Cut It Out — How to Self Edit

cuttingwordswidec2015jillcbaker400px

REPRINTED FROM MY POST ON LINKED IN PULSE

I’ve always liked the phrase that’s been attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.” According to Quote Investigator, there are many great thinkers who value the concept of brevity and realize that being succinct isn’t easy.

Recently I embarked on a journey – writing a book that’s been in my head for ages. Now I understand why first-novel guidelines are around 80,000 words. That’s what it took to tell my story – but I also realize that writing 8 or 80 words can be challenging.

That’s where most of us get into trouble. We have information to share, experiences to convey, products to sell, so we say a lot. TMI!

How to find the key selling point?


Early in my career I was pulled aside by a veteran sales director who had roots at an ad agency. He whipped out a notepad and wrote on it. “Fresh Fish For Sale Here Today.” Although he knew I had been a copywriter, he wanted to show me how to find the strongest selling word. He proceeded to cross out “Here” because we knew where we were standing, and then he X’d out “Today” because clearly, it was just that. We could see that the featured item was “Fish” so he removed that word. And certainly, we could deduct, the flounder was “for sale,” so away that went – which left us with “Fresh” – our strongest selling word.

Here are a few other tricks I use to self-edit:


1. Beware the ‘its’ and ‘theys.’ If these pronouns do not follow the precise entity, rephrase the wording. Wrong: “Hal approached Bob because he wanted an apple.” Who wanted the apple? Hal or Bob? Better: Hal was hungry and wanted an apple. Bob had one.” OR “Hal had a bag of apples and knew Bob wanted one. Walking over to Bob, Hal selected the biggest fruit.”

2. Beware convoluted phrasing. “This company doodad is for customers so they can prepare apples for cooking or serving, and because it is a bright red color, it goes nicely with the fruit.” Instead try: “This bright red doodad cores and slices apples.” Who needs the rest?

3. Too many voices. “We think, you want, they need…” Ouch. Explain without ‘person.’ Use a neutral voice. Second person (you) can appear condescending. So rather than, “We think our product is the best, and you should use it so you can figure out how to do thus and such.” Try: “Here’s a way to do thus-and-such with ease and efficiency.”

4. Tense and conditions. Shifting tenses make me tense. “This company built widgets in 1883. They learned their widgets can be better if they fix them, but that will make them cost more.” Did this company stop building widgets after 1883? Actually, these widgets could be made better but that would make them cost more. Try instead: “This company has been selling widgets since 1883. Ten years ago, a new team of engineers (‘companies’ don’t have hands) found a way to build better widgets. This product upgrade increased price but added value.” Yes, positive spinning is generally good.

5. Avoid adverb angst. This tendency was flagged as a rank amateur mistake in novel writing. I had never really thought about it: Skip post-verb description. Don’t have your character say anything ‘longingly,’ ‘impatiently,’ etc. Instead, convey the feeling using other words. “As his eyes lingered on her silhouette, he said, ‘I’ll meet you there.’ ” OR “ ‘I’m waiting,’ she snapped, letting her pencil tap out a rhythm on the desk.” Same meaning, more interesting.

6. Don’t reuse words in close proximity. There are plenty of words to go around, so pick different ones. “The frog sat on a lily pad in the quiet lake as a dragonfly sat on another lily pad, because there were a lot of lily pads in the lake, and every frog and dragonfly needs a lily pad of their own.” Painful. Consider, “The frog and dragonfly sat side by side in a sea of lily pads.” OR even: “The frog sat on a lily pad as the dragonfly landed on a nearby flower.” Ahh… much better.

The Pros & Cons of Choices in CTAs

daddysdairy400pxc2015jillcbaker

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful experience of going to a small town ice cream shop – one of those corner dairies reminiscent of the 1950’s, a wholesome place where the entire family would go after the beach or at the end of a  hot summer’s day.

Instead of typical vanilla and chocolate soft serve flavors, this establishment had 200 varieties. The menu also offered 80 hard ice cream flavors plus a variety of sherbets and yogurts, cakes and pies. My head was spinning by time I settled on a small Expresso soft serve in a cup. (Yes, I could have also had it in several types of cones, dipped or not dipped, turned into a sundae or festooned as a banana split.)

This experience made me think about the guidelines for Calls To Action in direct response.

I have always liked providing several options on the premise that marketers should make it easy for the customer to do business: send back this coupon, order online, swing by our office, call this toll-free number. But after my ice cream quandary, I can certainly see the point of keeping it simple, especially if you’re trying to track response.

