12/8/09

Making Copy: 5 Simple Rules for Becoming a Better Copywriter

I am back on my writing bandwagon: lawyers should leave copywriting to copywriters. I will never forget the first law firm invitation that I made for a lawyer. We went through at least 20 versions and agonized as to whether to use the words "invite" or "cordially invite." An invitation. An invitation that would be read once. An invitation that would be read once and then thrown away. Of course, I am the exceptional lawyer who can write good copy. ;) Why? Because I was trained as a journalist and as a writer long before I ever went to law school. Because of that very experience, I did not do very well in my legal writing class—a badge of honor in my book. Here are my 5 basic rules for writing good copy:
  1. Do not write a sentence that is longer than two lines.
  2. Drop all adverbs. Any word with “-ly” is superfluous. If you can not write well enough to invoke descriptions without using adverbs then you need to practice more.
  3. Use an active voice. What does this mean? Instead of saying, “The Firm was given The Best Law Firm in the World award by the Two PR Professionals and a Dime Organization,” say “The Two PR Professionals and a Dime Organization gave the firm the The Best Law Firm in the World award.”
  4. Do not use legalese, unnecessary capitalization or Latin. Enough said. If you don’t know what I mean, then you really do not need to be writing your own copy.
  5. Do not use exclamation points. Okay, lawyers never use exclamation points. But marketers love to use them. Exclamation points are too cutesy, too redundant and too lazy. If you want to excite a reader, write exciting copy. An exclamation point does not transmit excitement, even if you are Yahoo! (maybe that should be especially if you are Yahoo!).
These are just a few of my rules for writing. If you want to read an excellent book on how to become a good writer, I would suggest Stephen King’s On Writing—a splendid how-to book on the craft. And be patient with yourself. It takes a very long time to write a good, short sentence. As the famed journalist A.J. Liebling said, "I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better."

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9 comments:

craigbass76 said...

Elements of Style by Strunk and White is also worth owning. King mentions it in his book as well. My favorite: Omit needless words.

Anonymous said...

Great advice, though you were unable to comply with it in #5, proving how hard it can be to keep it simple. Really.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me. It was in #4 and not #5, also proving how hard it is to read some days. Mea culpa. Aaacckkk.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't you say, "I am the exceptional lawyer who can write ... "?

Lisa Salazar said...

I always love writing these and getting busted! Write on ...

GunnyS said...

This was great, thanks.

JohnHightower@LanierFord.com said...

Although the passive voice is often--and rightly--condemned, a little common sense might be introduced. In the example cited, what's more important--the people who gave the award or the firm receiving the award? Of course it's the fact that the firm received the award. That idea should go first, thereby correctly motivating the passive-voice construction. As a further illustration, consider these two sentences:

> John Hinkley shot President Reagan today. (active voice)

> President Reagan was shot today by John Hinkley. (passive voice)

Of course, the passive voice is acceptable and even preferable because no one knows who John Hinkley is, and the President is more important.

The better advice would be this: AVOID the passive voice--like the plague.

ALG said...

1) "We went through at least 20 versions and agonized as to whether to use the words "invite" or "cordially invite.""

2) "Any word with “-ly” is superfluous."

Reading between the lines, it sounds like "we agonized" means that "I argued to get rid of cordially, and s/he didn't want to." Which strikes me as sad because I think s/he was right: in an invitation, "cordially" is not superfluous; you were applying a rule without consideration to context.

Avoid the passive voice, you say? God, what a curse Strunk and White have inflicted up the English language. Anyone who avoids the passive voice should please pick up a copy of Joseph Williams's "Style" ASAP.

@craigbass76: "Omit needless words"? Gladly, but I find it striking that Strunk and White never define what a "needless" word is. So we have a whole generation of writers who prioritize brevity above all else -- including, at times, clarity, since clarity at times requires length.

The tricks for good writing are difficult to teach. Until we are honest about that, we will continue to be drowned in folk medicine that harms as much as it helps.

Bill Rice said...

Stephen King is definitely a classic, both instructional and motivational. I'm a marketer so I definitely have to be cautious of the exclamation point over-usage.

One other tip I have been trying to get more comfortable with is--use contractions. It's harder than you think, especially if you are an experienced (formal) writer.

I'm also a big Hemingway fan. Read a few of his books and you will have a copywriting edge too.

 

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