The Most Important Words in Copywriting


Will Newman

I’m a word lover.

More than love, though, I respect them and how they're supposed to be used and the power they hold.

And that's what we're going to talk about this week … words, the tools you use in crafting persuasive, successful writing. Your tools for gaining the writer's life.

We'll start today with the most powerful words in your writing … verbs.

Revisiting seventh grade English: The verb is “a word that expresses action or being.” Ho-hum. I prefer Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s description. As the author of numerous entertaining and offbeat grammar books, she calls verbs “the heartbeat of a sentence.”

Verbs bring life to your writing. Take a look at the following sentences:

  • Natural pain relievers move more quickly through your bloodstream than synthetic ones.
  • Natural pain relievers surge through your bloodstream faster than synthetic ones.

Not much doubt. "Surge" packs more punch than "move." The verbs you use matter. But no matter how strong a verb you choose, it loses 90% of its power if you cloak it in passive voice.

Don’t sit there passively …

Passive voice — a sentence like “the letter was written by Marsha” — deadens the writing. Passive voice makes seeing the picture difficult.

Active voice is how you talk to your friends. You put the person acting in front of the verb. You say, “Marsha wrote the letter.”

Active voice makes your sentences livelier and more vivid. It’s easy imagining Marsha sitting at the computer, writing the letter. You can visualize it mentally.

Active voice is conversational, natural, more convincing.

The same goes for copywriting. “While visiting China, a brand-new idea in supplementation was discovered by Dr. Smith.” This feels like Dr. Smith passively hung out when he accidentally stumbled across the idea.

“Dr. Smith discovered a brand-new strategy in supplementation while visiting China” is much stronger. You can imagine him talking to herbalists, picking plants beside the Great Wall, and … well, you get the point.

3 strategies to banish the passive voice …

Here are three passive voice killers from my friend and editor and Master Copywriter, Jen Stevens …

Passive Voice Killer #1: Use ‘you’

“If time is available, a car should be rented and a visit to the hilltop town of Gordes enjoyed.”

Change to:

“If you have time, rent a car and enjoy a visit to the hilltop town of Gordes.”

Passive Voice Killer #2: Put the “doer” before the verb

“When deadlines are met by the copywriters, they're paid on time.”

Change to:

“When copywriters meet their deadlines, clients pay them on time.”

Passive Voice Killer #3: Drop helper part of the verb

“The school was opened nine years ago.”

Change to:

“The school opened nine years ago.”

Now, don’t try to eliminate passive voice while writing. Let ideas flow naturally. Get them down on paper first. Then, attack your copy with a keen eye. Slash passive voice from your second draft and after.

You won’t be able to get rid of all passive voice. Sometimes, you have no alternative. But eliminating passive voice where possible strengthens writing and makes it more vivid and convincing.

On Wednesday, we’re going to visit a verb immortalized by Shakespeare that dulls copy as much as passive voice.

Until then, we’d love to hear your thoughts on passive voice, verbs, and being a word lover. Leave a comment below.

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Published: April 4, 2016

54 Responses to “The Most Important Words in Copywriting”

  1. Good article, although I'm surprised you didn't even mention nominalized verbs ("make an improvement in", for example). They can bog down a sentence even more than passive voice.

    [FROM WILL: Hi Joan. One simple reason I didn't cover other subjects: Space. We try to limit TWL copy to around 500 words. The response to this article shows me I need to write about words again. Thanks for the suggestion.]

    Guest (Joan)April 4, 2016 at 4:49 pm

  2. I appreciate your teaching! It is always so helpful! Thank you.

    Guest (Kevin T)April 4, 2016 at 5:03 pm

  3. This is a helpful article, thank you.

    Guest (Crystal B)April 4, 2016 at 5:06 pm

  4. Superb! Succinct message. Your tips are powerful; I'm now hooked. I can't wait to start writing!

    Guest (Tamara)April 4, 2016 at 5:10 pm

  5. Great advice! I always try to use active voice. It gives your writing life

    Guest (Bill White)April 4, 2016 at 5:11 pm

  6. Thanks for your comments today, Will! I think it was Ernest Hemingway who proved that a lot of whollop can be packed into a few words. I sometimes think fledgling writers believe the more words, the better. I find one of the most difficult things about writing is the cut and slash editing one must do to get the point across without beating the reader to death!

