Ernest Hemingway revealed his personal writing secrets in a 1954 interview. He wrote just after sunrise when the air was ‘cool’, he typed his novels standing up, and he always stopped writing when he felt that he still had ‘juice’ ( the urge to carry on writing). But what if you’re writing sales emails rather than novels?
Copywriting is a different creative process to writing fiction, so Hemingway’s tips will not necessarily result in great copy. In this post, we’ve revealed the five essentials that have helped us over the years.
Ernest Hemingway struggling with an email subject line, 1952
Understand the way people think
Dale Carnegie told us, ‘When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion’. Humans do not base decisions entirely on reason. Study after study has shown that happiness, fear, excitement etc. hold a huge influence over the decision-making process.
But how does that help copywriters? It means selling the emotional benefits of a product. Alton Towers doesn’t advertise the height of a new roller coaster, it advertises the ‘thrill’ of riding it. Now, that doesn’t mean you can reject reason all together After you’ve grabbed the reader's attention, they’ll still need evidence. So, use emotion to prompt action and use logic to support your original claim.
Remove yourself from the equation
In his book Copywriting, Mark Shaw admits that it’s not the purest form of creative expression as there is ‘no room for your personality’. Copywriting is a commercial activity: you write for different clients, and various brands, and it's their identity and story that must be communicated through language.
This identity is commonly referred to as tone of voice. It’s a combination of style, grammar, vocabulary and attitudes which contribute to a brand’s identity.
Apparently, 80% of meaning in telephone conversations comes from the tone of voice - not the meaning of what is said. With writing, you also don’t see the writer’s face. But what you say, and the way you say it, does stimulate the emotions. So you have to examine the effect of every single word in a message. Semantic differences between two similar words can have a profound effect on meaning.
Nike have one of the best and longest serving slogans in the world today. But imagine if it was changed from ‘Just Do It’ to ‘Do It Now’. Literally understood, they mean similar things. But the tones are drastically different: while the first encourages the reader to get up and conquer the world, the second sounds like a parent having their patience tested.
Love the brief
Copywriting involves tight deadlines and sharp turnarounds. So it’s easy to rush into the writing without doing the groundwork first. But how can you work at a quicker pace and get it right first time? An ex-Army captain I once worked with said that, no matter how much pressure they were under, they were taught in training to spend at least 10 percent of the time available on planning. It’s the same with copy. No matter how rushed the job, you need to take time to think through the brief. Make sure everything’s considered: be clear on the key messages, the tone, the context, the goal and the audience. This guides your writing, meaning fewer revisions and redrafts.
Empathise with your audience
Sir Michael Caine recently said that, if he’s to successfully play a character, he needs to imagine someone he’s known who shared their traits or predicament. It’s a good tip for writers. You need to have a clear profile of your audience in mind. What do they like to do on a Friday night? What’s their dream? What’s their greatest fear? Once you have a feel for this, you will make better choices about what messages to present and in what tone.
So what are the five secrets to writing great copy? A balance between emotion and reason, the removal of your ego, an understanding of how to convey tone, a commitment to the brief and an ability to empathise with your audience.