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Copy Tricks That Break the Rules

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word … [is] the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Unfortunately, most of us were taught by a series of grammar hounds who were less inspired than my esteemed cousin Mr. Twain. And if I have learned anything in this business, it's that it is better to be effective than correct.

So with humble apologies to my well-meaning instructors, I hereby reveal a few rule-breaking tricks of the trade. Used wisely, they can help transform your sales copy from a dull glow into a brilliant shine.

Write in the second person. You should speak directly to the reader with words like “you,” “your” and “yourself.” You can occasionally use the first person — I, my, mine, me, we, our, us — in letters and other one-on-one communications, but it should be sparingly used elsewhere. Unless you're telling a story about someone, the third person — he, she, they — is seldom appropriate.

Use command language. On your envelopes use phrases like “Look inside” or “Open immediately.” The bottom of the first page of your letter should include “More,” “Over please” or “Read on.” On your order forms use phrases “Complete and mail within 14 days” or “Ask for your free issue today.” Don't be a delicate doily. If you want people to do something, tell them to do it.

Avoid rambling sentences. According to readability research, your average sentence should be about 16 words and express a single thought. Once a sentence exceeds 32 words, it becomes harder to understand. When you have a long sentence with two or more ideas, break it into separate sentences. Of course, you should vary individual sentence length — some short, some long — for variety. (By the way, the average sentence in this article is 11 words.)

Keep most paragraphs short. Ideally, they should be no longer than seven lines, especially in letters. If a paragraph gets too long, break it into shorter chunks. Forget standard paragraph development. Your goal is to keep people reading. Short paragraphs are easier on the eye and make reading “feel” easier and more pleasant. Look at any newspaper and see how short most paragraphs are.

Drop in one-sentence paragraphs. They are punchy and add variety.

Begin sentences with conjunctions. Use “and,” “also,” “besides,” “furthermore,” “likewise,” “moreover,” “or,” “otherwise,” “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “so,” “then” and “therefore.” They can help you break long sentences into shorter ones and still make your copy flow smoothly. This technique is particularly helpful when there are a number of items you want to include that are difficult to fit together logically. For example, “The new RX9 is twice as fast as the RX8. Plus, you get 12 new features.”

End sentences with prepositions. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the preposition commandment is a rule up with which I will not put. In ordinary conversation, do you say, “With whom are you going?” or “Who are you going with?” Allow yourself the freedom of putting “of,” “for,” “with” and other prepositions at the end of a sentence. Strive to be natural, not slavishly correct.

Add occasional fragments. This adds excitement. Urgency. Picks up the pace. And creates a firm tone. Don't overuse this technique, though, or you'll annoy readers.

Write like you talk. Use dialogue and conversational writing. “People especially like to read anything in quotation marks.” Use pronouns: I, we, you, they. Use familiar expressions: a sure thing, rip-off, OK. Use contractions: they're, you're, it's, here's.

Use intelligent redundancy. Constructions such as “free gift,” “actual fact” and “call anytime 24 hours a day” may get you poor marks in English class, but in the real world, they help to emphasize your point and clarify your meaning.

Punctuate headlines lightly. Periods signal a stop, so you should avoid using them. To draw the reader into the body copy, you can use an ellipsis at the end, but no punctuation at all is often best. Avoid colons and semicolons because they also signal a stop and are too formal for most copy. To separate thoughts in long headlines, use a dash — like I'm doing now — or use an ellipsis; both signal a pause but do not stop the reader.

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