A copywriter's spin on 'The Elements of Style'

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The best book ever written on the art of effective writing is "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B.White.

There is much good advice in this classic text, especially in the last 20 pages, a section titled "An Approach to Style." Nowhere have I seen more helpful advice in so few words written with such precision. This is why this book is always on my desk within reach.

I will leave it to you to explore this book on your own. But I would like to provide my own version of select advice from this essential reference. This applies to all writing, of course, but it is particularly important for advertising copy.

Put the reader first. The purpose of writing is clear, sometimes persuasive, communication. It is not about you or your clever ideas. If you write with the goal of being impressive, you will distract the reader from the content. Good writing is like a store window. It should be clean and clear and provide an unobstructed view of the contents within.

Organize your thoughts. You don't need a detailed outline for most writing. But you do need to know what you want to say before you say it. If you're comfortable with the sort of outline you learned in school, use it. Otherwise, simply jot down the important points you want to make and arrange them in the order you want to make them. Be sure to eliminate any ideas that are not directly related to these points.

Use short paragraphs. Look at any newspaper and notice how short the paragraphs are. That's done to make reading easier. Our brains take in information better when that information is broken into small chunks. Keep your paragraphs short, and you'll make reading them easier. In ordinary writing, each paragraph develops one idea and includes many sentences. But in ad writing, the style is less formal and paragraphs may be as short as a single sentence or even a single word.

Use short sentences. You should keep sentences short for the same reason you keep paragraphs short: They're easier to read and understand. Each sentence should have one simple thought. A sentence with more than one thought creates complexity and invites confusion.

Use simple words. Since your purpose is to communicate and not impress, simple words work better than big ones. Write "get" instead of "procure." Write "use" rather than "utilize." Use the longer words only if your meaning is so specific that there is no simpler word to use.

Be specific. Don't write "Many doctors recommend Brand X." Write "97 percent of doctors recommend Brand X." Don't write "The Big Widget is offered in many colors." Write "The Big Widget comes in red, green, blue and white." Get to the point. Say what you mean. Use specific nouns.

Write in a conversational style. There is a road sign often posted near construction sites that always irritates me. It reads, "Maintain present lane." Why so formal? A more conversational style would be better: "Stay in your lane" or "Do not change lanes." If you write as if you're wearing a top hat and spats, you distance yourself from the reader and muddle the message. If you write like you talk, in a friendly and simple way, you will communicate more clearly and directly.

Be clear. This may be the most important rule of all. Without clarity, your writing fails on every level. Clarity is achieved when the meaning in your head is conveyed accurately to the head of your reader. That is difficult. If you follow all the other suggestions above, you will far more likely achieve clarity. But it takes an extra effort. You must look at your writing with an objective eye. Consider what might be misunderstood and rewrite it. Find what is irrelevant and delete it. Notice what is missing and insert it.

There are many fine books on good writing. But I have yet to find one that surpasses "The Elements of Style." When you find yourself mired in a thought that won't resolve itself on paper, this book raps you on the head like a ball-peen hammer. It's written with the same simplicity and clarity it advocates.

When writing fails, the most common causes are that the writer doesn't have something to say, or the writer is too concerned with affecting a style, or both.

Follow the suggestions here and you will avoid these problems and many others. Plus you will find that your ad copy is livelier, more meaningful and more profitable.

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