Email in ’Newspaper Style’

I’m not a journalist, so I’m not particularly familiar with “newspaper style.”

I recently rewrote a draft of an email for a client — a potentially dry internal announcement. I received a few interesting lines of feedback:

What an improvement! It got my attention right from the beginning — a little humor helps. It is long; however, it is written newspaper style — so even if you don’t get past the first 10 lines or so, you have gotten the main point.

Although I didn’t intend to write like a journalist, I certainly aimed to get the heart of the message right up there in the first few lines.

Most emails don’t hold my attention past that point. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that way.

This may all sound obvious, but there’s a potential problem: Covering the main point in the first few lines runs counter to how many copywriters are trained to write in the offline world.

When writing sales letters or print ads, many copywriters — rightly or wrongly — will use the first few lines to set the tone, pave the way, and capture the reader’s interest.

The lines and paragraphs that follow will be used to slowly build the sale.

A sentence here to appeal to the heart.

A sentence there to appeal to the brain.

Word by word, line by line, the writer adds layer after layer of reasoned arguments, blending benefits and features in such a way as to create an irresistible argument.

After reading 10 paragraphs of beautifully crafted copy, the reader then slaps himself on the forehead and cries, “Wow, since you put it that way, I’ll definitely buy this widget.”

Readers of email don’t have the patience to follow this slow process. Readers of email want the meat and potatoes of the message right up front.

This is where “newspaper style” comes into play.

Much like an executive summary in a business report, the first paragraph or two of a news story contains most, if not all, of the most important elements. What happened; where, when, and why it happened; and who was involved (for more on the Ws, see this recent article).

It’s time to think like that when you’re writing promotional or informational email.

If you’re selling something, include an executive summary and a link within the first few lines.

Write under the assumption that nobody reads past the first 5 or 10 lines. If you have more to say, make sure all the information and links that come after the 10-line cutoff are optional. Sure, it would be nice if people read that far, but don’t make it essential. After that, add in the “wouldn’t it be great if they read this far down” information. Utterly nonessential, but an added bonus if people read it.

The same goes for informational emails. If you need a customer to know something about a purchase, a registration, a customer service inquiry, or anything else like that — get the hard info into the first few lines.

For many copywriters, this approach requires adjusting long-held habits. It requires a new way of writing and a new way of structuring sales messages.

The alternative to change is waiting three or four paragraphs before getting to the point — but by then, a significant proportion of your readers will have moved on.

Get the important stuff up front. The earlier the better.

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