These Two Easy Copy Fixes Make Your Ideas Shine

No doubt New Yorker editor Roger Angell was talking about fiction or essay writing when he said, “Keep it simple. Be clear. Think of your reader, not yourself. Cheer up.”

But it’s good advice for copywriters, too.

When I’m not writing, I spend time working with other writers. And very often I find myself saying, “Simplify there,” “Clarify that,” and “Do we really need this?”

It’s because I’m looking for copy that is, as Angell says, simple and clear. When it is, your reader is drawn to your ideas … not distracted by the way you express them.

Just as an attentive gardener clears away the weeds and dead growth from his flowerbed and clips off the dead blossoms … so must you clear the excess words, the useless comments, the convoluted constructions from your sentences.

Here are two easy things you can do quickly to ensure you’re using language to your best advantage. Do these things, and your ideas take center stage. (And, of course, it’s those ideas that persuade your reader to take action.)

First – use strong verbs. When you do this, you automatically clean up other problems at the same time, without even trying. (You become more concise because when your verbs are good, you need fewer adjectives. And you eliminate “passive voice” from your writing, too, which means you speak more directly to your reader and that improves your tone.)

The verb “to be” – that is: is, am, was, were, been, being – has its uses. But you can do better. When you can (and you can way more often than you’d guess), replace “to be” with more active verbs. Reach for verbs that:

  1. Describe an action or
  2. Provide a visual image

Consider this weak text, which is full of “to be” and lots of wasted words …

What’s amazing is the regions along the coast are just now being discovered and developed. Today, a fairly small group of Europeans have the beaches of this tropical coast to themselves. They’re buying beachfront lots for $16,500 and beachfront condos for $67,000. (“to be” appears 5 times, 42 words total)

By contrast, this improved version comes with stronger verbs and fewer words. That makes it clearer and more direct. And that makes it more engaging …

Beaches stretch along this coast, largely undiscovered and undeveloped. Only a small group of Europeans has settled here, where they can buy beachfront lots for $16,500 and beachfront condos for $67,000. (“to be” appears 0 times, 31 words total)

Second – use more specifics. Put another way: use fewer adjectives. The more specific you are, the more concrete your descriptions are and the more “real” your copy feels to the reader.

As copywriters, we often admire copy that has a sincere tone instead of a “salesy” one. That authenticity can seem hard to come by. But the truth is, you’ll find it begins to appear (as if magically) in your own copy when you include more specifics.

To do it, replace the adjectives in your copy with something more concrete. Words like “rich” or “healthy” or “amazing” don’t really say anything. Or, really, they say one thing to one reader and something else to another. You might think $80,000 in the bank qualifies somebody as “rich,” but your neighbor might put the number at $1 million net a year. I might think an orange constitutes a “healthy” snack, but Janet down the street puts chocolate chip granola bars firmly in that category.

Here’s an example that lacks specifics. And as a result – it’s just not engaging …

Wouldn’t you like to leave it all behind and live in Paradise?

Dear Reader,

A couple of years ago, I went on a storybook vacation. Instead of a faceless hotel, I stayed in a beautiful seaside cottage. The view from the front door was right out of a tropical tourist brochure. Parasailing was a short walk down the beach. I rode the wind like a soaring seabird and the vistas are indelibly etched in my memory.

I would say to that writer: What is a “storybook” vacation? What did your “beautiful” cottage actually look like? What is a “typical tourist brochure”? You get the idea. This place feels made up. I can’t picture it in my mind’s eye because it lacks specifics. I’m not transported there. I’m not engaged. And I’m not going to buy.

Consider this copy from the ASPCA, by contrast. It’s brimful of specifics. Because of that, I can imagine this scene exactly. It feels authentic and honest. As a reader, I’m engaged …

His belly was empty. So empty it hurt. The back door would open and shut, and Astro would hope for food. But his abuser never brought any. In fact, he didn’t even look at Astro as he came and went. Astro drank out of a puddle near the stake he was chained to. The dirty water kept him alive, but then the puddle dried up. Astro had only a few days to live.

Dear Friend,

“You wouldn’t treat a dog that way.”

No, you and I wouldn’t. But too many people would – and do.

Now, following these two guidelines I’ve given you – use better verbs and use more specifics – that won’t guarantee you copy that works.

But it will ensure that you’re getting out of your own way in your copy. It will help your ideas to come to the front in a way that a reader will remember. Assuming those ideas are the right ones (and that’s another article altogether), you’ll have done much to increase the likelihood of a sale. And that will surely – as Roger Angell advises – cheer you up.

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Published: August 29, 2011

1 Response to “These Two Easy Copy Fixes Make Your Ideas Shine”

  1. Jen

    I do understand what you're saying, but both examples (of both examples) appeal to me. Would it be possible for you to expound a little more on this?


    Stephanie Morse

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