Copywriters rely on writing formulas. There I said it. And if you write professionally, you know it’s true.
When you draft deadline-driven copy day in day out, month after month, year after year, you develop an arsenal of copy tricks. A set of writing rituals, rules and shortcuts that help you write copy on target and on time.
Nothing wrong with it. Copywriting formulas are useful. Even necessary. Up to a point.
Relied on too heavily, however, the same formulas that save your copy can sink it. They turn your once-sparking prose into boring boilerplate.
Want to keep your copy clear, fresh, relevant and on-point every time? You can do it by asking two simple questions.
I’ll explain in a minute, but first let’s think about how you fell into formulaic writing in the first place.
The slippery slope of formulaic copy
If you’re like most copywriters, you follow successful writers and bloggers online, collect copywriting tips and keep swipe files.
So one day you’re trawling the post of a legendary copywriter, scanning his “copywriting gold” checklist. You stumble on an intriguing nugget: He advises you to use the word “discover” instead of “learn” in your copy. “Learn,” he explains, connotes effort and toil. “Discover” implies adventure and excitement.
Hmm. Wonder if it works, you think.
You swipe and file the tip away. Next time you sit down to brainstorm headlines, you use the word “discover.” Yep, it makes your headline zing. And amazingly when you run the copy, metrics back up the veteran copywriter’s claim: that single word change makes a measurable difference in response.
Wow. Of course you want to replay the metrical magic. So you use the formula again. And again. And again.
You stop thinking whether or not this formula supports your brand story. You stop thinking if it speaks relevantly to your customers. You stop thinking if you’re using the right measures—metrics that have an impact on business.
You stop thinking.
Free your mind.
Here’s the thing about copywriting formulas: They work well most of the time and they make writing easier and faster. But they have to be used judiciously. They’re no substitute for clear thinking: Good copywriting requires logic, clarity and discrimination—not just wizard wordsmithing.
The secret to keeping your copy fresh: ask two simple questions
You can avoid formulaic, hackneyed copy by asking two questions. I can’t claim credit for this anti-formulaic writing formula—it’s from William Zinsser, the revered writing teacher and author of On Writing Well.
After you’ve finished your copywriting research—learned all you can about your product, features, benefits, customers, and competitors—and as you mindmap or outline your copy, ask yourself…
What am I trying to say?
Don’t go on autopilot, or fall back on glibness or formulas. Think hard.
What are you trying to say about connecting to customers as real human beings? About delivering value that’s relevant to them? About making it easy for them to take action and connect back to you? About positioning your product as unique?
Take a break, come back and read what you’ve written. And then ask, did I say what I was trying say?
With each element of your copy—headline, lede, body copy, call to action—did you say what you were trying to say?
Or instead, as Zinsser writes, “Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”
Or falling back on copywriting tricks to fill the page?
If either, gently ask yourself again, what am I trying to say?
Rewrite, read, ask the same questions. Rinse and repeat until copy runs clear.
It’s not easy to kill your formulaic darlings.
Yeah, I know: It’s not easy. Even Zinsser will tell you, “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident…If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
When it gets easy we need to worry—and ask two questions.