Are you mesmerized by the beat of the content drum?
Everyone from marketing agencies to Google is telling us to “create quality content”, or its less helpful cousin “great content”.
We weren’t all born to love verbs and spend hours toiling lovingly over word order and yet as small business owners and marketers, one of the most important hats that we necessarily wear is “writer”.
If you don’t consider yourself a writer, aren’t entirely comfortable with the writing process and can’t outsource to a professional, that doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. Nor does it mean you should shrug and put out subpar content because, “Hey, I’m not a writer. That’s as good as it gets.”
Try one or more of these techniques the next time you put pencil to paper – or fingers to keyboard – for writing that has a whole lot more marketing punch.
Start With An Anecdote
We’re often told to “tell a story”. Unless you’re writing a novel, stick to the short variety, otherwise known as an anecdote.
Anecdotes are a great way to illustrate a point in a way that people can relate to. We use anecdotes here all the time. Sometimes we share a story about a client, sometimes about our own business. It’s not narcissistic. It’s effective writing.
As an added bonus, anecdotes don’t even have to be “true”. We’re not talking about writing for the New York Times, here. You can ignore the fact checkers and take the liberty of grabbing a bit from one story and a bit from another to create something much more powerful. In other words, don’t be afraid to tell a story!
It’s simple: check for words that end in “ly” and give them a hatchet job.
Adverbs aren’t bad but they can be the weakest part of a sentence because they can often be replaced by a more effective word or phrase.
Our awesome productivity tools will help you get your job done quickly.
The word “quickly” in that sentence is vague and wishy-washy. How much better to say something like:
Our awesome productivity tools will shave an hour a day from your work schedule.
Now that sounds like a tool I can get behind!
If you don’t have a stat, don’t fake it. Just fix your language.
Our awesome productivity tools help you get your job done so you still have time to spend with your family.
Ok, so it’s not the height of brilliance but you can see how we took one weak word and turned it into a pain point/solution that I bet means a lot more to people.
Kill Adverbs, Reprised
Two often used and abused adverbs are really and very.
Really tired = exhausted, fatigued, out of bandwidth (if you want to get literary, try a colloquialism).
Really happy = elated, ecstatic, thrilled, happy as a pig in mud (for another literary bonus, try a simile).
Our cupcakes are really good.
Just a banality we throw around every day, isn’t it? Nothing you want in your marketing copy.
Our cupcakes are delicious.
A little stronger perhaps but I bet the tendency is to add a “really” in there, too. Avoid the urge!
How much more fun and impactful to use an unexpected word like luscious or scrumptious?
Not a wordsmith? Try a thesaurus.
But even a thesaurus can’t make those cupcakes any tastier. If you’re writing marketing copy, it’s time to get creative with language and abolish any vague, overused – and by extension ignored – words, especially those that need modifiers like really and very.
Of course your cupcakes are delicious. Would you sell them if they tasted like rubber tires or rotten celery?
Our scrumptious cupcakes are topped with silky smooth icing sure to satisfy any sweet tooth.
We’re getting into features and benefits here but isn’t that what marketing is about? If you have to state something as obvious as “our cupcakes are delicious” – or “we have friendly customer service reps” or “we provide quality service” or any one of about a zillion trillion horrid, meaningless phrases – you need more than a thesaurus. You need a rewrite!
Apply A Little Alliteration
Dig back into your knowledge of high school English! Alliteration is using the same letter or sound to start multiple words in the same sentence.
Be careful not to overdo it. Taming your troublesome typing skills by tacking a “T” on too many times is terribly tiresome.
However, you can use this literary device to lyrical effect if you use it sparingly and subtly. (See what I did there?)
Your friend the thesaurus can help here, too. Sometimes all you need to punch up a bit of writing is a single consonant.
You can change the tone and flow of your writing completely if you play with syllabication.
Try pairing words with the same number of syllables (Think The Quick and the Dead – much punchier than The Quick and the Departed, no?)
Try mixing and matching (Days of Wine and Roses would not have the same singsong effect if wine had been champagne.)
Just… try… switch the order of words in a sentence to see if it flows better one way or the other. Do you sell lovely dining chairs in suede and black leather? Or black leather and suede?
Sounds like splitting hairs but if you examine your writing with an ear toward rhythm and cadence, you can swap words around or even make completely different word choices for subtle but significant changes.
Use The Power Of Three
There’s just something about the number three… three wishes, three pigs, Three Days of the Condor (see what I did there again?)
Give examples in threes.
Use adjectives in threes.
Write sentences in threes.
If you want to improve your writing, use the power of three to elaborate (one…), communicate (two…) and differentiate (three…) yourself from the ordinary.
Repeat, Reiterate, Restate
Add bonus points if you can do it in threes.
There’s power in repetition. Here is a perfect example from one of my favorite children’s books: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
I bet you can relate to days like that!
More importantly you can see how repeating the idea of a REALLY bad day gets the point across in a way that would simply not have been as effective otherwise.
That title is also a great example of playing with rhythm. The chant kind of sticks in your head, especially after a long day of working repetition and multi-syllable words into your marketing copy.
