Churchill's Gruff Lesson on Effective Copywriting
by Dean Rieck
While reviewing a proof for one of his books, Winston Churchill noticed a sentence that had been rewritten by his editor in order to remove a preposition at the end. Puffing on his cigar, he scrawled in the margin, "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."
It was more than a clever comment. It was the elder statesman's declaration of independence from the slavery of stiffly formal grammar. And there's a lesson there for everyone who seeks to communicate, motivate, and persuade with the power of words. Master your language; don't let your language master you. More simply, it's better to be effective than correct.
So with humble apologies to well-meaning grammarians and writing instructors everywhere, I hereby reveal a few rule-breaking tricks of the trade that will add flash and sparkle to your sales copy.
- Write in the second person. This means you should speak directly to the reader with words like you, your, and yourself. You can occasionally use the first person (I, my, mine, me, we, our, us) in letters and other one-on-one communications, but it should be used sparingly elsewhere. Unless you're telling a story about someone, third person (he, she, they) is almost never appropriate.
- Use command language. On your envelopes say "Look inside" or "Open immediately." At the bottom of the first page of your letter say "More," "Over please," or "Read on." On your order forms say "Complete and mail within 14 days" or "Ask for your free issue today." Don't be a delicate doily. If you want people to do something, tell them to do it.
- Write short sentences. According to readability research, your average sentence should be about 16 words and express a single thought. Once a sentence exceeds 32 words, it becomes harder to understand. When you have a long sentence with two or more ideas, break it into separate sentences. Of course, you should vary individual sentence length some short, some long for variety. (By the way, the average sentence in this article is 12.4 words.)
- Keep most paragraphs short. Ideally, they should be no longer than seven lines, especially in letters. If a paragraph gets too long, break it into shorter chunks. Forget standard paragraph development. Your goal is to keep people reading. Short paragraphs are easier on the eye and make reading "feel" easier and more pleasant. Look at any newspaper and see how short most paragraphs are.
- Drop in one-sentence paragraphs. They're punchy and add variety.
- Begin sentences with connectors. These include and, also, besides, furthermore, moreover, plus, otherwise, however, although, nevertheless, so, then, therefore, but, or, and because. They can help you break long sentences into shorter ones and still make your copy flow smoothly. This is particularly helpful when you have a number of items you want to include that are difficult to logically fit together. For example, "The new RX9 is twice as fast as the RX8. Plus you get 12 new features."
- End sentences with prepositions. In ordinary conversation, do you say, "With whom are you going?" or "Who are you going with?" Allow yourself the freedom of putting of, for, with, and other prepositions at the end of a sentence.
- Add occasional fragments. This helps add excitement. Urgency. Picks up the pace. And creates a firm tone. Don't overuse this technique though, or you'll annoy readers.
- Write like you talk. Use dialogue and conversational writing. "People especially like to read anything in quotation marks." Use pronouns I, we, you, they. Use familiar expressions a sure thing, rip-off, OK. Use contractions they're, you're, it's, here's.
- Use intelligent redundancy. Free gift, actual fact, call anytime 24-hours a day, and other such constructions may get you poor marks in English class, but in the real world they help to emphasize your point and clarify your meaning.
- Punctuate headlines lightly. Periods signal a stop, so you should avoid using them. To draw the reader into the body copy, you can use ellipses (...) at the end, but no punctuation at all is often best. Avoid colons and semicolons, because they also signal a stop and are too formal for most copy. To separate thoughts in long headlines, use a dash like I'm doing now or use ellipsis points ... both signal a pause, but don't stop the reader.
Having said all this, I'll now say that you have to know the rules before you can break them intelligently. Never confuse ignorance with style.
Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
Click here for reprint policy.
Copyright © Direct Creative. All Rights Reserved.