When it comes to copywriting, one sentence can mean everything. Whether you are writing a headline, working on an opening for a blog post, or writing a one-liner for an advertising campaign for a client, being able to write a sentence that isn’t just average but is remarkable is vital. You’ve probably seen the Eugene Schwartz quote in other articles on copywriting, but it bears repeating here.
“No sentence can be effective if it contains facts alone. It must also contain emotion, image, logic, and promise.”
That sums up perfectly what copywriting entails. You must engage the reader’s emotion, appeal to her logic, make a promise and paint a mental picture. That’s a pretty tall order, but the 25 rules we’ll outline in this article will help you achieve crazy good sentences.
A Few Words, Lots of Power
In an article on Social Media Today, the author gives the example of six-word short story that beloved American journalist and storyteller Ernest Hemmingway wrote.
“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”
The article goes on to talk about how we can make a huge impact with just six words. Did your mind fill in the blanks in that story? Are you wondering why those shoes were never worn? Perhaps you’re picturing a grieving mother. Another person might see a mother who had so many shoes that her child couldn’t wear them all before outgrowing this pair. But, if the mother was rich enough to have that many shoes, why would she sell these? Has she suddenly fallen on hard times? Do you see the extreme impact that just over a handful of words can have?
So, when you are writing a sentence, you must make every single word count. Read the sentence, reread it, read it out loud, have others read it, let it sit a bit and read it again.
25 Rules of Thumb for Writing Killer Copy Sentences
Rule 1 – Forget Grammar
Yes, grammar is very important to good writing. However, when you are writing only one sentence meant to grab the attention of the reader in an ad or a headline, it is okay to drop a verb, drop a noun, lose conjunctions, add a comma splice. A good example of this is the Got Milk? campaign. The proper grammar would dictate that the sentence should read “Do You Have Milk?” That’s not quite as catchy as “Got Milk?” is it?
Rule 2 – Be Succinct
If you’ve ever been lost on a country road in a small town, then you know that some people like to talk around a topic. Well, you see, first you go to the corner. Old Jack Barns lived there until last year when his house burned down. Then, you turn left, but watch out cause deer like to cross the road there. Go down a bit, you’ll see five little dogs running around yapping on your right and then you’ll be there.
Instead, the directions could have been: Turn left at the corner and the place is on the right.
Don’t give small town directions. Be succinct with your reader.
Rule 3 – Remember Journalism 101
Think about the basic questions they teach you to ask in Journalism 101 (even if you’ve never had the class). Who? What? Where? When? Why? Can you answer these in the sentence? Or, perhaps one or two of these questions?
Rule 4 – Paint a Picture
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but painting a picture doesn’t have to take that many. Whenever possible, use very specific, concrete terms to show the reader what you mean. Instead of writing that the umbrella is red, write that it is brick-red. Be specific.
Rule 5 – Make the Reader Care
Aristotle taught that if you can evoke emotion that you can make the reader care about the topic. How can you involve the reader’s emotions? Use words that have meaning to people, like family, loyalty and friendship.
Rule 6 – Promise the Reader Results
In a CopyBlogger article on writing good sentences, writer Demian Farnworth states that promising readers results when writing ad copy will make the reader more likely to take the action of buying that product. He gives an example from his book where he tells the reader that she will write irresistible copy after reading his book. He makes an excellent point about pointing out the advantage to the reader or what pain she will avoid by taking action.
Rule 7 – Nix “I” and “She/He” from Your Language
A rule of thumb in copywriting is to write in second person. When addressing the reader, you want her to feel as though she is sitting across the table from you chatting over a cup of coffee. The only way to achieve this is to use “you” rather than “she/he”.
He should buy these shoes to avoid heel spurs.
You should buy these shoes to avoid heel spurs.
Which one catches your attention more and speaks directly to you?
Rule 8 – Make Every Word Count
“Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory.” ~ Denis Diderot
You have exactly one sentence to capture attention. Read what you’ve written, cut unnecessary words, replace words that don’t work, reread. Repeat.
Rule 9 – No Run-On Sentences!
Just because a sentence can go on and on, and just because you can add conjunctions to keep it going, and even though you may have a lot to say and want to throw it all into this one sentence you are allowed to write, does not mean that you should go on and on and on. Yes, I made that sentence long on purpose to show you what I mean by a run-on. Don’t do it in ad copy. Ever. In fact, it would be best if you never use run-ons at all unless you are writing a novel and trying to achieve a breathless effect. Even then, I’d use it once in an entire novel.
Rule 11 – Don’t Be Afraid to Use a Formula that Works
We all want to be unique. The thought of using a formula to write sentences for copy can seem almost like cheating. However, it can save time and insure that you write a powerful sentence. For example, if you’re writing a one-line description for a company that describes what they do, then you can use this formula:
I what + who + benefits + uniqueness
So, that would translate into:
I prepare businesses to have an online presence and train them to promote themselves.