In an ideal situation where on an online form (more info, register for webinar, request a demo) integrates with a database for lead capture, the last thing you want to do is send your prospect down the primrose path. You want to funnel them, nurture them and keep an eye on them whether you do it manually or through marketing automation.

If speed is important, then offering a “Click Through” button is a smart way to go. Click to register, click to learn more, click to vote.

But not everything is black and white when it comes to triggering response because psychology and emotions come into play. Here are some effective variations:

* In an email from the CEO or Sales Director, it’s nice to say, “I’d welcome a chance to personally answer your questions/discuss this opportunity. Feel free to contact me directly at XYZ email address.” If providing an individual address is risky, set up an alias – but do monitor and respond. Benefits: person appears interested and accessible; prospect feels important; response mechanism cuts through red tape and encourages spontaneity.

* For phone room sales or telemarketing, I’ve seen success in consolidating response time, i.e. create a “window” for response to suggest urgency. “Call between 7 and 9 to receive this special subscription offer.” That also maximizes manpower and does not tie up phone lines.

* Mobile offers/text messaging can brilliantly play to timeliness and geography. “Come to the pub at the corner of Main and Maple for a free beer tonight between 9 and 11.” (You already know your prospect is in the vicinity.)

* When you want a more engaged response – say, someone who is willing to pursue subsequent action –offer dual options: the first one, in response to the immediate offer/question and then a second option to allow for follow-up. For example: “Yes. Please contact me with future promotions.” “Yes. I would be interested in participating in a market study.”

* Let your call-to-action work double-duty with a ‘get a gift, give a gift’ tactic, especially where a free offer is involved. Provide additional lines to refer a friend or simply, a link (to email or social channels) to easily share the deal.

Regardless of technique, there are several ‘musts’ that a direct response writer should follow:

1. Include an offer or strong incentive with an expiration date
2. Secure a clean, quality list or targeting source
3. Be clear and transparent – no ambiguity about pricing, terms, delivery, or availability
4. Use disclaimers to avoid future problems (“while supplies last;” “rain checks available”)
5. “Satisfaction guaranteed” or “extended warranty” are phrases that add value and comfort
6. Repeat powerful words in a PS or on the mechanism itself: new, free,  exclusive
7. Code your response mechanism for tracking (mouse type for print or custom URL for web)
8. Provide language to those who handle responses; script multiple scenarios
9. Capture valuable information but be honest: “your personal data will” or “will not be shared with third parties”
10. Test response mechanisms by varying language for features, benefits, pricing, and restrictions

That means, try a bunch of Very Berry flavors as well as plain vanilla.

Subtle Choices = Big Differences

rosebud-long-shot-350pxc2015-wordsonthefly

If someone said to me, “I have red roses and yellow daisies in my garden,” I would think of red roses as the focal point and daisies as ground cover.  However,  if they said, “I have yellow daisies and red roses in my garden,” I would think of yellow as
dominant with red as mere highlights.
The order of information can dramatically change interpretation and perspective.

rosebud-close-shot-350px-c2015-wordsonthefly1

I was recently working on an email campaign, and as all responsible freelance writers do, submitted it for review. The edits were minor but one stood out. The call to action had been changed on one of the targeted pieces. This altered the motivation from empowering (I’m smart; I want to do this) to obligatory (We, the authority, strongly suggest you sign up) Now, there was nothing wrong with that statement, but did it belong here?

I’ve always felt that direct response requires a delicate balance between inspiration and persuasion. A subtle suggestion can alter the impulse to act and turn it into a dead stop. Too much information can kill the spontaneity by making the decision weighty. Not every writer — and certainly not every client — can appreciate these subtle differences,  but we can at least be aware of the choices we make.

Here are a few ways to shape the message:

Placement – is your statement the major thrust of the message or used as a reminder?
For example, does your email announce an event as the lead: “Greetings friends, Be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 25th at 2:00 when we will host a webcast about XYZ” OR does it intentionally present product news up top with a PS that says, “Don’t forget our webcast about XYZ will be held…” Both are right. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Punctuation – do commas identify key information in a way that is irrelevant or important?
For example, does your press release play it straight: “Big Enterprise CEO, Mr. Jones, announced today that they have acquired ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere” OR might your inset information lend color and credence? “Mr. Jones, CEO of Big Enterprise and also an avid diver, pledged to acquire ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere, once he saw the blue waters and coral reefs.”

