Three essential writing tips
Writing captivating content is easier than you think. In our live Stand Out Session, we dive into essential tips that will make your writing pop.
Transcript of Taleist’s copywriting FAQ live
Hello, and welcome to another Taleist Stand Out Session where we give you tips on how to make your marketing stand out. And we answer your questions live. Face to face. So hopefully you are able to see us on Facebook. If not, sorry. But we are on YouTube and LinkedIn at the moment or you may be watching a recording of the Stand out session or listening to a podcast. All are welcome, you can find the links to the recording and the podcast at taleist.agency/SOS. So, if this is your first standout session, we start with some tips. Today, they’re going to be three essential writing tips. They’re not even copywriting tips. They’re writing tips just for a way to improve the quality of anything you write.
Then we’re going to answer some questions live. If you’re watching in Facebook, or on YouTube, you can ask the question live in the comments. If you’re on LinkedIn, we might be able to get questions through the system. And of course, you can always go to taleist.agency/SOS to ask questions in advance, which some people have done. So we already got questions that we already got lined up. People have asked in advance. But you’re welcome to your questions live about copywriting, marketing, standing out, writing with influence. Anything digital, feel free to drop in. While you’re there, please hit like or subscribe for those of you who are watching.
Three essential tips to improve your writing
What I wanted to show you today was three writing tips that, I don’t want to say they’re basic. Because they’re powerful. So they’re easy to apply but they’re powerful. And you can apply them to any writing you do to make it more effective. To put it simply, there are things you can account for in your writing. I’m going to go with three tips today. But they come down to what you might call an umbrella tip. An umbrella tip comes from Shrunk and White’s famous book, The Element of Style. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I found it a long time ago and thought it was about this bit and this bit. But it’s packed with advice.
And my favourite rule of theirs is their 17th rule, which is omit needless words. And I chose rule 17 as my Twitter handle. It’s a perfect Twitter handle because back then in the pure days of Twitter, a Tweet could only be 140 characters. And it was a phenomenal exercise in writing succinctly. That you would draft a Tweet, it would be too long. And you would look and see words that you could take out and things you could do to make that Tweet shorter. But the three tips that I’m going to tell you today all come down to where to look for those words that don’t need writing.
Tip 1: Find the filler words
First tip, easy tip, write a first draft and then look for the filler words. Words that you type or lazily put into the writing because it is, as the saying goes, much harder to write something short than to write something long. It takes more time because you buried your message with filler words. And one of the easiest ways to start shaving a percentage of what you writing is to look for unnecessary instances of “that”. The team says that coffee was the best part of the day. You don’t need “that”. The team says coffee was the best part of the day. Same sentence, same meaning, shorter. This might not seem like very much but when you multiply it over a whole email or even better an entire document or website you can see really profound results.
An example I give people when I’m running training sessions is that I co-write a script once for a pantomime theatre group. And the pantomime should be running an hour and a half. But in rehearsal, we were running two hours. Significantly over the time. And the reason why we were significantly over the target was because the actors were learning their lines and so…Does that fix the audio? Is the audio working again now? No audio? Okay. How about now? Yeah. Okay.
All right, thank you Shalini for pointing that out. So catastrophic failure on the audio there. Wrong, wrong microphone enabled, I should put that in the checklist for starting. So in the example that I was giving, the actors were not memorizing their lines properly. And so you end up you know, if your line is John ran into the room, and you say, John ran into the room quickly, it seems like the same thing. But it’s actually 20% longer and you multiply that over the course of a document. And that is how you end up with, that’s how you end up with something that is much longer.
