The golden rules of writing apply whether you are writing a novel or a blog. Your purpose should be to get the reader’s attention and keep it. You want them to go away with a clear understanding of your core message and ideally, be so impressed that they spread the word about what you’ve said.
The recent death of crime writer Elmore Leonard — known as the writer’s writer — has put the spotlight on his significant contribution to the world of fiction and film. His 45 novels — he was writing his 46th when he died — include many titles made familiar on the big screen, such as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Rum Punch (which was filmed as Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino).
Leonard shared his golden rules in an essay on writing. George Orwell did the same. Stephen King wrote a brilliant book called On Writing. So what can these great fiction writers teach us about writing marketing copy?
Elmore Leonard said “never open a book with weather”. In other words, avoid unnecessary scene-setting. So if you are writing a blog, make a bold statement at the top and then expand on it and back it up. On your website, highlight what you offer before you go into the history of your firm.
It’s good practice to wait before you send or publish something online. Read your writing back a few hours later and delete anything that deviates from your main message.
George Orwell said: “Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” These are wise words.
Leonard, King and Orwell also agree — adverbs are the work of the devil and dialogue should always carry the word “said”. In the world of fiction, that means avoiding phrases such as “he admonished gravely”.
What can this teach us about copywriting? Use simple language to make your points clearly. Short sentences are better than long ones. The simplest words are the most powerful. Verbal trickery is a distraction.
Leonard said: “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.” And, for good measure, he added: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.
Stephen King put it another way. He said: “Kill your darlings”.
It’s tempting, when you are writing a blog or white paper, to include all your knowledge and expertise. There’s so much you want to say. One way to avoid unnecessary rambling, is to think of your blog or white paper as a story and cut out anything that detracts from the plot.
Leonard said: “Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." He also said: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
Orwell said: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
The message is clear — avoid clichés and jargon. Cliches cause readers to disengage. They skim over these familiar but ultimately meaningless phrases and before you know it, you’ve lost them.
Jargon is another no-no. Sure, every industry has its acronyms and technical terms. But make life easier on your readers. No matter how clued up they are, write in plain English. And don’t forget, your in-house terminology may not be at all familiar to your customers.
Leonard said: “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”
You’re not writing an epic novel — so I would avoid exclamation marks altogether. They are a clumsy way to flag up a joke or any strong statement. It’s a bit like saying “ta da” after you’ve spoken. F Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own joke. According to the BBC, there's a word for it — bangorrhea.
Above all, exclamation marks distract the reader. The same goes for the practice of adding quote marks to "unusual words" — much better to change the words and drop the quote marks. Similarly, avoid capitals as much as you can. Giving Some Phrases Initial Capitals is another major distraction for readers.
Happily for anyone that writes marketing and sales copy online, there are lots of additional ways to make your messages stand out — ways that novelists may not use.
Headings, sub-headings and bullet points attract readers and allow them to find their way around your writing. Summaries, handy hints, useful links, images and infographics support your messages. And social media, SEO and email give your writing rocket fuel to reach the widest possible audience.
Content marketing has become so powerful today that you can’t afford to miss a trick.