By Emily Shea, VP/Partner & Executive Creative Director
September 28, 2015
Copywriting means different things to different people. In general, of course, it is defined simply as the act of writing copy. In some cases, that task might be very straightforward. Is there good sentence structure? Are there any run-on sentences or dangling participles? Can I read it straight through and get a general, clear understanding of what’s being conveyed? These are basic rules for any good writing.
In other cases, however, traditional copywriting is more than just clear, correct words. It’s an art. Just like one might judge a visual concept on a variety of factors, like color, composition and font (to name a few), one might also judge a headline or tagline by its voice, cadence or phrasing—as much as word choice, sentence structure or flow.
Good copywriting also depends on the medium for which you’re writing. This post will focus on best practices for writing for traditional mediums, such as print, TV and radio, while Part 2 will focus on how to best write for digital.
Why you need a bona fide copywriter
A good copywriter will have a way with words in a way that a person with “just good writing skills” does not. So when the occasion calls for copy that might actually be read and have a chance to convince someone to do, buy or think something new, well, it better be good.
Good copy knows who it is and where it’s going. It doesn’t waste your time and it most certainly leaves an impression. When overanalyzed, it should be flawless in execution, as if it took hours and hours to do—but it should read like it just rolled off your tongue. At the same time, if you really do only spend ten minutes writing something, it’ll show—and worse, no one will remember a word you said.
Some best practices for traditional copywriting…
Write like your reader thinks. There’s a time and place for academic writing. Say, sell sheets…or academia. But the general prevailing trend right now is to write colloquially. Note: colloquially does not mean improperly. Try reading your copy out loud. Is this how your target would actually speak?
Keep it short. In print or outdoor, a few seconds is all you usually get. Make every word count. Can you say the same thing in fewer words? Then do it. Always. Same goes for radio and TV. Just because you have 30 seconds doesn’t mean you have to fill every second of it with noise. (Less is more. A picture is worth a thousand words. Insert other well-known adage here).
Avoid puns, hyperboles and in general, slang. If it makes you groan (or you feel the need to indicate in your copy that you meant for that to elicit a groan), skip it. Don’t over fluff. Opt for one perfect adjective, rather than three so-so ones. And while slang may sometimes feel like the right thing to do, more often than not, you’ll either be using it incorrectly, or you’ll come off like you’re trying too hard.
Convey a benefit. In the headline. According to David Ogilvy, on average, five times as many people read the headlines as they do the body copy. Don’t assume they’ll get to it in the body copy, (because they won’t), or that they’ll be able to figure it out on their own from all your cleverly placed, subtle little clues (because guess what? They won’t do that, either.)
…and a few additional, less-Googleable tips, too
We are all emotional beings. Emotion sells. Particularly if it’s an unexpected one, e.g., using humor to talk about something dark or taboo, or turning something that was supposed to be hard-hitting into something subtle, poignant and beautiful.
Write visually. And aurally. This is particularly true of TV and radio. In TV, especially, the experience is all visual. If the copy competes with the visuals, it’s not only potentially confusing to the viewer, but annoying as well. Use words sparingly in TV. Save the details for the product website or print ad. And if it doesn’t help tell a different facet of the visual story, leave it out. In other words, don’t see/say. Just show.
When you actually sit down to write the TV script, it also helps to write one column at a time. That is, choose to fill in the visuals first and then go back and add copy, or vice versa. This will help you flow together a better story—one that is led and artfully complemented by—one or the other.
With radio, I like to pick a piece of music first—then I play it incessantly in the background while I write the script. This not only helps keep me in the right style, but helps me write to a certain beat. For instance, I can hear where the dramatic pauses need to be, or where the “money line” needs to go.
Have an audio hook. In radio, a lot can depend on the right words, the right music and the right talent. I always try to add an audio “hook” to my radio spots—that is, a tagline or a way to begin each spot or a sound effect or something consistent across a radio campaign. One that might help identify it as “that milk commercial,” for example. If you start a spot with something like, “Reason #256,” you just might get listeners to wonder what the other 255 are.
You don’t always have to start with the headline. In English composition, you’re always taught to start with the overarching theme—mainly because it helps remind you what your supporting points should be. This may be true for writing print ads as well… except when it isn’t. Sometimes, I switch it up and write the body copy first. In doing so, I might come across a word or phrase that I can then turn into the basis of a headline. Besides, as long as you have a good creative brief, you shouldn’t have any trouble “staying inside the lines.”
When all else fails, sleep on it. There is such a thing as being too close to a project. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a step away and attack it fresh another day. Or get the input of someone completely unattached and unbiased.
You can read about best practices till you’re blue in the face. Study the masters (Ogilvy, Burnett, Bernbach). Take endless writing workshops. But the truth is, brilliant headlines and scripts don’t grow on trees or fall out of the sky. People don’t sit down and have a cathartic experience like they do in the movies where they can hardly type as fast as their thoughts allow them. In reality, and in advertising, especially, it’s more likely than not that the words you’re reading have been carefully crafted, analyzed, rewritten, rethought, overthought and agonized over more times than that writer cares to admit—even if it doesn’t appear that way.