Copywriting Tips 6 – 7

Copywriting Tips Put Power in Your Sales Message.

6. The passive voice is an invitation to snooze.

Writing in the passive voice is like giving your prospect a sleeping pill while he’s behind the wheel. Your sales proposition is destined to crash.

The passive voice usually appears as a form of the verb “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) along with a past participle (verb form that typically ends in -ed).

Our chess pie was awarded the 2009 Gold Rolling Pin, the highest honor of the International Bakers Consortium. (Passive)

To change to the active voice, let’s cast the actor as the subject. (Tip: Some word processing programs can help you find and change passive constructions. In Microsoft Word, for example, choose Spelling and Grammar from the Tools menu.)

The International Bakers Consortium awarded its highest honor, the 2009 Gold Rolling Pin, to our chess pie. (Active)

The active voice has invigorated the idea. To take it a step further, let’s try a word substitution and make our pie the hero:

Our chess pie earned the 2009 Gold Rolling Pin—the highest honor of the International Bakers Consortium.

The word earned implies a shade more worthiness than awarded, adding value to both our pie and its award. We can gain further traction with choice descriptors:

Our buttery-smooth chess pie, a highly guarded recipe, earned the 2009 Gold Rolling Pin—the highest honor of the International Bakers Consortium.

Not only is the pie good enough to earn an award, you won’t find it anywhere but here because no one else has the recipe (although others, apparently, would like to get their hands on it). Let’s add a little more spice to make the fantasy real, then go for the close:

Our buttery-smooth chess pie, a highly guarded recipe, earned the 2009 Gold Rolling Pin—the highest honor of the International Bakers Consortium. But what’s more important is what you’ll think when you taste it. Why not take one home today?

A passive construction isn’t always taboo. For instance, it can emphasize an object or serve when the writer doesn’t know (or wishes not to reveal) the actor.

Ten percent of our profits each year are donated to arthritis research.
More diabetics were treated for retinal neuropathy last year than in any previous year.

However, the passive voice is usually a downer for commercial copy. Avoid it like you would the swine flu, and your message is more likely to get the healthy result you want.

Copywriting Tips: The passive voice drains life from commercial copy.
Write in the active voice to put energy in your message.

7. Needless words water down the message and  sink the chances for the sale.

William Strunk Jr. (1869-1946), professor of English at Cornell University and author of The Elements of Style, gave writers this simple admonition: Omit needless words. He explained it thus: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

With Strunk’s advice in mind, let’s examine this sentence. (It is, ironically, from the web site of a machine shop.)

We look forward to the opportunity of serving you in the near future.

Any punch this sentence might have packed is limping under excess baggage. Let’s whittle.

We look forward to serving you in the near future.
We look forward to serving you soon.
Let us serve you soon.

We’ve gained economy by shedding 8 words. But customers don’t respond to what we want; they follow their own interests. Let’s recast the invitation in the second person and add an unmistakable call to action.

You’re in for great service. Call us.

In the quest to forgo needless words, beware of the potential for collateral damage. Trolling the same web site, I found this:

Because of our extensive network, we can offer our customers a completely finished part.

I know what this means because I have written for clients who have networks. In this instance, however, I think the writer makes too big a leap from network to finished part. I also object to the mushy modifier, “extensive.” I would reword this way:

You get a part finished perfectly to your specifications, thanks to our network that spans all aspects of production.

Instead of asking the reader to grasp the implied workings of an “extensive network,” we’ve spelled it out so there can be no confusion. We’ve also substituted perfectly for completely, understanding that machined parts are considered “perfect” when they meet specifications. Most importantly, we’re now talking directly to our customer (you get/your specifications) rather than about customers in general.

French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal captured the spirit of Strunk’s advice elegantly: “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” From first to final draft, copywriting is a process of review and revision that strips away the husk to reveal a luscious kernel. Concise copy takes effort. But it pays for itself and more.

Copywriting Tips: Cut the fluff and get to the point.
Remember Strunk’s timeless advice: “Omit needless words.”