So going through and finding those extra “that’s”. Example here on the screen, no one liked the meal that they ordered. It’s easy when you’re typing, to throw in that extra “that”. Then your job when you’re editing is to take that out and tighten up the draft. So no one liked the meal. They all have exactly the same meaning, just as easy to read. There are some times when you’ll need the “that”. Just read it out loud, listen for what’s natural. If the “that” is helping and making a difference and making something easier to read, then of course, you leave it in. The, the job of your writing is not to say as little as possible, your job is to say what is necessary. The rule is omit needless words, not omit all the words you possibly can and then make it more difficult to read. Other words to look for that are repeat offenders are “really”, “seen”, “just”. You’ll have your own, “just” is one of mine. You’ll have your own, you’ll notice it when you start looking for it. And then you’ll be able to come up with a process whereby you know, that’s on your checklist of things to remove.
So this example, this is a really good opportunity is no different from this is a good opportunity. “Really good” doesn’t make it any better than good. It makes it actually weaker, harder to read, less impactful. So this is not a really good opportunity. This is a good opportunity. We seem to have lost the file. This was an example I read years ago in a writing guide for the British civil service. And in that writing guide, they pointed out, either you have lost the file or you have not lost the file. There’s no seeming to have lost it. If you can put your hands on the file, it’s not lost. If you can’t, and you don’t know where it is, it’s lost. So we seem to have lost the file becomes we have lost the file. It’s easier to read, the meaning is clearer. When you say we seem to have lost the file, somebody’s got to decode that in their mind to mean oh, okay, you’ve lost the file. So we have lost the file.
He is just coming now. He is coming now. Same meaning, one fewer, one less word. And that’s 20% off a sentence like that. But look again, he is just coming now can just as easily be he is coming. He is coming. He is coming now, probably from the context. And that would be the question. From the context, can you understand he is coming now? You know, if you’re sitting in a meeting, and it’s five past one, and you found somebody to see if they’re coming and the person on the phone says, yeah, they’re on their way. And you turn to the room, you can say he is coming, because, you know, that would be understood. So look for the context. Look for what’s the easiest to read. What’s the next one?
Tip 2: Cut the adjectives and adverbs
So the second tip that I’m going to give you is cutting the adjectives and the adverbs. Adverbs are words that describe verbs, you can spot them because usually they end in “ly”. The car was really fast. Fast is an adjective describing the car. The adverb is “really” because it describes the adjective, which is fast. And you don’t need that really in that example, as we’ve just said. Adjectives describe nouns, the lights, that’s the word, that’s the noun. The lights were bright, bright is an adjective. You don’t need as many adjectives and adverbs as you think you do.
So for instance, here’s an example sentence, the day was over very quickly. Well, you can get rid of “very” straightaway, the day was over quickly. It’s a shorter sentence, easier to read. the “very” doesn’t add anything. But you can also look at a better way of writing the sentence which, the day flew by. So that’s four words, it’s more powerful. Because you’ve chosen a more interesting verb which is flew. It’s shorter, it’s easier to read. So you’ve got the day was over really quickly becomes the day flew by. One is more interesting to read, and shorter and easier to read, all at the same time.
This is what you’re looking for in your drafting. These bloated, passive sentences that can be easily fixed. You don’t have to be a novelist to fix these sentences and to make them more interesting. Another example, valuable opportunities like this are extremely scarce. “Extremely” is unnecessary. Scarce means essentially, embodies the concept of extremely. You’re not adding anything to this sentence by saying extremely scarce. And generally, adverbs in writing have the opposite, or adjectives have the opposite effect from the one that you want. You think you’re emphasizing the point, but you’re actually diluting the point. Scarce is an assertive, well-chosen word, meaning not abundant. “Extremely” scarce doesn’t add anything quantifiable to that, but makes it look like maybe you’re hedging. Or you haven’t chosen the word scarce carefully.
Looking at the sentence in more detail, valuable opportunities like this are extremely scarce. We take out “extremely”, but you could probably also take “valuable” out of that sentence. Because if it’s an opportunity, from the context, if you said to me opportunities like this are scarce, I understand you mean the opportunity is valuable. You’re not saying an opportunity to injure yourself like this is really scarce so let’s go for it. You’re telling me something valuable is rare. Again, don’t hang up, hang yourself up on this in your first draft. There’s no point getting hung up on it. In the first draft, what you want to do is get that first draft out quickly, don’t procrastinate, get it down on the page. And great writing comes out of the editing. And this is how you can tighten up your text. I personally would set myself a target. The first, the second draft should be at least 10% shorter than the first draft.
