The Copywriter’s ‘Punch List’: How to Finish Your Copy like a Pro
When are we really “finished” with a writing project?
While some people have trouble getting started on a piece of writing, others have a hard time finishing. What I mean by “finishing” is doing the tasks that come after writing – even after editing – and before you hit “send.” It’s those things that signal to a client that you are a professional.
Having done the hard, creative work it can be a bother to revisit the whole thing all over again. I always want to get a project off my desk as quickly as possible. Not a good idea. Finishing means taking the time to get it right, and there’s more to getting it right than a quick edit and proofread.
In the construction trade there is something called a punch list. It’s the list of small details and unfinished items that the contractor uses in a final walk-through of the project. Taking note of the tasks I sometimes ignore, I’ve made my own punch list of things to do in order to finish my work and get it right.
1. Read the piece out loud from a printed copy.
Reading aloud is one of the best ways ever devised to ensure that words flow without the kind of awkward phrasing that can creep into the best writing. Do the sentences flow easily? If your speech sounds awkward, dull or pretentious, revise – and check again.
Reading aloud is also a way to catch errors like these, which you may have missed in proofreading:
Doubled or dropped words that happened after the last edit
Spell-check will pick up oversights like “beware of of duplicate words,” and so will a good proofreader. But what if you make a “tiny” change at the last minute, as I do? Your eyes won’t see the extra word, but when you slow down enough to read, it leaps out at you. Same with words that get lost or misplaced in the last-minute revision.
Inconsistent voice (first, second or third person)
Are you talking to “you,” the reader? Are you writing subjectively or objectively? Notice that in this article, I begin with “I.” I’m giving you my own opinion and experience. If you begin without bringing yourself (or the person in whose name you are writing) into it, don’t suddenly introduce “I” further on. It’s jarring and breaks the connection with the reader.
Complex sentences that can be broken up and made more direct.
I have a habit, which I picked up as early as high school, of writing sentences with multiple clauses, perhaps as a result of reading too much Jane Austen, an author whose sometimes long and convoluted sentences were more acceptable in the 19th century than they are today.
As you can see from the sentence above, it’s easy to spin on and on as the thoughts flow. But no one speaks in multiple clauses, and our aim is to approach the cadence of conversation. Here’s how I would rewrite it:
A habit I picked up back in high school is writing complex sentences. Maybe it was because of reading too much Jane Austen – Austen sometimes wrote in long sentences with multiple clauses, which were more acceptable in the 19th century than they are today.
Discrepancy between singular and plural within a single sentence.
Recently I made the mistake of forgetting to look carefully at my copy after revising a sentence. Although I went from plural to singular in one part, I forgot to change the whole line. To make it worse, I sent it off that way. I sent a corrected version to the client and hoped that anyone who read the first text would not pay me the compliment of reading every word. Reading aloud eliminates this type of error.
2. Review the headline to make sure it is still consistent with the lead and main idea.
Sometimes the emphasis has shifted and we forget that the original headline no longer promises on what the body delivers. Go back to the headline, if you wrote it earlier, and make sure it is still a meaningful lead-in to the first paragraph and the rest of the content.
3. Check transitions between paragraphs.
When we cut and paste in order to put the text into a more logical order, something may get lost. Make sure the sentences and paragraphs still follow naturally, and insert a transitional phrase or sentence if necessary.
4. If you are optimizing your copy for search engines, make sure your keyword phrases fit seamlessly into the text.
Reading your piece aloud will help eliminate “keyword-stuffing,” a signal to the search engines that you are nearing the realm of spam. It’s also a turn-off to the reader. Conversely, if you notice an opportunity to add an appropriate keyword phrase without altering the meaning or messing up the language, now is the time to insert it.
5. Finally, did you remember to include an effective call to action?
If the reader’s next step seems obvious, we may forget to connect the dots, and assume the reader will do so. Instead, give them something practical and specific to do. Make sure the call to action seamlessly fits the message and comes across as natural and helpful. (Check out my call to action below.)
You may have your own punch list of the things you’re likely to forget when polishing your copy. My last piece of advice: print the list, use it, and check each item off as you do it. Only then is the project finished. In the words of Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
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