    Kat BApril 4, 2016 at 5:12 pm

  7. My tip for avoiding passive voice is simply to write as if you are in a casual conversation with a friend (in B2B you could think instead of a casual conversation with a colleague or client). Who would actually say out loud, "Susan, if time is available, a car should be rented and a visit to the hilltop town of Gordes enjoyed"?? No one! (Seriously, I don't think many would write something that awful either). But you would easily and naturally say "Susan, if you have time, rent a car and enjoy a visit to the hilltop town of Gordes."

    It's not a foolproof rule but the observer of it will rarely go astray...I meant to say, you'll rarely write yourself into a ditch if you follow this simple rule.

    Sana TyoApril 4, 2016 at 5:25 pm

  8. "ENLIGHTNING"

    Guest (Smith Word)April 4, 2016 at 5:29 pm

  9. Good ideas, placing emphasis, in choice of words, and their placement, however is to set the tone for the idea, everything is not meant to be about "you", or to be an "emergency"..Thank You..

    Guest (anonymous )April 4, 2016 at 5:33 pm

  10. Great article. Just the facts...no fluff.

    Joseph LaceyApril 4, 2016 at 5:36 pm

  11. Thanks Will,

    I feel better just knowing that I'm not alone, having a love for words. Quick question though. Can there be a situation where we might prefer to create a passive voice that colors or characterizes the writers feelings about the person being discussed?

    Guest (Richard)April 4, 2016 at 5:37 pm

  12. Thanks for this article. It will help.

    Guest (Erica)April 4, 2016 at 5:48 pm

  13. I thought; 'If you have time rent a car'

    could be; 'When you have time rent a car'

    Then they wouldn't worry about time today,

    tomorrow would be fine.

    Guest (Victor Goodman)April 4, 2016 at 5:56 pm

  14. Thank you for this important information.

    Guest (Sheyi)April 4, 2016 at 6:01 pm

  15. This is not just nice, it's great!
    Thanks and expect more from you.

    Guest (Udokoghi)April 4, 2016 at 6:02 pm

  16. I enjoy words as well. I have been taught to use the passive voice because you don't want to single anyone out. Also not to speak as if you are in conversation with someone. However sometimes that is the only way to get the point across effectively. I enjoy writing and the way words affect me or people. Also words can have duality in their meaning.
    Thanks for the article.

    Guest (Brenda)April 4, 2016 at 6:35 pm

  17. Hi Will, I too have always been a word lover. I used to sit and read the dictionary in my teens.

    AnnaBApril 4, 2016 at 7:02 pm

  18. Thank you!

    Guest (Rosemarie Paulling)April 4, 2016 at 7:02 pm

  19. Hi Will,

    You brought out the -ve points of passive voice effectively. And the 3 killers in a simple and lucid way.

    I am also a word lover.I focus equally on words as well the ideas when I read AWAI Hall of Fame letters. Also I note down the strong and persuasive words and phrases. With the idea of referring to them when I go blank while writing copy.I am an Indian.So,I have to master the vocabulary to write a better copy as English is not our prime language. Look forward to Wednesday. Thanks.

    KrishnanApril 4, 2016 at 7:05 pm

  20. Will,I had no idea I was being so,"Passive aggressive",in my writing style! I'll just have to replace the passive with a positive though in stead! Thanks for your input,into what I out put!lol

    Guest (Leiza)April 4, 2016 at 7:15 pm

  21. I don't understand what this is about. Text me at 813-478-6344 thank you.

    Guest (lisa)April 4, 2016 at 7:22 pm

  22. I will be using my dictionary to help with changing passive verbs to active verbs. I welcome any other boos you recommend.

