Have you ever had a fantastic idea for an article, only to have everything crumble apart like wet cardboard as you tried to write? Riddled with technical garb and dry content, nothing seems to come together at all!
Before you tear up your notebook (or punch a hole through your computer), have you considered that your troubles may not be caused by your points – but instead by the way that you’re presenting them? Read on as writing guru Roy Peter Clark (author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer and lecturer at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies) shares some ideas on how to construct sentences that pop.
Points with a punch
Automotive industry legend Lee Iacocca once said, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” – a fitting quote given that salesmanship is what ultimately convinces consumers to make a purchase.
As you hammer out your points into sentences (or the “nuts and bolts” as Clark refers to them), he suggests ordering words for emphasis by placing strong words at the beginning and at the end of each sentence. He also recommends activating verbs through the use of strong verbs to create action, save words, and reveal the players.
So what exactly are strong words? Let’s imagine you need to write about a new toy fire truck with a realistic siren and flashing lights. Which version seems more compelling?
· Our new fire trucks have realistic sirens and flashing lights to make you feel like a real firefighter!
· Channel your inner firefighter and race towards adventure with realistic sirens and flashing lights!
The first option tells it as it is, but does little to induce excitement. On the other hand, the second option features words with more impact to stimulate the imagination. Remember, your choice of words determine how much “oomph” your points will pack! If your copy evokes a thought-provoking scenario, you’ll increase your chances of standing out amongst bland competitors.
Have you ever read a sentence that just seems to go on and on (and on)? Clark advises writers to let punctuation control pace and space, and to learn the rules, but realise that you have more options than you think.
Wanting to provide consumers with as much information as possible, writers may be tempted to cram everything into one long run-on sentence. However, doing so results in content that is confusing and unnecessarily difficult to read. Try reading your sentence out loud, and if at any point you find yourself running out of breath, it’s time to trim some words or insert some punctuation.
Consider listing out the points you want to make in a sentence, then decide whether each point flows logically into the next – it’ll help you to divide up your content more carefully!
Clark advocates the simple over the technical when writing – using shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at points of complexity. Unless your audience are professionals within a certain industry, assume they have limited experience with industry jargon. Get the point across using basic words and without unnecessary breaks. If your audience has to go through a sentence several times to understand your point(s), they won’t be very motivated to continue.
American author and humourist Mark Twain offers invaluable insight on the subject with a long sentence of his own: “One accustoms himself to writing short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vagueness, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.”
When your draft is ready, it’s time for some fine-tuning. When editing, Clark recommends to cut big, then small. Much like shaping a garden hedge, prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves. While editing, Forbes senior digital producer Carla Thomas says, “pay attention to repetition, every sentence should say something new, however slight it might be.” By eliminating repeated points (shaking out the dead leaves), you’ll be able to make your copy more succinct.
In terms of spelling, grammar and factual correctness, we are naturally biased to believe our own copy is error-free. Nelly Gocheva, global editorial director for T Brand Studio International at The New York Times, suggests reading the text backwards while editing. “Start at the bottom of the page and read the text sentence by sentence. Reading the copy out of context helps identify errors,” she says. Finding another pair of eyes to go through your draft is also a great alternative.
Lastly and most importantly, is your copy written in your brand’s voice? Tune your voice, writes Clark, and read your drafts aloud. If you haven’t already done so, define the voice of your brand using three words – and see if your copy matches these descriptions. This will promote consistency across your content and help readers identify your brand voice.
Delivering a string of garbled and misshapen sentences to your audience is a one-way ticket to them walking out the door. Taking the time to organise your thoughts into punchy phrases with a captivating storyline is the first step to becoming a better copywriter – and a master salesperson.