• Merrell McGinness

5 Tips to Become a Better Writer

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

You have about 5 seconds to communicate your value online. It’s hard. Here are 5 tips to make it easier.

I used to write for magazines. I loved constructing long and flowing sentences that would take readers on a journey. And then, I became a marketing copywriter.

Totally different ball game.

What used to take 700 words now must be communicated in 7. I’m not going to lie, some days it’s a struggle. But the beauty of writing is that you never arrive. You can always improve. There are always words to cut and sentences to reconstruct. It's like putting together a puzzle.

My first editor warned me to never fall in love with a sentence. It’s good advice but made me wince a little as an amateur. Sometimes a ruthless edit is needed and everything is on the chopping block. So I give these 5 tips with a large dose of humility, knowing I can both give and receive them.

#1: Stop trying to sound smart

Everything you write should be on a 4th or 5th grade reading level. It was good enough for Steinbeck, so it’s good enough for you. I get push back on this all the time from clients. "But my audience are CEOs," they say. I don't care. Here’s the harsh reality -- no matter how smart your reader is, he or she is busy. And your web copy or marketing email isn’t a novel. It’s sales writing. That means you must be direct. Use short sentences. Donald Miller says the sign of an amateur is a long sentence. Ouch.

#2: decide the one big thing

This is so hard. Seemingly impossible some days. My clients want to tell all the things that make them great. But you have to boil it down to ONE. They also want to consider all of their clients when writing. Nope. Pick ONE.

One ideal client. One greatest benefit.

I know, I know. Your product or service has a lot of great benefits. You serve a diverse clientele. Problem is, if you try to say everything to everyone, you'll connect with no one.

When your IDEAL client is interacting with your product or service, what’s the STRONGEST positive emotional result? Zero in on that and repeat it throughout every single piece of your marketing. Picture that ONE thing as your true north on the horizon line. Head that direction and travel light. You will of course include other positive attributes in supporting copy, but the headline has to grab them with the ONE thing. You’ll also be amazed at what you can strip away and still make the sale. Remember that’s the ultimate goal. Once they become a customer the conversation continues, and they can discover just how wonderful as the relationship grows. But in the beginning, keep it simple.

#3: Cut the commas

Commas, cause the reader, to pause, and slow, progress. Don't make your reader think of Christopher Walken when reading your copy. I'll admit comma usage is one of the bad habits I’ve carried over from my journalism days and I’m constantly fighting my urge to splice. Consider commas warning signals that your sentences could use some chopping. Throw a period in the middle and make it two sentences. Easy peasy. They also denote passive language.

Instead of this:

Having worked in the industry for two decades, ABC company has helped thousands of clients.

Try this:

ABC company has helped thousands of clients over two decades in the industry.

#4: Avoid insider language

You know better! But I fight this all the time with clients. No one understands your business' acronyms or abbreviations. They don’t know what a parabolic microphone is or why it’s superior to a dish microphone. They’ve likely never heard of autochthonous grape varieties and why Blaufränkisch is special. Imagine trying to explain what you do (and why it matters) to someone’s grandmother. I say grandmother because people often forget the barriers technology creates. If your business is complex or brand new to the market, forget trying to describe your product or service and focus on the problem that it solves. Problems are universal — everybody’s got ‘em.

#5: Don't show. tell.

Instead of claiming you are the best in the business, demonstrate it through testimonials, logos of customers you serve or any other social proof. Images always tell the story best. Where can you show a picture of a happy customer using your product? Saying you’ve helped 1 million people solve their problem is MUCH stronger than just saying you’re an expert. Spoiler alert: everyone claims to be an expert or have the "world's best." Always look to quantify your success with numbers. Are you 30 times faster than the leading competitor? Do you have a customer who improved their lives by 60% because of working with you? You get the idea. When you’re writing copy, list all of the claims you want to make. Then read it back and picture someone saying, “OK, prove it.”

As I said in the beginning, you never really arrive as a writer. You just keep getting better with practice. And humility. (Reference #1). What changes can you make to your copy today to make it stronger?

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