    Guest (Almarine)April 4, 2016 at 7:43 pm

  23. A highly informative article. As a highly articulate wordsmith and AWAI member, excellent at "concising" others' writing, please point me towards those for whom I can use this talent.

    Guest (Ninian Carter)April 4, 2016 at 7:46 pm

  24. Hi Will Found this a interesting letter and helpful Doing the full course at the moment finding it absorbing Looking forward to many more insights Cheers Murray

    Guest (Murray)April 4, 2016 at 8:03 pm

  25. I really appreciate these tips. Passive writing has dogged me throughout my career as an environmental specialist and technical writer. Science writing and academic writing both are particularly prone to the passive.
    It seems I cannot possibly receive too many tips and reminders; hopefully my writing is starting to show the difference. At least, I'm more aware of passive writing than ever before.
    Thanks!

    Guest (Karen)April 4, 2016 at 8:09 pm

  26. Thank you Will. Your advise is always keen and to the point which I appreciate. Some writers drag their message along with excess words before ever giving the reader some concrete advice. Thanks.

    Guest (Marilyn)April 4, 2016 at 8:29 pm

  27. Thank you for your keen insight. I am always looking for ways to improve my writing skills. This was a good reminder that simple and direct is usually the best approach.

    Guest (EHG)April 4, 2016 at 9:33 pm

  28. This was an amazing concept to me. I never realized that after all the years of scientific paper writing that I used passive voice in all my writings. Thank you for the epiphany!

    Lisa PApril 4, 2016 at 9:47 pm

  29. I like the few examples on passive voice and active voice. The sentences are clear short and right to the point.

    Guest (Arame Richardson)April 4, 2016 at 10:16 pm

  30. Hi, Will,

    I, too, am a word lover, and I love wordsmithing. It is the creative nature of using words to convey meaning that led me to copywriting.

    Lynn LittleApril 4, 2016 at 11:10 pm

  31. The idea to have passive & active voice is quite interesting.. I , however, thought the important words in the sentence were the subject & being descriptive.

    Guest (Bev scott)April 4, 2016 at 11:54 pm

  32. Do I have this right, the way we talk to people, is the active style of writing?.which style s the most correct then.? if correct is the wrong word, which one is used most often by writers??....OR. Are we specifically talking about copywriting? I,m confused about that. I want to thank you for getting back to me so soon. I do appreciate this.

    Guest (Bev)April 5, 2016 at 12:07 am

  33. Hey Will, great article. It's information like this, simple and simply stated, that is often overlooked. Yet the implications can be dramatic.

    Appreciate you caring enough about your craft and others who share your passion for writing, to share this article with us. Keep up the exceptional work!

    Guest (Jim Mahannah)April 5, 2016 at 12:43 am

  34. These tips will be helpful, can not wait to master them and start applying them too.
    Thanks a lot.

    Guest (Ebi)April 5, 2016 at 1:57 am

  35. Thanks to Will Newman for sharing examples of the power of Verbs.

    You made the examples simple and vivid.

    Guest (Jeska Dalizu)April 5, 2016 at 2:24 am

  36. I love the way you illustrate with words. I read a lot of your writing.

    Guest (Dr A J Jackson)April 5, 2016 at 2:27 am

  37. Very informative. You hit the nail on the head!

    Guest (Nails )April 5, 2016 at 9:14 am

  38. A background in computer programming helps. Your code has to be presented to the computer so it is easy to parse accurately and correctly, and so it can get more work done by not having to try to figure out what you mean.

    When sentences are arranged so they're difficult to figure out, the reader quits trying and you lose.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay titled Compensation is written at 6th grade level, yet it's difficult to read without effort.

    Make it easy on your reader.

    Guest (Clarke Echols)April 5, 2016 at 11:01 am

  39. I, too, love words! Your post was very helpful as I am bad about using too many passive verbs. This will help me very much! Thanks!