Tip 3: Don’t turn nouns into verbs
Third tip and then we’ll get into answering your questions, is don’t turn nouns into verbs. This is a common, easy way to bloat your writing and make it harder to read. Obvious example, we had a meeting at noon. The verb you’re looking for is meet. But you’ve turned it into a noun, which is called nominalization, which is you had a meeting. So we had a meeting at noon. And this is how you can often find these bloated sentences because they’ll have a weak verb in them like is or had. We had a meeting at noon is exactly the same as we met at noon. But we met at noon is shorter, more assertive, easier to understand. And we’ll make, over the course of an email or a document, for much easier reading.
Where aside from anything else in, certainly in persuasive writing, you want the reader at the end to feel that they’ve understood. Because almost everything that you write is an attempt to persuade somebody to do or to feel something. And people are more readily persuaded to act when they feel confident that they’re not going to make a mistake. So when they read your email or your document, and they are confident that you’ve understood it because it’s sharp and to the point and easy to read.
I’m not saying anybody’s not going to understand we had a meeting at noon. But multiply that over the course of a document and people will start to feel it was all a little bit woolly and they may not have decoded it properly. So we met at noon, we had an argument about the merger. Again, argument is a noun but the verb that you’re looking for is argue. So we have an argument about the merger becomes we argued about the merger. We came to a decision about the new office. Decision is a noun, decide is a verb. We decided about the new office. Assertive, short, easy to understand and therefore creates greater confidence.
Bonus tip: Slice out lazy writing
I did put in a bonus tip. Because when I was putting this together, I had the three tips. And then I had one extra thing that I wanted to put in. But I’d already said this was going to be three tips. So it’s really four tips. So this is, this is a bonus. Look for those words that you don’t need, because they are contained in the, in a word you’ve already use. So this example, he went through a total of 12 websites. It’s exactly the same as he went through 12 websites. We collaborated together on the report. If you are collaborating, you are doing it together. So collaborating together on the report is we collaborated on the report. She has, and this is such a common one, she has a proven track record of smart decisions. A track record of smart decisions, you don’t need “proven” if somebody has a track record. It is proven, there it is.
If you build this muscle in your writing, editing muscle, I promise you, you will see it if you open the last email you sent. I don’t care if it’s a two-sentence email, I bet you will find words in there that you didn’t need. Because it’s, somehow it’s easier to type more than to type less. And that’s, you know, an absolute truism. So if the writing is important, and you want somebody to read it, understand it and do something with it, the first thing you can do is not get a PhD in psychology. It’s just to make it easier to read by omitting needless words.
So that’s the end of the presentation. Which moves us into the question-and-answer portion. If so, if you have a question, and you’re watching live, feel free to ask it in the comments box on Facebook or YouTube. You can also ask it on LinkedIn. And we might pick it up there on LinkedIn. Also, you can go to Taleist Agency Standout session at /SOS. Taleist.agency/SOS and ask us a question in advance. And wherever you’re watching or listening to this, we appreciate reviews, comments, likes, thumbs up, and so on.
Why does every tool you use to proofread what you write in English advise against passive voice?
And let’s have a look at who’s asked questions. And Diana asked this question this morning, why does every tool I use to proofread what I write in English advise against passive voice? (I’m a Spanish native speaker). And passive voice is such an interesting one in writing because it does bloat your writing. So passive voice is when something is done to something in the writing. So the door was opened from outside instead of Steven opens the door from outside. So Steven opens the door is active voice. There is a person who is doing something to something else. Steven is opening the door.