As you write more and more copy, you’ll start to see patterns. Jot these down and use them when it’s time to write fresh copy. Each sentence will still be unique, I promise.
Rule 12 – Focus on One Idea
Don’t try to explain every single thing a product will do in a one-liner. Focus on one big idea and get that message across to the reader. A good example is Nike’s “Just Do It” single line ad campaign. Just exercise. That is Nike’s message. It is simple, but effective.
Rule 13 – Call the Reader to Action
The Nike example above is a call to action. They are calling the reader to exercise. Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign is another example. The entire campaign centers around that simple call to action.
Rule 14 – Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
Some of the best copywriting one-liners are hilarious. Kmart’s “Ship My Pants” went viral online within days. According to Forbes, the original ad on YouTube has had well over 20 million views. Don’t throw out ideas because you think they are too out there. Give them a chance and see where they lead. You may ultimately toss them, but you never know where one small joke might lead you.
Rule 15 – Use Active Verbs
This is a little rule your elementary teachers probably taught you, but use active verbs.
Passive: The drink was manufactured by Cola Is Cool Company
Active: Cola Is Cool Company manufactured the drink.
Rule 16 – Nix “To Be” Verbs
Even if you have to play around with the punctuation a bit, try to nix those “to be” verbs that weaken your writing.
To Be: You will skip with joy to the store.
Stronger: Big A Store…Skip with Joy
See the difference? Get rid of “to be” verbs where you can.
Rule 17 – Lose the Adverbs and Adjectives
Using too many can weaken a sentence and when you’re limited on characters, such as copy you might be writing to post on Twitter (140 character limit), you want to write tight.
Too Many Adverbs and Adjects: Our awesome sweaters make girls giggly with anticipation and super happy.
Tighter: Our sweaters make you giddy.
Rule 18 – Avoid Difficult Words
If you have to go look up the meaning in a dictionary, you can be certain that the reader will have to. Actually, the reader probably won’t bother and won’t bother with your copy either.
Too Difficult: Felicitous
Just Right: Ecstatic
Rule 19 – Remember the Unique Selling Proposition (Point)
If you’re writing copy for a product or a service, then that item has a unique selling point that is unlike anything else offered out there. What is the uniqueness of your product? An example would be FedEx and how they have advertised that you should use them it is absolutely has to be there overnight.
Rule 20 – Look for “That”
The word “that” can often be omitted from copy without changing the meaning of the sentence. Start your editing by looking for this word. Remove it and see if it makes a difference.
With “That”: You should eat Billy Bob’s Bagels because that would make you thin.
Without “That”: Eat Billy Bob’s Bagels; Get Thin
See how that naturally forces you to be more pithy?
Rule 21 – Don’t Be Afraid of Starting a Sentence with a Conjunction
English teachers have pounded in student’s heads not to start a sentence with “and” or “but”, however, that is not correct information and is very old school. Oxford Dictionary of English Usage states that it is fine to start a sentence with these words. You’ll find occurrences of sentences starting with conjunctions in Shakespeare’s works,
Rule 22 – Don’t Lie or Exaggerate
Consumers are savvy. They are wise to advertisers who make claims that couldn’t possibly be true or who exaggerate the truth. Your job as a copywriter is to tell the truth, show off the benefits, use power words, but still be honest.
Exaggeration: Goober’s Golf Clubs Improve Your Game by 1000%
Better: Goober’s Golf Clubs Improve Your Aim
Rule 23 – Stay Positive
People are drawn to positive words. Although negative words might have an impact, is a negative picture the image you want to leave the consumer with of your company?
Negative: Avoid Death, Take Sally’s Multivitamin
Positive: Get Healthy, Take Sally’s Multivitamin
Rule 24 – Don’t Overuse Punctuation
There is no need to add ten exclamation marks after your sentence. Let’s look at the “Got Milk?” slogan again. There is one question mark. What if the copywriters had gone crazy with punctuation?
It is pretty distracting isn’t it? Limit yourself to one exclamation, if you must.
Rule 25 – Proofread and Proofread Again
Anytime you write any type of copy, whether it is a single sentence or it is a full article, you should proofread several times. If another person can read over the copy for you, that is even better. Sometimes, when you read a sentence as correct the first time, you still won’t see the mistake on repeated read throughs. Two sets of eyes are always better than one when it comes to copy.
Practice Makes Perfect
The more copy you write, the easier it will come to you. Study ads that come to you through the mail, ones you see online and even billboards and headlines. These will all help you learn the rhythm of ad copy and before you know it you’ll be writing sentences that kill.
Article by Lori Soard
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.