    Guest (Carol L)April 5, 2016 at 12:30 pm

  40. Thanks, Will. My kids have always called me" the Grammar Gramma". That has often meant > voice < as well as >excessive wordiness.< My poetry mentor is constantly after me to reduce the word count by saying more while using fewer words. Always a challenge. Carrie

    [FROM WILL: Grammar Gramma is a good thing. I'm going to recommend a Yound Adult ficiton book written in free verse: *Crossover*. It is a great example of using words economically.]

    Guest (Carrie)April 5, 2016 at 1:59 pm

  41. This is a keeper, definitely something to keep in the front of my mind, and (another) refine for my copy!
    [FORM WILL: Thank you.]

    Guest (Dorothy)April 5, 2016 at 2:05 pm

  42. Loved the post today! I too am a 'word nerd"! I will spend more time than necessary with my nose in my Thesaurus looking for the perfect word to fit my thoughts. I'm always reaching for the next best verbiage for my articles that will go on my company's Intranet. And, as much as some people dislike it - I love alliteration! There's something musical about stringing words together likes notes in a composition. Thanks for the illuminating post!

    [What thesaurus? I recommend the Rodale Word Finder. One warning: Avoid alliteration in promo copy. It distracts from the core message.]

    skwriterApril 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm

  43. Loved your article on verbs. They power your writing and engage your reader in a more effective manner. I would add, avoid as much as possible all forms of the verb "To Be": tenses, singular, plurals, etc. Your writing will "jump" at your reader.

    [FROM WILL: I hope you read Wednesday's article.]

    Guest (joe simoneau)April 5, 2016 at 3:44 pm

  44. One thing I learned was there is a name for parts of speech being converted into other parts of speech. To nominalize. I try my best not to fall into the passive voice. The three passive voice killers were extremely helpful.

    Guest (David Nile Chase)April 5, 2016 at 8:17 pm

  45. The use of one verb or the other may seem the same, however, mentally they will apply a positive or less positive impression. For example, I have seen lawyers ads on TV wherein they say "Give us a call. We can help you" But, they should say "Give us a call. We will help you". The second implies agreement and action to be taken.

    [FROM WILL: I often change my own (and other copywriters' works) from can to will. Good suggestion.]

    Guest (Tom)April 6, 2016 at 12:25 pm

  46. I enjoy reading your articles. It is evident that you are a great teacher. Whatever you write is so meaningful. I do learn a lot from you. Keep up the good work.

    Guest (C Hyacinth Halstead)April 6, 2016 at 6:38 pm

  47. Simple things that we normally use. But how effective it would look if we use verbs in active voice! Thanks for the tip.

    Guest (JR Pai)April 7, 2016 at 7:06 am

  48. This article may be read to acquire inspiration and good copies may be written. Ha ha! Just teasing. This is such an amazing article Will, simple and powerful. (oops! I used 'is') Your article truly inspired me to write better, in active voice and preferably without the two-letter killing word in your following article (which I happened to read first).
    I am archiving it right away in my special copywriting folder!
    Yippity Yup Yup!

    BalakaApril 8, 2016 at 12:46 am

  49. donsound advice its a pity you are far away

    Guest (anne)April 8, 2016 at 5:44 am

  50. What about your use of the word, "ones", in the two sentences about pain relievers? Can "one" ever be plural?

    [FROM WILL: Thanks for the eagle eye. However, 'one' can be used as a plural as in this example when used as a pronoun. In addition, the till could be filled with ones, tens, twenties, and so forth.]

    Guest (Guest)April 15, 2016 at 6:04 pm

  51. Similar to copywriting --- a form of it , maybe --- is the work I've done to ( successfully ) impact state legislation. When the lawmakers vote favorably , when they cite my input ( letters / petitions / drafts / research ), they mention these things: Besides good hard FACTS , they say how my wording " hit them hard " , " was impossible to forget , or dismiss ". Like that !

    Guest (Barbara McCarty)April 27, 2016 at 4:13 pm

  52. Certainly, passive voice is not economic, nor it is a tool of proper English. It is so common though, that it's been a really strong influence on Mexican Spanish, for instance, since 2009.
    :(

    Guest (Deyuml Loacutepez)April 4, 2017 at 4:14 pm


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