Passive voice is when the camera is moved and something is being done to something else. So the meeting was scheduled on Monday. So the meeting is not scheduling itself. Somebody is scheduling the meeting. But it’s passive, because something is being done to the meeting. And the reason proofreading tools, and proofreading tools are extremely useful. We’re big fans of Grammarly, for instance as a backstop to errors. But they’ve got one rule and the rule is, as Diana has encountered, don’t ever use passive writing. And 80% of the time that is correct, because when you write something like the meeting was scheduled, the table was reserved for 7pm, information is missing from that sentence. Who reserved the table at 7pm for instance. Steven reserved a table at 7pm is the same amount of writing, but it’s easier to understand. And it conveys a greater amount of energy.
So the reason proofreading tools and writing teachers generally don’t like passive voice is because it’s passive. it saps the energy out of something. It’s how you end up with that formal writing where the impression that you have at the end of it is is unclear. It’s muddy, you’re like things were done to other, meetings which scheduled, minutes were signed off. But who signed them up? Who was there? Who is accountable? Who takes ownership? And so you can get a very muddy field from a lot of passive voice. However, sometimes the passive voice is appropriate. So you have to use a feeling. I mean, if you were writing a novel for instance, the door was open from outside is mysterious because you don’t want somebody to know who’s opening the door. Because it’s the killer who’s coming through the door. There’s, there’s a reason.
But absent a good reason to write in the passive voice, the active voice is better. But we tend as humans, to lean towards the passive voice precisely because there’s less accountability. You know, the meeting was scheduled makes nobody accountable for that scheduling, you know. People were told that the fire escapes would be locked puts no accountability on anybody. So we like it because it’s less direct. And as humans, we naturally write in a less direct fashion. So that’s why the proofreading tools err on the side of asking you to write an active voice, but it is not always the right answer. And I frequently tell Grammarly that its suggestions are not helpful. But it is helpful that it is making suggestions.
Is there a way of determining when to write the copy yourself or outsource the copywriting project?
Question from Glenn, who asked this question in LinkedIn this morning. Glen asked, besides gut feel, is there a way of determining when to write the copy yourself or outsource a copywriting project? What I tend to say to people is, where the words matter, it is better generally speaking, if it’s financially viable to get somebody to write it who is an expert in writing the words. Because, you know, if you you are an expert in what you do and you’re, you know, okay, at writing, then you’ll get okay results from your writing. If somebody who is an expert at writing writes it, then they should get better results than you will get. So you know, there is, it’s to agitate, it’s where they’re valuable. So for instance, if you’re writing a website, you know, I would say it’s, you know, then you should definitely get somebody else to write it. Because you’re going to get someone with an external perspective on what’s valuable about your business and expertise in presenting your business in a way that’s valuable and understanding all the writing techniques that do that.
So we’ve got some website copywriting examples up on our website at the moment, and I think many people would be surprised if you. We’re redoing them at the moment. So if you go to the Resources section, at taleist.agency and go down to the copywriting tips section, you’ll see some of our more recent website copywriting examples, and then there’s an example section there. And we’re going to be updating that with new stuff. But my point is that you’ll see that we break down a lot of what the words are doing. So often, I think people read a website and go, well, of course, it would say that. And yeah, that seems natural, that seems okay. And when you take people there, and we’re saying that for this reason, and we’ve positioned that here for this reason, and that is doing that to that people. Generally, even the client themselves are really surprised by all the technique that’s gone into it.
So I would say if the words matter, and there’s money riding on it, that’s basically what it boils down to. You know, if you’re going to write to 1000 people and ask them to engage your services that really matters, I would be getting somebody in who is an expert in doing that. You know, not dissimilar to buying a house. You know, if I was building a house and I wanted it to stay up, I wouldn’t be using me as the builder. Oh, Glen, I hope that answers your question. And thanks for asking that in LinkedIn this morning.
What is the optimal length of written content on a landing page?