Aggregation – can the way you combine information work to your advantage?
For example, is your contest copy bland because you are trying to meet legal requirements, or could you say it differently to create excitement? “A $1,000 cash prize will be awarded to each of the first five correct entries drawn” OR might you say, “$5,000 up for grabs! Be among the first five correct entrants drawn, and you could win $1,000.” You’re not making any promises, you’re still explaining the winning process, you’re keeping language legal, but you’re aggregating the total prize value for more impact.

Details – do your descriptive phrases intentionally add value or are they used as “throw aways” to draw attention elsewhere?
For example, does your ad say, “This hand-woven hammock, made by expert craftsmen from the Village of Ropeville, is guaranteed to last for life.” OR – do you shift the emphasis from the guarantee to the workmanship? “This lifetime-guaranteed hammock was carefully crafted by Ropeville artisans who enjoy a 300-year legacy of hammock-making. “ Neither is wrong, but it’s your choice as a writer, to control the benefit you promote most prominently.

With that, I’m going to step away to focus on some other work… or might I say, “Stepping away from her desk, she paused to look at the sunlight dancing off the snow.” The latter is far more interesting.

Writing for Presentations

writing-for-presentations-illust-cwordsonthefly2012

I’ve never thought of myself as a Powerpoint guru – and that “death by Powerpoint” phrase echoes loudly in my ears – but during the past few weeks I’ve been asked twice to help polish up some Powerpoints. One was for a real estate firm; one was for a publisher.

Both contained great information and made a strong case, but there were inconsistencies in the language as well as the design.

Fortunately, I was working with designers who were able to simplify, stylize and unify the visual aspect, but from a communication perspective, there was work to be done.

The rules of Powerpoint are not too different from other forms of presentation:

  • Know your audience
  • Understand the objective
  • Have a clear call to action
  • Offer logical thought progression
  • Open with an intro and close with an ask
  • Brand consistently
  • Include a content copyright
  • Use high quality images
  • Parse your words
  • Bullet the key points
  • Don’t switch pronouns mid-stream

This is not the place for a narrative or a mural. In other words, get to the point, keep it simple, make it visually clean.

With regard to audience, understanding their level of sophistication and familiarity with your product is critical. If you need to educate them from the ground level, you’ll want more material up front. If they already know who you are and just have to be sold, then you can jump right in. Although I usually advocate writing in third person, this is one place where first person works. “Welcome to our presentation. We hope you will join us…”

Next, step away from your desk and consider the topic as if you were stranger. What is this about? What do I need to know? What’s important here? What’s fluff? I’m not convinced. Can you say that again?  A diagram would really help.  I’d believe this number if you sourced it. I can’t read this tiny type so forget it!  Man, this presentation is screaming at me. This is so long, ho-hum, I wonder what’s for dinner… This is so short, they must not have much to say.

It’s very easy when we’re extremely close to a subject or passionate about it, to assume that others are, too. Nothing could be further from true.

As a viewer, it’s incredibly annoying being led down one path only to be sent in another direction by a presenter who digresses.  So map out an outline, and fill it with logical transitions.  Imagine this scenario: “So, this is what I wanted to say, but before I do, let me introduce this other thing, then get back to what I said in the beginning.” Haven’t we all been there? The joy of a presentation tool like Powerpoint is that it lets you move things around, so if you haven’t gone from A to B to C, you can re-order the elements. Good advice: keep it all moving in the same direction.

Presentations are an example where “Less is  More.” Just because a logo looks good on a page, you don’t need three of them, but by the same token, it’s smart to have a consistent repeating footer or template element that will remind viewers who you are.

Infographics can help, but please resist replicating the rainbow. An illustration that is clean, clear, and uncluttered – yes, minimal – usually works best. And while computer programs offer a wide array of interesting fonts, it’s wise not to use all of them on one screen. Ditto with background colors, bursts, and arrows. Use them discreetly… for relevance, not for show.

This is no place for iffy images. Do the legwork! Face it. You can’t enlarge a low res thumbnail or pull something off the web and expect it to hold up at wall-size. Take your own photos, secure source files, or buy a quality stock photo. (I’m a big fan of iStock, but there are numerous suppliers.) Make sure permissions are cleared when you take your own. Use a photo release.

