless marching-in-place words and phrases such as "Available" and "Act now" and "You've been chosen" and "However."

What's wrong with those words? From a grammatical point of view, nothing. From a salesperson's point of view, they're less than optimal.

Less Than Optimal = Zero

I've been in just about every position in what we egotistically call "the creative profession." I've been a client, and I've worked for clients. I've hired writers, and I've been hired as a writer.

I've torn copy to shreds, and I've had my copy torn to shreds. With a close-to-lifetime collection of intellectual scar tissue, I feel qualified to issue a proclamation, valid whether you charge $50 or $25,000 for your creative project. (I've charged both.)

Of course, you already know what that proclamation is: Re-read every word of every creative job you do, and judge it dispassionately and severely. ("If somebody else wrote this, what might I find to criticize?")

We don't always have the golden opportunity to let a piece of copy sit overnight so we can look at it the next day with carefully trained eyes and attitude to judge it unemotionally. But that's no excuse for "second-level" work.

The logical advice for copywriters who hit the "Save" button, and send a piece of writing off without thorough review is to hope for mentorship by a contemporary who thinks more professionally. Or pray for clients who also settle for second-level work.

Word Sequence – an Ongoing Challenge

Word sequence is an elusive copywriting refinement. Which is better: "I only want this" or "I want only this"? Not easy, is it?

What's easy … is assuming that what you've written is as good as it can be. That's why so much copy has lower octane than it might.

For example, which of these is more likely to generate an order?: "We're thanking you with a free 150-minute phone card" … or "How are we thanking you? Glad you asked: With a free 150-minute phone card."

Most copywriters feel copy effectiveness depends on adjectives. So they re-check their adjectives. ("What's a more dynamic adjective than 'beautiful,' which I've already used three times?")

Adjectives are the most common target, but adverbs have a more profound effect on the effectiveness of copy salesworthiness. Inclusion or exclusion of "very," for example, can inch power up or down a fraction. And fractions add up.

The question isn't whether you see the difference in impact. Rather, it's whether – after seeing the difference – you make deliberate choices based on the only thing that matters: Does the copy sell?

One Writer's Experience Becomes a Religion

I'm describing, arguing, and ranting based on my own experience, which has been so thoroughly tempered by exposure to prospective responders that I have the right to preach to you.

But don't take my word for any principle … until you've tested that principle for yourself and are comfortable with it. We all are potential victims of dogma.

I recall (not fondly) my academic experiences with advertising copywriting, in the one course my university offered. I accepted some of the dogma then because it was the only evidence on the table:

  • If you can't say it in one page, you can't say it at all.
  • Long letters out-pull short letters.
  • Self-mailers don't work.
  • Envelopes with copy out-pull envelopes without copy.
  • People won't read letters longer than four pages.

A lot of these guesses-masquerading-as-dogma were based on one-time personal exposure, guesswork, or what the pedagogue involved had been impregnated with by an outside authoritarian source.

Later, with some embarrassment, I found that my own repetition of dogma was faulty. I found that reciting pre-learned principles instead of tested principles was no predictor of success.

Replacing Every Suggestion You've Read Here

The core of effective marketing is testing. That's our big edge as copywriters. We should not only exploit that edge, we should venerate it.

Oh, sure, I can tell you what my own most recent results are for letter length. I can point to two colors out-pulling four colors. I can point out a surprising number of Christmas mailings in which the June test out-pulled the October rollout.

And, yes, I can tell you that words such as "available" and "needs" (as a noun) dilute the effectiveness of a sales message.

But am I and the other pontificators worthy authorities or a batch of blowhards? To use a currently hackneyed term, you are the decider. Pull us up short if we don't add one of two qualifiers: (a) "My most recent experience has been …" or (b) "In my opinion …"

Maybe now you understand why I no longer send samples to agencies that say their interest depends on samples. As often as not, samples don't parallel what a would-be client wants. As often as not, samples are judged on production rather than creativity.

In years past, I observed my samples being handed to other competitors whose rates were less formidable. As a consultant to a company hiring writers, I've inspected samples I knew couldn't have originated at the keyboard of the candidate.

What do your samples indicate? My final suggestion: Show those samples to … yourself, as a cold-blooded critic. Would you hire you?

Remember, you have to think the way your prospective responder thinks. And remember, I warned you, it isn't all that easy.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: September 3, 2007

1 Response to “What's Wrong With That? THIS Is What's Wrong With That”

  1. Surprise! I never expected to be asked to react to what I just read.

    As an educator who taught facts, and a novelist taught to be creative, I think I see the forest for the trees.

    As a copywriter, I understand it is my job to know my prospects and what they desire and it's my job to deliver what they want. And most importantly, I want them to feel they made the right decision.

    Beverly Mendenhall

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