Master “Short Letter” Writing

“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain supposedly wrote this in a letter to a friend. Although many dubious quotes are credited to him, Twain could easily have said this.

Twain wrote almost 200 years ago, but his direct, simple language still works today. He cut away anything that wasn’t necessary in his writing. It didn’t wander. It kept the reader moving forward … and eager to read more. It was “short letter” writing.

Take a look at this passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn …

We went to a clump of bushes, and Tom made everybody swear to keep the secret, and then showed them a hole in the hill, right in the thickest part of the bushes. Then we lit the candles, and crawled in on our hands and knees. We went about two hundred yards, and then the cave opened up. Tom poked about amongst the passages, and pretty soon ducked under a wall where you wouldn't 'a' noticed that there was a hole. We went along a narrow place and got into a kind of room, all damp and sweaty and cold, and there we stopped.

If Twain were writing today, he’d probably have replaced some of the commas with periods. But this passage still clearly shows the type of writing short letters need to have. It’s also the type of writing your promotional copy must have.

“Short letter” writing is even for long promos …

This now-famous promo by Porter Stansberry is an example of promotional copy with “short letter” writing. It pushes the reader forward.

Imagine yourself wearing a top hat and tails, on the balcony of a private rail car, the wind whistling past you as you sip the finest French champagne …

It’s 1850; the railroad is growing like a vine toward the west. And, although you don’t know it yet, the same rail that you are riding on today will soon more than triple your wealth, making you and your family into one of the great American dynasties …

Porter definitely captures the reader’s attention with this lead. He hasn’t even given his core promise yet, but the reader still feels impelled to learn more.

This is “short letter” copy at its most effective … even though the promotion was a long letter. No words are wasted in the entire copy.

How do you guarantee “short letter” quality writing like Porter’s? The answer sits at the beginning of Twain’s quote.

“I didn’t have time …”

If you want concise, direct “short letter” language, you must take time to get there. It’s not difficult. All it takes is paying attention to what you’re learning from AWAI. And a Master Copywriter’s trick I’m going to teach you in a moment.

Here’s how you do it …

Take the time to plan …

Let’s say that you’ve just come back from Bootcamp. You have a pile of spec assignments from Job Fair. You’re sure one of them will help launch your career.

It’s tempting to get to the writing as fast as possible. You’re a copywriter, after all. What you do is write.

But if you take this “get to it quickly” approach, you’re making it very difficult to write “short letter” copy. You’re guaranteeing your copy will wander.

Copy that wanders takes longer to read. It won’t convince your reader to act. And it won’t convince a potential client you’re the best copywriter for them.

So, before you lay one finger to your keyboard, plan.

List all of the major benefits on paper. Figure out who your best prospect is. Come up with the one most compelling promise for that prospect.

Then write down a plan of attack … on paper. Don’t do it on the computer. My experience — and that of other copywriters in Circle of Success I’ve worked with — is that using pen and paper involves your brain more actively than simply typing.

Also avoid making your plan a detailed outline. A detailed outline will make your writing dull and ensure that it’s not conversational.

You’re learning about these aspects of planning your promotion — your prospect, benefits, core promise, how to plan from AWAI. And I’ll talk about them in the near future here in The Golden Thread since each one deserves at least one article of its own.

But for now, let me get on to the …

Master Copywriter’s trick for “short letter” copy

I’d like to call this trick a secret, but I’ve mentioned it so often in COS programs that I don’t think it qualifies as a secret anymore. Here it is in a nutshell …

Write big. Edit short.

What do I mean by write big? Do I mean you should deliberately try to write long, involved copy? Certainly not!

But even if you plan carefully, you’re going to write more than you need. Your copy will wander. It will contain extra words and ideas. Instead of having “short letter” writing, you’ll end up with the opposite.

Here’s the trick: Tell yourself it’s okay to write big. When you write, just write. Do not try to edit yourself as you go. Just write.

So give yourself permission to “write big.” Then, when it’s time to edit, hack … delete … chop. Revise and rework until you get down to “short letter” copy.

It won’t be easy at first. We writers tend to fall in love with our words. Hacking them out seems brutal. Like we’re getting rid of favored children. Get used to it. That’s how all great copywriters are able to produce winning promotions that are effortless to read. That’s how they achieve “short letter” copy every time.

I’ll be talking about how to edit this way over the next few months as well. So be sure to come back again to learn how to pare down to Mark Twain style “short letter” copy.

Until then, keep writing. And I’ll see you next week.

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Published: October 14, 2013

1 Response to “Master “Short Letter” Writing”

  1. very informative. Thanks

    Guest (John w Regier)February 7, 2014 at 7:52 pm


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