And Otherwise Repeat Yourself
There’s another way to make repetition work for you and that’s by using the same word or phrase across multiple sentences in a row.
Make your point stronger.
Make your writing readable.
Make your content memorable.
With a bit of simple repetition you can get your readers filling in the blanks before they even get to the next word on the page. They then become active participants in the writing process. And since repetition is the mother of learning, repeating a relevant point can help embed it in your reader’s memory. This can work at the end of a sentence, too…
Want stronger writing? Repeat.
Want people to read more? Repeat.
Want to put some power behind your statements? Say it with me… Repeat.
Vary Sentence Length
It’s a weird bit of psychology but it’s held up in studies: if you write a long-ish sentence and then follow it up with a short, punchy sentence that states an important idea, then the short sentence will sound more true.
Our brains simply like short sentences. (True!)
The trick, though, is to surround your most important point – ie: your short sentence – with longer ones so that it stands out almost as if it were a bit of verbal punctuation. It’s sort of like the “so there” of writing. Or the “Because I’m the mother, that’s why” of your marketing copy.
Try it the next time you want to make a point, convey an important statistic or data point, or even just add some memorable pop to an otherwise CEO-written snorefest of a paragraph.
Our firm specializes in the synergy of business and communication, where your data points meet the blah blah of our very impressive blah blah and we use a lot of stupid words to blah blah because our CEO likes them a lot and we can’t do anything about it.
And we stand behind our promise 100%.
Make Friends With Metaphors
This article is the first one I’m writing on my brand-spanking-new Macbook Air and so far the experience has been a walk in the park. A real day at the beach. The cat’s meow.
In other words, it’s really cool.
Now, you tell me which one of those makes a more readable point? (I bet it’s not the last!)
Metaphors take something common and turn it into something memorable. Try not to use worn out clichés (you know, like I just did) but rather, think about what you’re trying to describe and the emotion you’re trying to convey.
Here’s one of my favorites from The Great Gatsby: “At 158th street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment houses.”
Do you get the visual? Would that have been as powerful or conveyed the same feeling if it had been as straightforward as “At 158th street the cab stopped at one of the white apartment houses”?
Take your literal sentences and add some punch with a bit of poetry (Our delightful bracelets make great birthday gifts sounds a whole lot more interesting when you say Our delightful bracelets will light the candles on her birthday cake and the sparkle in her eyes. I know, I know, I’m trying to think fast!)
Use Similes Like A Pro
Similes are the simpler cousin of metaphors. The difference is that when you compare your thing to something else, you use the word like or as.
Using my new Mac is as easy as pie.
Again, far more readable and memorable than really cool or the more literal (and dull) Using my new Mac is easy.
The same rule applies for using clichés (don’t!) Instead, use your imagination to think about what you can compare your product or service to, depending on the emotion you want to convey.
Feeling emotive? Using my new Mac is like walking through a carnival with cotton candy in one hand and a sugar-drenched funnel cake in the other. Do you have any doubt how I feel about this little machine?
Break The Rules
You can start a sentence with and even though your English teacher told you not to.
And you can start a sentence with because.
Because it works.
You can also write in fragments, turn single sentences into paragraphs even if they don’t convey a full thought and actively disregard pronoun agreement if it makes your writing more accessible.
The truth is, sometimes good grammar sounds bad. Sometimes commas that don’t belong there help to convey emphasis. Sometimes if you want to keep your audience interested in what you’re saying you need to speak to them in plain language. (Even though an audience is an it and not a them, a singular and not a plural.)
If I said Keep your audience interested by speaking to it you’d think I was nuts.
And it can get awfully tiresome to keep repeating “he/she” when the sentence calls for a singular, so you can throw in an incorrect “they” for readability’s sake. If you want someone to enjoy your copy, make it easy for him/her to get into the flow. By not using him/her!
Although technically correct, it breaks the rhythm of the sentence. You can look for alternatives like If you want people to read… so the plural agrees, or you can occasionally, informally, be a bad grammar student. If you want someone to enjoy your copy, make it easy for them to get into the flow.
Be careful: the context will determine the rules you can break. You may want to be a bit more formal in your résumé cover letter but speak more naturally in a blog post.
Hopefully your eyes are not bleeding right now. I know I’ve thrown a lot at you, but don’t feel compelled to tack all 12 of these onto your next bit of marketing copy. In fact, I’m going out on a limb here to say that would be very, very, really very bad. Pick one and give it a spin. See how it sits. Does it improve things? Try another! Keep going and see what happens. With a bit of practice, these will become second nature and you’ll be cooking up delicious copy in no time.
Do you have any other writing tips to share? Something you’ve tried that helps add some personality to your writing? Let me know! And if you need some help in that department, get in touch and put our word skills to the test.
Join the discussion 20 Comments
I love the way you edited “quickly” to will shave an hour a day from your work schedule.
I always ask for people to be specific. the word amazing doesn’t mean anything. Explain what makes it amazing.
Also – read it out loud. That would fit under cadence – I find if you read it out loud, you find places where it doesn’t have rhythm and doesn’t feel natural.
