Scoring Copy and Singing With Champs

One of my passions is performing with the championship Vocal Majority Chorus. We’re driven to entertain and win. When we rehearse, we work hard and with purpose. But what does this have to do with copywriting?

Copywriters and musicians are born competitors, and what I’ve learned from singing and winning international gold medals applies to writing winning copy … whether you’re a musician or not.

When I sing, I work hard with the goal of giving winning performances. When I write, I work hard on my ideas with the goal of making my client (and me) a lot of money.

“Hard work is fun when improvement is evident,” our chorus director tells our all-volunteer group.

The hard work shows. We’ve won a world-record 11 gold medals from the Barbershop Harmony Society. But this article isn’t about singing. It’s about winning.

And about honing your copywriting skills to do the best you can do to generate sales or raise funds for you and your clients.

In our chorus competitions, we’re scored on a scale of 1 to 100 in three categories: music, singing, and presentation. We consistently score an average of 96 to 97 on the international competition stage. And we keep working for a perfect 100.

This got me to thinking about how this scale applies to many things in life, including copywriting.

If you score your copy, a 90 might be good, and a 95 might be great – but if there is another package out there that is worthy of a 96, your 95 loses.

When I’m staring at my blank monitor screen, my score is zero. Sort of like the first time our chorus picks up a new piece of music.

I’ll start writing something – anything – to get me going on my headlines and lead. After an hour or so, I have something resembling a 20.

The next day, I’ll write more, edit, chop, red line printed sheets of paper, wad paper, trash it, and eventually end up with another page or more of copy. By now, my copy might resemble a 40.

The next day, I repeat the process and find myself at about a 60. Day by day, my copy improves. I know I’m at an 80 when I feel my idea or concept is on the right track.

Usually, I can sense the jump from 80 to 90. You should feel it, too. At that point, you know your idea is solid, but the copy needs significant editing to get as close to 100 as possible.

It’s tough to edit your copy and improve your idea to get it from 90 to 93. It’s tougher to boost it from 93 to 94. And even tougher to get it from 94 to 95. So imagine what has to be done to move the needle from 95 to 96 … or from 97 to 98.

This is where you have to look at your copy under a much higher scrutiny. Make sure you’ve proven all your claims … that you’re speaking conversationally … that what you’ve written isn’t boring, confusing or unbelievable.

Also, keep in mind that active sentences are persuasive sentences. So eliminate 90% – or more – of your passive voice. Look for sentences that are too long. Break them into 2 or 3 shorter, more dynamic sentences. Or improve their punch using dashes or ellipses. (Paul Hollingshead and Will Newman give you insights into how they edit their copy in TGT The 3 Most Important Parts of Any Promotion's Success and Editing the Easy Way.)

Here are my strategies for shimmying copy up that point or two.

  1. Give it a rest. Spend no more than an hour editing, then return to it later in the day – or, better, the next day or after a weekend.
  2. Get out of your office. Some of my best ideas come to me at lunch, when I’m by myself. I find a good space in a restaurant and review drafts of my copy. I take my red pen and use it to mark up the copy liberally. (Using red is key for me.) Often, my waiter or waitress will ask what I’m doing – and when they do, that’s my cue to bounce an idea off of them.
  3. Take a walk or run. No headphones. No dog. Just you and the great outdoors. I’ve had great breakthroughs while on a walk.
  4. Ask for feedback. Getting feedback from family or friends is okay, but probably not as “unbiased” as you need. I recommend using AWAI’s Peer Review System, which Will Newman described in detail.)
  5. Sing. Or get involved in any hobby of your liking. I spend over four hours a week at rehearsal, and sing an average of one or two performances every month. It gets my mind completely off copywriting so I’m fresh when I come back to it.

There’s a point where you must ask yourself if more time and effort will move the needle any further.

Maybe you’re stalled at 80 … your Big Idea didn’t evolve the way you hoped it would … or your proof wasn’t overwhelming. In that case, no amount of editing will get you closer to 100 … or even 90. Start over.

Or maybe you think your copy is at a 96, and all you’re doing is rearranging words. In that case, it may be time to stop and go with what you’ve got. (I find that I’ve achieved the highest score I can reach when I’m able to read my draft without feeling the need to keep editing words or phrases.)

I don’t think any of us can ever score a perfect 100. But in this business, all it takes is for your copy to be even just one “point” higher than your competition’s.

Follow this plan and your copy will “sing with the champs” too.

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Published: December 17, 2007

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