Promotional Writing Basics
By Duane Hewitt
Promotional copy appears in many places – articles, newsletters, flyers, websites, advertising, and even business cards. It applies to banks, bands, corporations, dentists, law offices, and anyone who has anything to say in trying to get a message out. Writing good promotional copy is a craft that requires insight, practice, and skill. What follows are promotional writing basics:
- Know your client: Whether you’re writing for a product, a service, or a business, take the time required to understand who and what you are writing about. Don’t try to “wing” it. If the client has a particular “voice” they use in their communications, it will be this style of writing that you will likely be expected to follow.
- Understand your audience: However you say it – target marketing perhaps – know who you are writing for. If it’s a promotional or advertising piece for a specific niche market, say healthcare professionals, you wouldn’t write in the same manner as you would for teenage car enthusiasts. Be clear on whom you are writing for, and if you’re uncertain or unfamiliar with the niche, take the time to learn.
- Write with the reader in mind: People don’t want to hear about you, they want to hear about themselves. Find a way to devise your message so that the emphasis is on the reading audience and not yourself. It’s human nature for people to want to hear about themselves or, in the very least, how you affect them, not about the many accomplishments of you and your organization.
- Think first, write second: Think and then write. Even when proofreading and revising, take the time to think before you then rewrite. Writing promotional copy works best when the topic and its purposes have been carefully thought through, as opposed to writing as you go.
- Set goals: What are you trying to accomplish? This goes hand-in-hand with the point of “think first, write second.” Understand exactly what your purpose is for writing and devise a plan with an outcome. If writing an ad, do you have a call-to-action plan to bring in customers? If writing a promotional flyer, is it to educate and inform and does it accomplish that purpose? Know your purpose and how you intend to achieve it.
- Inform: Please don’t waste the reader’s time with fluff. The purpose to your writing is likely to inform. Understand the specifics of the message and relay that information.
- Get to the point: Here’s a good exercise: Write your copy, then halve it – then try to halve it again. There’s a tendency for even the best writers to blather on. Get into the habit of making what you write short and to the point. Though not always the rule, shorter copy is often capable of having greater impact.
- Word usage: This topic could be encyclopedic in scope, but here are a few suggestions: Where one word will suffice, use one word. Where simplicity will suffice, go with simplicity. Don’t confuse like sounding words with different meanings, for example, illusion versus allusion, or effect for affect. Get a dictionary and a thesaurus. Make use of each. You can also make a practice of using less common words in place of overly used words. To be on top of your game, aim to master words and their uses.
- Clarity: Time is of a premium for everyone, so make sure your copy is lean and immediately understood. Clarity is a fundamental in the writer’s rule book. No matter the grammar, no matter the pitch, if it’s clear as muck you’ve lost the buck.
- Grammar: Always pay attention to grammar. You can break the rules on occasion assuming you know how, but the point is this: Knowing how and when to break the rules puts you in control – and that means you control what you write as opposed to errant sloppiness creeping into your work.
- Form: Somewhere in all that brilliant copy, there must be a beginning, middle, and an end. Just make sure the rest of us understand it. Establish a decisive form to your prose with a clear beginning, strong close, and valuable, pertinent in-between material.
- Vary sentence length: You don’t want all your sentences to have the same length or read with the same rhythm. It’ll weigh down your prose. Consider altering sentence length and structure with short phrases and single words to add some vitality.
- Keep your sales pitch to a minimum: You might be able to come up with a dozen benefits for your sales pitch, but do you really need to use them all? Two or three good sales points will stay in the reader’s mind whereas a laundry list will only dull the senses with overload. Plus, withholding information helps you keep your gun loaded for another day.
- Create visuals: The mind will recall and relate to visual impressions that your words create. Write so that the mind generates pictures.
- Appeal to the senses: Creating a visual is one tactic, but what about the other senses like taste, touch, and smell? The mind has the ability to make associations through each of the senses if you’re clever enough to ignite those senses with your writing. It’s this technique that builds impact and helps memory retention. Like rotten fish and salty pork on a rocky boat when you’re green to the gills, it’ll make an impression.
- Surprise and excite: In promotional writing, words should not be predictable – you’ll lose your audience. “In light of the partnership of Hastings, Hastings and Hatfield, we would like to thank our founding principals, a bunch of curmudgeonly old barnacles …” Find ways to break from the expected norm. If the audience thinks they know what’s coming, you’ll put them to sleep.
- Use big words with small ones: “Our little dog Tiki went through life with a huge proboscis.” Again, it’s unexpected.
- Try catchy, inventive phrases: Be creative and inventive. Whoever you are writing for, they’re just people. Wit, humor, surprise and even a razor’s edge can be the very thing to grab and hold your reader’s attention. Instead of, “Urinary tract issues for men,” try, “Does monsieur need to pee pee?”
- Don’t offend: It can be quite easy to offend people in an increasingly politically-correct society. Making generalizations, painting everybody with the same broad strokes, or being insensitive to gender, race, and ethnic issues can undermine the best intentions of your prose.
- Comedy: Comical words, phrases, and situations can lighten and shift moods – but caution is advised! What’s funny to one person may not be funny to another. Comedy is subjective, making it a challenge to pull off successfully. Try to be conscious of your applied humor and the effect it will have on your reading audience.
- Slang and jargon: Be careful with this. Slang and jargon may only be known and understood by a limited percentage of your audience. It tends to be used in small niches, industries, age groups, etc. Such words and phrases also tend to change with time and differ between industries and even geographic locations. It can make your promotional copy sound really hip, thereby sprucing it up, but beware of the pitfalls.
- Adjectives: Few are good, fewer are best. School kids learn to flower up their prose with lots of colorful adjectives, but it’s a tedious technique to use on a mature audience. Some writers have a practice of letting adjectives attach themselves to every single noun. But not every noun needs one. This is not to say that a string of adjectives will not catch the reader’s attention. Just be aware of them.
- SEO: Given the value and scope of the Internet, it will often be necessary to take into account Search Engine Optimization. On this, just a few comments: Though search engine algorithms seek out words and phrases and their usage, a writer’s goal is to write for a human audience. Ultimately, the top online search algorithms will penalize writing (particularly for websites) where words and phrases are used overly much, which tends to make for poor writing anyway. It’s worthwhile identifying your SEO mandate vis-à-vis your reading audience.
- Tying it all together: To make it all work, follow the basics. Make your message clear. Organize your copy with a beginning, middle, and end. Avoid burdening your audience with wordy or lengthy prose. Be clever. Be inventive. Change things around. Think: bright, brash, raw, edgy, happy, sad, or memorable … whatever emotion and reaction you’re after. But give it direction and define the results you want to receive. Then, enjoy the writing process!
Copyright 2006-2017 Duane Hewitt. All rights reserved.