Yes! “Amazing”, “ground breaking, “cutting edge”… all those words that mean nothing and can’t be quantified. We tune them out anyway. I can’t imagine why someone would use those in their marketing copy but maybe we can help eradicate few 🙂
I love your idea of reading out loud. That will help to develop an ear for what words and combinations sound best. And you’ll see where the stumbling points are.
Glad you liked this, thanks!
Wow I love this one! You nailed it girl 🙂
I am proud to say that I mentioned some of that in my upcoming “free writing tutorial.” Now since it’s coming from you I know that’s good advice, and I’m glad I’ve mentioned it.
Recently, I’ve found the business card of a coach in my area, so the first thing I did is put her URL into my browser to check her out.
What I saw scared me. Long bulky paragraphs, no pics… a mess for the professional that she is. So, guess what? I emailed her about her mistakes in the nicest way I knew how 🙂
She replied to me few days later saying that she has a doctorate of some sort… bla-bla-bla, and that she didn’t cut the paragraphs because it was the same thought.
However, as I check her site again, she had cut some of her long bulky paragraphs into three! Ahahah! I had to laugh on that one. So, my email did work!
These were excellent tips, Carol 🙂
Thanks Sylviane! Glad you liked the tips here. I can’t wait to see your tutorial. I’m sure there will be a ton of great info there.
It’s funny how we have to almost forget what we learned about good writing in school if we want to write well for the web. Our English teachers would faint but we’re not writing essays anymore.
I’m glad that coach at least tried to make a little bit of a change. It’s not so easy if you don’t know where to start or how to do it. Maybe you should send her your tutorial 🙂
Thanks for a great refresher. I think that as content creators we need articles such as these to remind us, enhance and improve our writing skills. I think that so often when I write, especially for a deadline, I get in a zone and need to remind myself of these rules, especially the point about avoiding adverbs. The other important rule I try to keep in mind is to avoid the passive voice.
I need to remind myself sometimes, for sure! And I’m with you on passive voice. I had thought about adding it but apparently it didn’t make the cut. Maybe unlucky 13 🙂 But also an important tip!
Amen! A lot of good and very valuable tips in there. I find cadence the hardest to nail in my writing, specially since English is not my mother tongue (French is). I often need to read myself again and again to ensure proper flow, and judicious repetition.
I think reading out loud is one of the best ways to get a feel for how writing flows. The fact that you can nail it at all is impressive!
Great tips here. Out of interest, were these tips you’ve picked up through experience or have you had formal writing training?
Just from writing a lot and reading about writing and picking up some ideas to try. I haven’t taken any formal courses but I do like to read a lot!
These tips are the cat’s meow, or should I say these tips are to me as cat nip is to a cat? Or, I really liked, loved, adored them! 😉
::::applause!:::: You get the prize for most memorable comment! Glad you enjoyed this 🙂
Thanks, Carol Lynn! I really enjoyed them and will begin incorporating them into my writing ASAP. 😉
You are so brilliant Carol but of course you already know that.
No, I do not consider myself a writer and I don’t really think a lot about it either when I sit down to write. I just do but some of these tips are great. I’m definitely bookmarking this page for when I’m having one of those days when things aren’t flowing and trust me, they do happen.
Really appreciate these tips, seriously! See, there is just so much to it! Yikes!
Have a great week Carol and thanks again.
Why thank you, Adrienne, that’s very sweet 🙂
Even if you’re not a writer, you can still write! Sometimes all it takes is one or two little tricks if you really need to punch something up. I hope one of these inspires you one day when you want to try something new!
What a great article. As a writer I confess that I still slip into bad habits from time to time. I am posting your article in front of my desk to remind me to be my best. Thank you.
Me too, especially in the areas of “really” and “very”. I can’t tell you how many of those I slash on any given day! Glad you liked this 🙂
Hey Carol, it’s good to be over here on your great blog, thanks to Sylviane for mentioning you in her 27 bloggers she’s thankful for. 🙂
Speaking about your post, you share an inventive list Carol and I so much resonate with all the points as they are very valid ones.
I couldn’t really favor one to another, just for you to know how all are very useful to being a Pro writer. Like you I don’t also consider myself as a writer but I know I’m trying my best by following some of your mentioned rules and have been for a long time now been learning from Sue Neal and she has been so amazing to me by the great shares on her blog.
I love your blog and you’ve just gained a new reader in me ma’am. Thanks for sharing this with us!
Thanks so much for stopping by and thanks to Sylviane for sending you! She always has great tips on writing, too. The best thing we can do is keep practicing, try something new edit and try again. We’ll get better if we focus and if e pick up a few tricks along the way.
I’m glad you enjoyed this and i look forward to getting to know you better!
Oh yeah like you she’s packed full with amazing knowledge! It makes sense to say practice make perfect, isn’t it so? I second you on the issue of focusing as it is vital to the little success have enjoyed so far n the blogosphere with all the special mentions and an interview.
Same here. will definitely connect with you on Twitter and Fb respectively.