Rick also asked a question in LinkedIn this morning. And he said, we’re always playing around with the optimal length of written content on landing pages. What is your opinion? This is one of my favorite topics, which is why I pulled this question out of the bag to answer today. Web designers and we, you know, we do a lot of stuff online. And most, it seems to me, certainly in Australia, that most of the time that people go for a copywriter, they’re generally going for a copywriter for their website. Web designers like things to be short in little boxes and you know, with big pictures. Because you know, the words get in there, they clutter up a good design. But test after test shows that long copy converts better than short copy and long copy converts better, gets people to do what you want more often than short copy.
Because if you’re sitting in a meeting with somebody trying to persuade them to use you, you can give them your spiel. While you’re giving your spiel, you can see okay, I could see she was tuning out at that point. That she didn’t believe me when I said that. Or I can see that he really liked it when I said that. So, you know, when somebody wants to buy my product, it’s normally for one of three reasons. His face lit up when I gave the second reason, so I’ll now say more about that. And then the person to whom you’re talking in person can ask you questions. And when they finished asking all the questions that they’ve got, then the sales conversation is over. And either they’re going to buy or they’re not going to buy. You don’t need to answer questions that they don’t have.
When it comes to a landing page, somebody has arrived on your page and the job of your landing page is to act as your salesperson in print. But your salesperson cannot look at your face and see what you’re reacting positively to what’s making you look dubious, what’s making you light up. And it cannot know only what questions you have as a reader. So the landing page has to answer all the questions that might possibly come up. It has to put forward all the virtues of your product in sufficient detail, as if that you know, was the main virtue for that person. So long copy tends to sell better. So my point about whether it should be long, or it should be short is, and this is the method that we teach in our landing page copywriting course. If you’re interested in learning how to write a persuasive landing page, you can go to the Taleist website to our training section. And you will find our landing page copywriting course there.
But as an overview, we teach what I call the objection. Objection to acceptance method. So you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, what are all the, what, what’s the value of my product or service to somebody. This landing page is selling a product or a service. What is the value of that to somebody? Why would they want it? And you position that at the top of the page, like hey, this is amazing. These strawberries are juicy. They’re refreshing, and they’re packed full of vitamins. And you know, you’ll live forever if you take them. That’s up at the top. Then you got to think what are all the reasons why somebody wouldn’t buy the product? Oh, yeah, but you’re selling strawberries. But it’s an hour and a half from my house. I don’t drive that far for strawberries. Or I’ve heard you use pesticides or whatever those reasons are, you list them. And the length of your landing page is determined by how many, you know how many objections there might be, and how long it has taken you to dispense with all of those objections.
Now, if somebody has an objection like there’s never enough parking, you don’t need four paragraphs to deal with that. You just need to say there are 50 parking spaces outside my office or whatever it might be. So some objections can be dealt with very quickly. Some objections can’t be dealt with quickly and you need more stuff. And you might need to come at them with more angles. So the length of your landing page is determined by, at what point have I expressed the value juicily enough that somebody will want to buy this. And I’ve dealt with all the reasons why they still might not buy it. So if you know, if you’re writing a landing page for middle aged men, and you say I’ve got, you know, a Porsche outside. It’s red and it’s free. You probably don’t need that many words, right. But if you’re trying to persuade me to buy the Porsche, then you’re going to need more words to sell me the Porsche.
Keep in touch on the Taleist website, YouTube, Facebook or LinkedIn
So again, Rick, I hope that that answers your question. We do have more questions, but it’s coming up to half-past one and we like to keep these sessions in about half an hour. They do happen every week. So if you go to taleist.agency/SOS, you’ll find the link you can sign up for the mailing list. You’ll get emails also, you can subscribe on YouTube or Facebook. And you’ll be notified when the sessions the next sessions are. But at taleist.agency/SOS, you can ask your question in advance. And on YouTube, you can go back and see previous sessions and we’re also breaking those previous sessions out into individual answers. So there are a whole load of videos on our YouTube channel, showing you where, giving you lots of answers to lots of your writing and copywriting questions. But I hope to see you at the next Taleist Stand out session. Thank you for coming.