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The Copy Criterion



Posted by: compel - Sunday February 28, 2010

To those on the outside, copy is an enigmatic art form, the artist who, for all practical purposes, is invisible. But written copy is everywhere. It’s as prolific as sand in the Sahara and Starbucks on a city street. From ads sprawled across buses to bylines in magazines, a branded t-shirt logo or a memorable movie quote; every single word that enters the public arena has been chosen with utmost precision for one very specific individual: you.

There are two ways to dissect the aforementioned skill. On the one hand, copy is a marketing tool, one that not only entices its audience but also builds a loyal following. On the other hand, it tells a story and links the consumer, knowingly or unknowingly, to a product or a service. This is why your copy should work towards a goal: To form an emotional connection that resonates long after the words are no longer visible. When good copy is out of sight, it is very much still on the mind.

But how does one go about generating this written form of time-tested communication, and why is it such an indispensible commodity for any business?

These questions can easily be plugged into a search engine, but what you’ll dig up is an endless list of dotcoms offering “the top ten,” or better yet, “the top eleven” tips for success. And like most Internet searches, the secrets divulged from one website to another will not differ dramatically.

What you won’t find is that quality copy is as much about what you shouldn’t do than what you should. So rather than reiterate the already accessible steps to creating effective copy, we’re providing novel notes on how to avoid a copy catastrophe.

1. Don’t rely on a thesaurus. It’s obvious when an overwrought word has muddled the meaning of a sentence. If you’re unsure, just maintain a simple, conversational tone. Reading out loud, as if you were speaking to your audience, can be tremendously valuable.

2. Don’t fall back on hackneyed manners of expression, as clichés have been called the compost of art. You will get greater feedback for describing why a deal is good than suggesting, “It’s like stealing candy from a baby.” That is, unless you are trying to promote for Milton Hershey.

3. Don’t market anything that you are unfamiliar with. Know the product like the back of your hand. (Did you catch that? You should not say, “Know the product like the back of your hand.”) Dishonest writing tends to be unclear, and if you don’t believe what you’re writing, how will the customer? Ample research should precede the task at large.

4. Don’t write boring sentences. Just as you don’t always start sentences with the same word, neither should copy. Avoid beginning with “the” or “it” too often. Do vary sentence length and structure. It will engage the reader. It will give you a distinct voice. It will get a positive reaction. (See? Boring.)

5. Don’t be vague. Since the online and offline market is so enormous, it’s rare to come across an idea that’s wholly unique. Do use specific details to differentiate your product from another, and use these descriptions for promotional means. Gertrude Stein may be famous for scribing, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” but yours should be long stemmed, have burgundy petals, and a fragrance that would make a skunk blush.

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