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Writing Sales Copy – A Lesson in Third Grade English
Dear Business Builder,
My 12 year old son named himself “The crack cop” around our house.
The moment someone allows their pants to slip a little low and then bend over, the boy gleefully yells, “Say no to crack!” – and then collapses helplessly in spasms of laughter.
It just happened to me last night. In front of grandma. Humiliating fuck.
Now, as your friend and mentor, I’d hate for something like that to happen to you – especially when you’re pitching your copy to a client.
Show your keester – showing that you played the day they taught grammar and punctuation rules in Third Grade – is no way to put your career on the fast track!
No, I’m not taking you. In fact, this issue is more about my health than your career.
You see, I get tons of spec assignments and samples from writers who want to work with me. Additionally, I edit a number of sales copies from “A” and “B” level writers who work for my agency, Response Ink.
And if you have to correct one more stupid and/or careless grammar or punctuation mistake, my head will explode.
And so, in what I’m sure is a futile attempt to stave off heart attack or stroke, I’m sure it’ll sting the next time I see the same brain-dead errors in sales copy – here are 17 guidelines simple that I found. on an educational website that can help…
1. Verbs must agree with their subjects.
2. Too much, never, never use repetitive redundancies.
3. Be more or less specific.
4. Parenthetical remarks (relevant though) are (usually) unnecessary.
5. No sentence fragments.
6. Foreign words and phrases are not appropriate.
7. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it is very superfluous.
8. You should never generalize.
9. Never use a double negative.
10. Avoid ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
11. The passive voice is to be avoided.
12. Remove commas, which are not necessary. Parenthetical words, however, must be enclosed in commas.
13. Never use a big word when a diminutive or lower case will do.
14. Use words correctly, regardless of how others use them.
15. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forward terrible ideas.
16. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than exaggeration.
17. Proofread carefully to see you every word out.
Now, I have heard that, in addition to the above rules, those of you with a sheepskin on your wall have also taught something about effective communication in English that is not true – such as …
1. One word sentences? Delete it. No way! I’ve found that when used judiciously, single-word sentences and even single-word paragraphs in sales copy add emphasis and make the page more inviting.
2. Who needs rhetorical questions? I do – that’s it! Rhetorical questions are a great way to stop prospects in their tracks and make them think. My rhetorical title, “What’s Wrong With Get Rich Faster?” sent for years.
3. Contractions are not necessary and should not be used. Baloney! Contractions are always used when writing sales copy – unless using them adds appropriate emphasis: “Don’t buy stock today” is much less emphatic than “Don’t buy today.”
4. Prepositions are not words to end sentences. Not necessarily true. Remember: our goal is to write colloquially—and most of our prospects break this rule with wild abandon.
5. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. GREAT! Conjunctions are connecting words…when used at the beginning of a paragraph, they can be very helpful in encouraging readers.
6. It is wrong to never divide an infinitive. Again – if you talk to your prospect colloquially, it can be helpful at times.
7. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They are old hats.) It’s dumb as a bag of hammers. Clichés, metaphors and other figures of speech are more than just colloquial and convenient; they tend to paint vivid mental pictures. And as we both know, a picture is worth a thousand words.
8. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration. Some of the most effective headlines ever written used alliteration to make them memorable. The legendary “Lies, lies, lies” by Bencivenga “12 smiling crooks” etc.
9. Comparisons are as bad as clichés. WHO he wrote these rules anyway? Comparisons are essential in sales copy. To make my case, I often compare something happening in the economy or the stock market today with something that happened in years past.
And to simplify things, you often compare something happening inside your body with something happening outside of it: “This supplement is like a rotor-rooter for your arteries.”
And of course, comparing the high value of the benefits that my product provides with its low price is a proven winner.
10. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake. Again – analogies are word pictures…they are used in colloquial conversation…and are a quick way to drive your point home.
11. Kill all the exclamation points! Not always! Judicious use of exclamation points when writing sales copy is helpful to emphasize important points! Overuse can kill, though!
12. Eliminate quotas. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotes. Tell me what you know.” You can quote me on this: Waldo was a drooling idiot. Citing a top expert’s implicit or explicit endorsement of your reasoning, topic or product is a powerful way to establish credibility.
13. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it effectively. Hyperbole is like art: No one can define it, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. As the writer, you alone must judge whether your tone and word choices are appropriate or hype.
14. Puns are for kids, not for whining readers. Tell Arthur Johnson: He knows that light humor – including puns – can be a powerful reader and enhance the response, especially in the heads and subtitles!
15. Go to the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms. Nonsense. Colloquialisms communicate. See above.
However, there is another set of rules that I try to follow carefully – and that I see broken more than any other…
Use the apostrophe in its proper place and omit it when it is not necessary.
Ah, the apostrophe. Those little demons seem to despise everyone I know. The problem is that apostrophe abuse is a pet peeve of mine.
I can’t explain why, but when they’re used incorrectly in copy I’m reviewing, critiquing or editing, they make me see red.
My blood pressure “jumps”, those small “veins” in my forehead bulb, a gallon of adrenaline “get’s” discharged into my blood and I have to resist the urge to throttle the poor “what” m he offended.
In my humble opinion, nothing – NOTHING – makes your sales copy look more ignorant than misusing or abusing the humble apostrophe.
And don’t you know? Almost everyone in my office… every copy cub I work with… every vendor that sells stuff to my companies… every client I have… and even the top writers I copy head to every day.. . might ” Don’t use an apostrophe correctly if you have a gun to his ‘head!’
Look at it. This is not brain science or rocket surgery: There are three times – and ONLY three times when an apostrophe is called…
Time #1 – To make a possessive word:
RULE A: If the root word is not possessive and does not end in an “s”, adding an apostrophe followed by an “s” makes the word possessive.
“This is Clayton’s article.”
NO “This is Claytons article.”
RULE B: If the word already ends in “s”, no additional “s” is needed. An apostrophe at the end of the word is enough.
“This is Martin Weiss’ newsletter”
NO “This is Martin Weiss’ newsletter”
RULE C: Words that are already possessive do not need an apostrophe, whether they end in “s” or not.
“Is this yours?”
NO “is this yours”
“Is this his?”
NO “Is this his?”
“Is this his?”
NO “Is that her?”
“Is this his?”
NO “Is this his?”
“He said his product”
NO “He said it’s a product.”
And DEFINITELY NOT “He said his product.”
Time #2 – To combine two words into one with a contraction:
The apostrophe is used to replace a missing letter in the combined word.
It is = It is
Don’t do it = Don’t do it
It won’t be = It won’t be
I couldn’t = I couldn’t
She is = She is
It is = It is
I am = I am
Clayton is = of Clayton
Time #3 – Colloquially, to indicate that a letter or part of a word or number is missing.
Clayton has been called “The Sultan of ‘suasion.’
In ’87, the stock market crashed…
I feel better.
I never have to correct these things again – do I?
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