“Magic” and the Art of Copywriting

I bet you didn’t know that as a copywriter you’re a bit of a magician.

It’s true. To be effective, you have to keep your readers from seeing what you’re doing. They have to be so engrossed in what you’re saying that they arrive at the end of your writing with a sense of wonder. They’ll want to see and know more. Just like the audience at a magic show.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Effective copywriting is not trickery. You must always be honest.

But like an effective magic trick, misdirection keeps your reader involved and wanting to know more. Without it, you risk losing your reader when he says to himself, “Oh, this is just another scheme to part me from my money.”

Avoid the obvious …

This is the failing of clichés.

You say “it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” and your reader categorizes what you’re saying. A clear image forms in his mind. And that might not be the image you want him to embrace.

You’ve also given him permission to stop paying attention — even if only for a moment. He reads “it’s just the tip …” and before reading another syllable, his brain has already filled in the blank with “ … of the iceberg.”

Try it yourself. Finish these clichés …

  • Another day, another …
  • Clean bill of …
  • Champagne taste on a …
  • Build a better mousetrap …
  • Money is the …
  • Rain on your …

Empty words and wasted space …

Back when I first started writing copy, Jenny Thompson from Agora pointed out a problem with one of my promos. I’d used my headline (which she liked) as my envelope copy. She told me that every inch in copywriting is precious real estate and not to waste the space in this way.

This valuable lesson applies to clichés as well. A big problem with clichés is that they become so predictable that there’s little meaning attached to them. Use one and you’ve added empty space to your copy. Space you could have used to solidify an important idea.

Avoid the easy way out …

I’ll put it bluntly. Using clichés is lazy writing. You’ve got something you want to say but can’t at that moment think of how to say it. So you break out a cliché.

Let’s say you’re trying to get across the downside potential of a particular Federal regulation. You might want to say “tip of the iceberg” to indicate the potential danger. Don’t do it. Tell your reader exactly what you mean.

“This regulation has tremendous potential for wreaking havoc on your financial life. And what scares me more than anything is that most of that danger is hidden away. Buried away from your eyes so it can be implemented without causing alarm.”

More words, certainly. But saying what you mean and not falling back on a cliché punches up the copy. It brings greater visual and emotional impact.

Write ‘em out … then weed ‘em out …

Clichés have a definite place. They can save you time and keep you moving forward while you’re in your writing flow.

Let’s say you’re in that flow and “tip of the iceberg” comes to mind as the easiest way to say what you need to. Use it. Put it in bold. Then when you’re editing, find a better way to say it. Figure out exactly what you mean by that cliché and then write that down.

When you adopt this strategy, pretty soon you’ll find that you’re using fewer clichés in your first draft. You’ll be saying what you really mean and writing more directly from the start.

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Published: November 11, 2013

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