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Mindset: The Essence of Good Copywriting

December 8, 2010

I’ve been writing a lot of client copy recently. Whenever I dig in on these projects I get many ideas swirling around in my head, and it’s quite exciting. I thrive on the journey of extracting all those ideas down to very clear, hit-the-nail-on-the-head messages.

When I sit down to write I review my notes from a discussion with the client. In general, we’ve ranked the key points to convey in our conversation. Sometimes the client has needed a great deal of guidance about what the most important parts are to communicate to their target audience, and sometimes the client is already extremely focused on their message.

Usually the client would like to squeeze in a lot more information for their target audience than is reasonable for the space available. We often forget that the target audience simply isn’t interested and/or won’t remember multiple messages. (It’s the old ‘kill two birds with one stone’ thinking. There’s a sense you can deliver multiple messages in one space and the audience will select which one they want. But the result is the opposite: They’ll look at the clutter and ignore ALL of it because it looks confusing at first glance.)

The most successful print or display ads have very simple, laser-focused messages for their audience. Brochures, depending upon length and purpose, often allow for multiple messages. …But will they read it? If you’ve been reading my blog posts for any length of time, you’ve noticed I’ve been tinkering with the length of a post’s message.

In this medium some bloggers post a few sentences daily; others posts thousands of words bi-weekly. Again, it all depends upon your audience. What will they stick around for?

Here’s what I’ve noticed about my own writing habits for clients: First, I try to incorporate everything they’ve requested, knowing I will edit it down for space and the attention span of the audience. It’s like working your way in from the outer circle of a bull’s eye target down to the small red circle in the middle. And for some clients I actually have to prove that I’ve attempted to squeeze in their messages I absolutely know will not fit the allotted space, but they have to see it with their own eyes to believe it.

When I write out the first draft words and phrases float into my head and onto the page. It fuels my excitement; but I also know that they may get the axe on second pass. I don’t want to give up what I see as a really cool turn of phrase.

Next, I have the luxury of testing the fit to the space immediately. Is it too short? (This almost never happens.) Or is it too long? (Almost always!) This is one of the great advantages I can offer my clients since I do the graphic design of the ads or brochures myself. There’s no waiting for typesetting and layout.

Writers who submit copy to an advertising agency to fit to a piece may have to make more adjustments to the copy not knowing the art director’s planned visuals. On the other hand, I already have a sense of how much time and space to devote to copy. Usually it is less than the client expects since they have so much information they’d like to convey to the audience.

So now that the copy shows up as inevitably too long (no matter how much I tinker with fonts, point sizes, leading, etc.), it’s time to take a hard look at the verbiage. This is where the quality of the writing either floats, like cream, to the top, or it sinks like a lead balloon.

What are the factors that affect the final outcome? Ironically, I find it has everything to do with my mindset. I must be in the right emotional space, focused on the goals of the piece. When I am ‘in the zone’ it is easy to see what phrases and ideas, while sounding lovely, may not serve the goals well enough.

Just like we love to hear ourselves speak, writers love to see their words on the page. It’s easy to love what we write. But if those words are superfluous, if they don’t serve the goals, I have to give them up.

When I’m in the right mindset, it’s easy to see the cuts to make. It’s easy to see what phrases are tangential to the main theme. My mind is open to new concepts and approaches to the copy. Sometimes it’s a complete shift in the voice that I suddenly see as ideal for the material.

If you’re not in the right mindset, every cut feels like a sacrifice. Every strike of the red pen feels like you’re cutting off your right arm. Then you can’t be certain you’re on target in the first place. You’re not truly focused on the goal.

When you’re in the right mindset, the process of whittling down feels like great progress because the copy is getting better! And it’s better because it’s more succinct, increasing the chances that more people in your target market will read it. After all, that’s the first goal, isn’t it? You want folks to read it!

This is Part 1 in a series of posts about copy writing. Next up: Determining the goals of the copy. How do you know you’re on the right track?

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