10 tests for effective copywriting

Here’s my checklist of 10 tests to apply to your copywriting:

1. Accuracy test

Back in my catalogue days, I wrote a jewellery brochure with headings in French to make it seem more romantic. Then I went on holiday. In my absence, no-one had the presence of mind to proofread the translation, and it was printed with 20 errors. I only found out when a teacher wrote me a letter saying they’d used the brochure in class. Oops.

Tip: Printers often don’t mind what they print. It doesn’t take much to check you’ve got your copy right, but if you’re not sure, ask a professional.

2. KISS test

Pythagorus’ theorum contains 24 words. The European Union rules on the sale of cabbages contain 26,253 words.

Tip: Keep It Short and Simple. If you’ve used complex words, swap them for simpler alternatives. If you’ve used over-long sentences, rewrite them so they are shorter. If you’ve used more than one thought per paragraph, add line spacing, bullet points or white space to make it easier to read

3. WIIFM test

A British Airways poster reads: “In 2012 we’ll fit enough cable on board to lap an Olympic track 80 times.” So what?

WIIFM stand for What’s In it For Me. You don’t buy a loft conversion, you buy an extra room for your home. You don’t choose a car because it has wheels, seats and an engine. You buy it because it gets you where you want to go, faster. B&Q sell holes, not drills.

Tip: Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and write from their point of view. Turn the features into benefits. To do that, ask ‘so what’ at the end of every sentence.

4. Dirty mind test

A series of posters were printed with the shockingly bad headline: “Accidentally come across child pornography? Help these kids. Report at cybertip.ca” Source

Tip: Just as you’d book a specialist risk assessment to safety-proof other aspects of your business, re-read everything you write. If you’re too innocent to spot double entendres, ask someone else to check for you. You can bet your customers will spot anything that you miss, and – if you get it wrong – you risk ridicule (at best) and damage to your brand (at worst).

5. Spelling test

A copywriting colleague wrote some catalogue copy that should have read ‘JPS Digital Clock’. Guess which letter they missed out by mistake? Answer: L. Oops. Of course the computer spell-check didn’t notice, but hundreds of people probably did!

Tip: If you want to be perceived as professional, correct spelling, grammar and punctuation are important. Don’t trust spell-check, get a sharp-eyed proofreader to check.

6. Commonsense test

A recipe for lemon tart was printed in the Evening Standard. The next day they printed a correction: ‘Please note the ingredients should include three lemons.’

Tip: Use your brain! If a mistake can creep in, it will. When ordering carpet, they say ‘measure twice, fit once’. When writing copy, I say ‘write once, check repeatedly’.

7. Clear-thinking test

I rewrote hundreds of standard debt-collection letters for one organisation, to make it more obvious how much was owed, when it was due, and what would happen if payment was not made. Apart from improving cashflow, complaints about tone of voice were reduced by one-third.

Tip: Clear your mind before you put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. Mindmap or outline your planned content before you start. Always write with your end-goal in mind.

8. We we test

Don’t write ‘We give the best possible service to our clients’. It’s too top-down and indirect. Instead, write ‘You’ll receive the best possible service when you choose us’ (and prove it with evidence).

Tip: Count the number of times you use ‘I’, ‘we’ or ‘us’ compared with ‘you’ and ‘your’. Do a Google search for ‘we we test’ and you’ll find a website where you can paste your URL (web address) and get a measure of how customer-focused your copy is.

9. Upside-down test

News stories are written with the most important information at the top, and the least important at the end. If there’s no room, the text is cut from the bottom up. If people are too busy, they’ll turn the page before they finish reading. So you need to ensure your main point is made, quickly.

Tip: Don’t write ‘Our business was founded in 1905 and then we bought this machine and moved to this building and now we do x, y and z’. Start with what you do now, and end with how you got where you are today. Write your executive summary, introduction or headline last.

10. Originality test

A video was produced that featured a ‘man’ made from cardboard boxes. It turned out that at least one other company had also created a cardboard box-man. The video had to be remade with a different character.

Tip: Keep a crib file, but only use it for inspiration. Anything else is plagiarism. Check copyscape.com to see if anyone has copied your web content without permission.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

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