What Is Good Writing?
Find Out and You’ll Become a “Really” Good Writer
There is nothing good writers like to argue about more than what constitutes good writing.
In my 40+ years in the publishing business, I have taken part in my share of such quarrels. Most of them were lively. But few, if any, were ever resolved.
So What Is Good Writing?
Of course, you can’t agree on what’s good about anything unless you begin by agreeing on two definitions:
What “anything” are you talking about?
What do you mean by “good”?
Say the anything is poetry. Take a poem. Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” for example.
Three perfectly smart people read it and here is what happens …
One says it isn’t good because the meter is awkward and because it does not rhyme. “Good poetry,” he believes, “must have rhythm and rhyme.”
Another says the poem is good because it evokes sensual images. He is thinking of lines such as, “The bodies of men and women engirth me,” and “framers bare-armed framing a house.”
The third reader says it’s “just okay.” What pleases him about poetry is what Ezra Pound called melopoeia — the emotional impact of the musicality of the language. He got some of that affect from “I Sing the Body Electric,” but not enough.
So, for our example, let’s begin by identifying the “anything” — i.e., the sort of writing we want to discuss.
In this case, since I’m writing for AWAI students, the answer is writing advertising copy. And more specifically: writing direct-response advertising copy.
So, the question I’m going to try to answer in this essay is, “What is good direct-response advertising writing?”
Whenever I think about any sort of writing, I harken back to what I learned about what makes good playwriting. That was figured out brilliantly by none other than Aristotle in The Poetics, where he attempted to articulate what made “great” Greek theater great.
Aristotle began by listing six elements of Greek drama. There was plot (mythos), character (ethos), thought (dianoia), diction (lexis), melody (melos), and spectacle (opsis).
And then by looking at the Greek plays he considered to be among the best of Greek tragedies, he ranked those elements in terms of importance. Plot, he said, was the most important, character the next, and so on.
In honor of one of the world’s greatest thinkers, I’ve come up with six elements of direct-response advertising writing:
They are idea, story, secret, promise, evidence, and voice.
And of those, I would put idea at the top of the totem pole, followed by voice (expression), followed by story and secret, and then followed by evidence and promise.
That gives us the elements of good (even great) direct-response advertising writing, and their relative importance — according to me. But it doesn’t answer the question of what do we mean by “good”?
To answer that, we have to ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of direct-response advertising?”
That’s not difficult to answer. The purpose of direct-response advertising is to provoke the maximum number of high-quality responses to a given piece of advertising.
But that too needs a bit of definition because, depending on the overall intention of the advertising campaign, the response the advertiser is looking for may be something as non-committal as hitting a button or as challenging as having the prospect buy the product or service immediately — or sometimes something in between.
However, regardless of what sort of initial response the advertiser is looking for, the long-term objective is to get a response that will eventually become a longstanding repeat buyer, yielding the highest possible lifetime value (lifetime spend).
To become great at direct-response copywriting, the copywriter must become competent in all six areas and masterful in at least one.
I’ve written in-depth on how to become competent in all of the elements in various books and numerous essays, but to keep this essay from turning into a book, I’m going to give you some hints about each of them, hints that should get you started in developing these essential skills.
Thirty-some years ago, I had a conversation with Bill Bonner, with whom I had just partnered to help him grow his business. At that time, Bill was already a master copywriter. And I had established myself as the hot new hand in town.
We were talking about how we could grow his business by forming a group of beginning copywriters and teaching them everything we know about what good copywriting means.
I told him about my theory of the six elements. He said he thought the most important one was the quality of the idea. At that time, I was competent in making promises, telling secrets, and voice (the manner of expression). Yet, he said he believed the most important element was the idea.
Because of the success I’d had with the three elements I had mastered, I was doubtful that “idea” could be that important. But over the years of working with him and developing my skill at creating “good” ideas, I came to believe that ideas deserved to be, if not on top of the hierarchy, certainly among the top two.
The problem with teaching copywriters how to develop good promotional ideas is that very few copywriters, even successful ones, understand what Bill meant by “idea.”
Most people think it is whatever element happened to be the most prominent element in a given direct-response advertisement. If it was a big promise, then that was the idea. If it was a captivating story, then that was the Big Idea.
In fact, what Bill meant was more literal than that. He believed that the best advertising packages present the reader with a powerful new idea about solving a problem they are worried about or achieving a goal they are seeking. Promises, stories, secrets, and the rest of the elements can support the Big Idea, but the idea itself must spark excitement, recognition, and hope in the reader’s heart and mind the moment they read it.
The Big Idea is an actual idea that gives the prospect an “a-ha!” moment. It makes him or her think, “Of course — that’s why I have this problem or haven’t reached my goal. I never understood what was really holding me back. Now I understand!”
