This Web Will Free Up Your Writing

I guess I have to thank Sister Mary Magdalene – my eighth grade teacher. Or maybe I should say “blame.”

Sister Magdalene taught me the joys of outlining.

Joys? Yes, I was one of those odd kids who loved bringing a sense of order to what I was learning. I enjoyed diagramming sentences for that reason. (Still do!) That skill brought order to the disorderly English language.

But, outlining! Outlining brought order to a disorderly 13-year-old mind. I was hooked. My addiction was fed by a year of Jesuit training and then by the best teachers one can imagine in my public high school.

Being an inveterate outliner stood me well in college and graduate school. It helped immensely in my career as a teacher.

But strict outlining failed me as a copywriter …

As you might expect, when I started copywriting, I relied on outlining for everything I wrote. My copy was very orderly and progressed logically from one point to the next. I had carefully mapped out in my outline exactly where my benefits would come. I would even include some catchy phrases in my outline to use in specific places in the copy.

My copy was very logical … and it was lousy. Well, maybe not lousy, but it read stilted and forced. I didn’t understand it. I’d always done well in my English essays from high school on. So, what was the problem?

When I used the strict form of outlining I was so comfortable with, my copy suffered because it was too logical, too direct. Part of your copy’s success depends on exciting your reader’s imagination and emotions.

To do this, you have to appeal to the emotional part of your reader’s brain before turning on the intellectual part. And having copy that follows a strict outline makes this difficult to do.

What’s the solution?

A web that doesn’t trap, but frees …

For me, I still have to follow a bare bones outline. Fortunately, AWAI teaches the Four Ps: Promise. Picture. Proof. Push.

That’s it. That’s my outline. I open my copy with a promise that’s often expressed as a word picture. Using a well-crafted word picture immediately appeals to the emotional part of your reader’s brain. The proof pulls the intellectual part of his brain into the mix. And the push is where you wrap it all up and get your reader to act.

But using this system, how can I be sure to get in all the points I wanted? After all, when I was using a strict outline, I had everything I wanted to include in that outline. The way I now insure I get it all in is with a system teachers call a “word web.”

If you look up the term online, the first hits will all be about a piece of software. Forget those. I don’t even know what that software is or what it does. And I don’t care. Here’s what I do …

Unleash your creativity …

Start with a large sheet of paper. I frequently use 2’ x 3’ poster board, but if you write small, you can use a smaller piece. I like large paper, because I can scribble as quickly as I want. The size also subconsciously tells me not to hold back – to put everything down.

  1. Write your key phrase in the middle of the paper and circle it. Let’s say you’re writing copy for International Living. That’s the key phrase in the middle.
  2. Write the first thing that pops into your mind related to your key phrase. Circle it. Let’s call this your “first response phrase.” If I’m stuck, I prime the pump by writing down “benefits.” That gets my mind flowing. Don’t censor yourself at this point.
  3. Connect that first response phrase to the key phrase with a line.
  4. Then write down everything that pops into your mind related to your first response phrase and connect them to the first response word. So, if your first response phrase is “benefits,” you might write phrases like “excitement,” “knowledge,” “retiring abroad.” Once again, no self-censoring.
  5. Each of those second response phrases might stimulate another phrase related to that one. For example, “retire abroad” might stimulate “cheaper living.” Write that down and connect it.
  6. What if something related to your key phrase pops into your head that’s not related to the first response phrase? Write it down, circle it, and connect it back to the key phrase.
  7. Keep going until you can’t go anymore. Set it aside and come back later and try to get more phrases down.

Once you have the word web finished, it becomes your map for writing. As you write, this map will guide you, but it’s loose enough where you can avoid the problems following a strict outline causes.

If you want good visual examples of how word webs work, do an image search on the term “word web.” You’ll see that my way of doing a word web is just one of many. Find one you like and see how it can free up your creativity while loosening your copy.

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The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: April 7, 2014

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