Cut your words ruthlessly.  Sure, this is true: “Our location is the best around because it is easy to find and appeals to a wide range of affluent people in the area.” Better would be: Company Name followed by 3 bullets: * premium location, * high demographics, * travel hub.

Similarly, when talking about benefits, this would not be wrong: “We help sell your goods and services because we work hard and advertise them to groups that are interested in them, and we can reach prospects in many ways.” Better would be: Product Name followed by three bullets: * Target advertising, * Multimedia, * Proven Results.

Fine to recap your points at the end, but wrap it up fast with an easy response mechanism. Don’t unsell your audience. Leave people feeling smart and ready to buy…. or as some colleagues say, “Are you in?”

Don’t Bury the Lead… Except…

burying-the-lead-illust-c-wordsonthefly-smA few days ago I was working on a direct response campaign for two offers. We’ll call them Super Deal and Super Deal Plus. My gut instinct was to tout them in the headline, but when I saw the design, I realized an inherent flaw: I knew what these deals meant but nobody else would. These were not household words.

I ended up flipping the emphasis by calling them New Customer Offers (another slight deviation from the actual headers) and then described what they were. I figured if I didn’t grab the prospect at the outset by saying, “this is a deal just for you,” they wouldn’t stay long enough to figure it out.

That’s made me think of the adage, “Don’t Bury the Lead” – or should you?

LEAD WITH IT: Most of us who write for commercial purposes know that words like “New,” “Free,” and “Announcing” are critical components of the header (or at least should be used in a graphic call-out.) It’s important to feature words like these for product launches: “New gizmo. Free trial.” OR “First Remedy for This Affliction.” Those who test copy may learn that combining the key phrase with a price incentive adds power to the punch: “Announcing Blue DooDads: Buy one, get one free.”

But there isn’t a hard, fast rule. The writer has to be intuitive.

MAYBE BURY IT: One good exercise is to imagine several scenarios from the prospect’s point of view: “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time – I’m intrigued – so what’s it all about?” OR “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time — I haven’t a clue what it is so I’m moving on,” OR “I know this company/product and they always have interesting offers, so let me look,” OR, “I don’t know what this item is but it’s 50% off so I that interests me.” OR “I don’t need this thing, but I’m intrigued by the hologram on the front/the goodie inside/the black on black design so I’ll remember this company in the future.”

LEAD WITH IT FOR COPYWRITING: Sometimes a plain vanilla lead is best, especially when the client is all business and you have to get to the point quickly: “XYZ 2.0 now available” OR “Legal Amendment.” But sometimes copywriting is most effective when you tease: “Hands-free driving” OR “Ever hear of Gritzlefritz?” Kind of makes you want to read further.

BURY THE LEAD: Sometimes saving the punch line or potential lead for the end is the way to go. I find this particularly helpful when writing for fundraising. Don’t tell the whole story but create an emotional connection at the outset, roll out the facts, then seal the deal with a tug at the heart strings: “Timmy really isn’t asking for much, is he?” OR “When we finally met Samantha, she held out her hand with a shy smile.” Probably more effective than saying, “Timmy and Samantha want your spare change.” (But then, you could do that. It’s just a different technique.)

LEAD WITH IT FOR NARRATIVE WRITING: Sometimes you can achieve a “wow” moment when you start strong and use the lead to establish the premise. By doing this, you are letting the reader in on a secret, helping them feel smart as the plot unravels. That kind of lead might sound something like, “As Clifton sat alone in the Boardroom, night fell over the city, turning his penthouse view into a laser light show. His pinstripe suit and shock of white hair reflected oddly in the polished table as he ran his fingers absent mindedly over the surface. A slow, halting sigh escaped from below his moustache. How he arrived here is a story that’s hard to believe.”

BURY IT AT THE END: When looking for that perfect close to a novel or editorial piece, your lead can become the clincher. While you could certainly start by saying, “Rachel left Tiny Town, USA, when she was just sixteen,” you could also lead up to that moment, then end with a line like this: “She shut the door behind her and never looked back.” OR “She said good-bye to Fido and walked into the wee hours of the morning, tapping the mailbox as she went by.” When you want an ending open to discussion, create some doubt: “As the car drove away, a small voice could be heard coming from the field. It was hard to tell whether those muffled sounds were cries of sorrow or ironic laughter.” Doesn’t that just leave you wanting a sequel?

As a writer, you usually know when you have nailed it. You get a chill, a shudder, a fist-pumping “yes” moment that tells you there’s nothing else to say.