Knowing how to tell a secret properly is another extremely important element in becoming a good (or great) copywriter. What a well-told secret does is to indirectly promise the reader that if he keeps reading, he will discover the Big Idea that will solve his problem or achieve his goal.
In other words, employing a secret in advertising allows the copywriter to dangle a big promise in front of the reader, without signaling that what he is reading is eventually going to result in a sales pitch. This overcomes the ubiquitous and sometimes deadly emotional resistance that arises in every prospect the moment he notices that he is reading a sales pitch.
Knowing how to tell a story properly is equal in power to knowing how to tell a secret. Like the secret, the story allows the copywriter to get the prospect reading without throwing the eventual sales pitch in her face. Even more important than that, a well-told story will put the reader into the story itself as its protagonist, facing, either literally or metaphorically, the same challenges and hopes that she is currently struggling with.
The result when this happens is that the story allows the prospect to re-experience her worries and hopes in a deeply emotional way and also experience the triumph of overcoming the problems or achieving her goals in the same emotional space.
When the copywriter can do that, then their work, in terms of making the sale, is 80% accomplished because, however much we all want to think we make our buying decisions based on reason, the truth is that more than 80% of them are already made in the emotional brain before we even begin to consider the facts.
Evidence is the one element that almost every new copywriter understands. Any time the copywriter makes a promise to a prospect, whether it is direct as in making a promise, or indirect by telling a secret or story, he must then convince the prospect that the promise is realistic by making a series of claims that support the promise and proving each one at least several times by providing proof in terms of facts, logic, analogies, authoritative statements, user testimonials, and anecdotes — just to name a few.
Providing some evidence is not enough. To become masterful at employing evidence, the copywriter must provide an abundance of evidence, and as many types of evidence (anecdotes, facts, and testimonials, for example) as he/she can come up with.
By voice I mean several things. I mean the tone of voice (gentle or harsh, challenging or inviting, modest or immodest, etc.) but I also mean whether the advertisement in written in the first, second, or third person, and what level of sophistication (high-brow, middle-brow, or low-brow) the copywriter believes will be most readily accepted by the prospect, and also diction (the choice of words and in particular words that indicate knowledge of the product and the prospect, and such things as length of sentences and paragraphs and language complexity — i.e., how simple and easy it is for the reader to grasp what is being said).
As with the other elements, I have written at length about the importance of voice and how to develop it for direct-response advertising, which you can find in my published books and essays on persuasion generally, and copywriting in particular.
Like evidence, most beginning copywriters believe they understand the importance of promise-making in writing direct-response advertising, and most believe it’s very simple: Just make the biggest promise you can make without lying.
The fact is that making promises is a much more subtle and nuanced skill than that. In fact, great copywriters understand that making big promises is usually a big mistake as a direct-response copywriter, because oversized promises almost always end up disappointing the customer, which lowers the lifetime value of that customer and increases customer complaints.
Again, I could write chapters on how to write powerful promises that achieve the goal of longstanding relationships and maximum lifetime values. But the short answer I can give you within the scope of this essay is that the intelligent copywriter should try to make any and all promises softly and indirectly, by imbedding promises indirectly in well written stories, secrets, and ideas.
The ideal writer would have mastery of all six characteristics. He would be capable of presenting emotionally and intellectually compelling ideas. He would express them clearly and with a mature voice. And he would support them with whatever research data and anecdotal evidence were needed to persuade the reader.
Okay, that’s the brief introduction I promised you.
Here is a summary in a single sentence: Good direct-response copywriting is the skillful utilization of the six elements discussed above, with a sensitivity to when and how each of the elements must be deployed to effect maximum, high-quality response.
So how do you apply this definition to your writing?
- Don't start writing until you have at least one good idea — an idea that is not just exciting and new (or new sounding), but also an idea that contains a promise inside it that your prospect wants to be made.
- Spend an equal amount of time trying to understand what the prospect wants to get from the product or service you are selling him. The right promise will not only solve the problem he thinks he has, but the deeper, sometimes subconscious problem that is actually keeping him up at night.
- Work that idea and that promise into a single paragraph and then revise that paragraph a dozen or two dozen times until you have crystalized it in a single sentence or two.
- Whatever you do in the early lead in terms of getting the promise stated or implied, move as quickly as you can to a story or a secret that sells that promise/idea.
- If you begin with a story, follow it immediately with a secret, and then introduce at least a half dozen claims that support the promise. And then find at least two or three convincing proofs that the claim is valid.
- Repeat the process of telling secrets and stories, followed by claims and proof throughout the package, from the initial lead to the beginning of the close. So long as those elements — the story, the secret, and the claims — are believable, the more times you make them, the better.
And finally, write in a straightforward and simple style, thinking always of helping your prospect, which means writing honestly, authentically, and enthusiastically, because your job, after everything is said and done, is to solve your prospects’ problems and help them achieve their goals.
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