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Not Sure What to Say? Start Writing...

  |  January 31, 2002   |  Comments

Stumped by a copywriting project? Confronted by a blank page? Sometimes, the only way to know what you're going to write is by writing.

Good copywriters know what to say.

When mediocre copywriters don't know what to say, they think they can compensate by saying the wrong thing beautifully.

Not so.

Better to clumsily say the right thing than articulately say the wrong thing.

So how do you know what to say?

To start, you listen to the people who brief you.

Most good copywriting is preceded by a great brief. That brief should tell you all you need to know about the product or service in question -- and about the audience to whom you will be writing.

Next, do whatever it takes to dig a little deeper and develop a closer feel for your audience. This could involve cruising a few newsgroups at Topica, Yahoo Groups, Usenet (Google), and the like.

You should now have all the information you need to do a great job. But somehow (for this copywriter anyway), it's never quite that simple.

A terrific brief and a clear description of your audience don't give you the full picture. They provide jigsaw puzzle pieces that are waiting to be assembled. You have all the pieces you need, but no magic formula for completing the picture.

How do you figure out how to put all those pieces together?

In my case, I start writing. Not note-taking, not practice runs. I simply start to write.

I find that though the first few lines of an email or a Web page may constitute just 10 percent of the writing, they take up a good 90 percent of the thinking.

I keep writing and rewriting that first sentence and paragraph.

Whenever I move on to the next paragraph, it soon becomes apparent whether I got those first few lines right. If they aren't right, nothing that follows works out, either.

So I go back and start over. As many times as it takes.

That's how to find the key to the jigsaw. It has everything to do with understanding what to say. More than that, the first paragraph gives you a clue as to the sequence of what you say.

In what order should you present the information? Which facts best frame and support everything else that follows? What comes first? What comes last?

Some writers try to figure all this out in advance of writing. They write notes, outlines, and lists, analyzing everything, element by element.

For me, it doesn't work that way. For me, the processes of writing and thinking are inseparable. The act of writing is part of the thinking process itself.

That's why I dive in quickly. I start writing as soon as possible, but I leave myself open to rewriting and rewriting again. And again.

I know different people think in different ways. I believe there is tremendous value in spending less time on analyzing what you're going to be writing and more time on the process of actually writing.

It is through the act of writing that the sequence and flow of what you need to say will become apparent.


Nick Usborne

Nick Usborne speaks, writes, and consults on strategic copy issues for business online. For Web sites, e-mails and newsletters, he crafts messages that drive results. He is the author of the critically acclaimed bookNet Words - Creating High-Impact Online Copy.

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