NO NONSENSE COPYWRITING
by Mordechai Schiller
“Rabbit,” said Pooh to himself, “I like talking to Rabbit. He talks about sensible things. He doesn’t use long, difficult words like Owl does. He uses short, easy words like ‘what about lunch?’ and ‘Help yourself, Pooh.’ I suppose I really ought to go and see Rabbit.”
A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
Pooh Bear has taught us two lessons here. Lessons that every writer should learn:
And these lessons hold true for almost any writing job—whether it’s an ad, a letter, a press release, a report, or a memo.
- 1. Speak simply and clearly.
- 2. Speak to the needs of your readers.
What is good writing? It is writing that is clear, forceful and simple. And—unless you are writing a poem or a song—it’s writing that is invisible. Or, to be more precise, it’s when the writer is invisible...when your reader sees only the message, not the messenger.
There’s only one thing worse than flowery writing that calls attention to itself. And that’s pompous or bureaucratic writing that calls attention to nothing. It only confuses.
Just try reading your lease or a contract without talking to your lawyer. Or, for that matter, just try talking to your lawyer.
It is unlawful to appropriate, for your personal use, any property that rightfully belongs to other individuals.
Sound familiar? John Caples wrote that to show how you can destroy a simple sentence like “Thou shalt not steal.”
Calling a Shovel a Shovel
But let me warn you. It’s not easy to be simple. You have to work at it.
We’re bombarded with nonsense like “precipitation probability” when all we want to know is whether it’s going to rain... “initial assessments” and “subsequent finalizations”...politicians who say “at the present juncture in time” when they mean now...and a whole lot of people who “indicate” a lot and say very little.
My problem isn’t with people who don’t call a spade a spade. It’s with people who don’t call a shovel a shovel.
As David Ogilvy told his copywriters:
“But I’m Writing to Educated People...”
- Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone talked to her as if he were addressing a public meeting. She preferred Disraeli, who talked to her like a human being. When you write copy, follow Disraeli’s example.
Queen Victoria was no dummy. And neither are your readers. But it’s your job to make them understand. I don’t care if they’re college educated. Even a professor doesn’t curl up at night with a good textbook.
Even the venerable Harper’s literary magazine found out an intellectual elite can’t keep a magazine alive.
“The format was in trouble,” Rick MacArthur, president of the board of Harper’s, told Advertising Age. “The problem that all serious magazines are up against is that there is a very limited number of readers....We are competing for a shrinking or stagnant market....There are a lot of smart people out there with money to spend who think of Harper’s and the Atlantic as inaccessible...(too) ‘highbrow.’”
Harper’s changed over to an easier-to-read, digest format. The results? Circulation and advertising went up; and they were swamped with fan mail: “This is what we’ve been waiting for!”
Harper’s isn’t the only publication to see the need for greater readability. In the 194O's, the Wall Street Journal hired “plain talk” pioneer Robert Gunning to make the paper easier to understand. Back then, it was written on a college sophomore level. Today, most of the Journal can be understood by anyone with an 11th-grade education... its front page, by anyone with a 9th-grade education. This is the same reading level as Reader’s Digest.
The Wall Street Journal is now the largest selling newspaper in the world. And it is known not only for quality business reporting—but for quality writing. Especially on the front page.
A simple, personal style is the cornerstone of good writing. That is, of course, if you want to be understood. If you’re just writing for “self expression” or to impress others, go right ahead. Enjoy yourself.
But don’t expect anybody else to read what you write. Much less act on it. (You never know, though. Two professors worked 18 years to interpret James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. But, usually, you want a quicker response to your writing.)
1O Simple Steps
So, if you want to get people to act on what you write, let’s look at some guidelines:
1. Know your reader. You don’t talk the same way to a CEO in Manhattan, a mother in Chicago, or a rancher in Tucson. Find out who your audience is. The bottom line of all demographic and psychographic studies is: Know thy market.
2. Don’t ploppel. (That’s Yiddish for going on and on endlessly and aimlessly.) Get right to your point. I cut two pages off the beginning of this article. And three more from the middle. It felt almost as good as losing weight.
3. Cut long paragraphs. Nothing is more threatening to a reader than a solid block of text. Break it up.
4. Cut long sentences. Follow Rudolf Flesch, the master of simple writing—Break long sentences in two. Better yet. Try three.
5. Cut long words. Get rid of prefixes and suffixes. Don’t spend ink on five dollar words when one dollar words will do.
6. Tell me a story. You need humans for human interest. Journalists and direct response copywriters tell stories. Use names. Or use “you.” And use quotes and dialogue.
7. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Focus on one central idea. Oversimplify your idea if you have to. That way it will stick with your reader (who’s got other things on her mind).
8. Tell me where you’re taking me. Try to compress your point into one paragraph, or one sentence. Then build from there.
9. Tell me where I’ve been. Summarize. Like the old black preacher said: “Tell ‘em you’re gonna tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em you tole ‘em.”
1O. Write it again, Sam. Good writing isn’t written. It’s rewritten. In fact, this whole article is really about re-writing.
In short, do everything in your power to make yourself clear, interesting, and easy to read. For one thing, it’s good manners. For another, the simpler and more rewarding you make your reader’s job, the more results you’ll get. And if you don’t want results, why write?
This article appeared in Target Marketing, under the title “Simplify... Simplify,” and was reprinted in The Learning Annex and the DMA Direct Marketing Insurance Council’s Councilgram newsletter, under the title “No Nonsense Copywriting.”