By “writing to the market” I didn’t mean “gearing your work-in-progress to match current market trends” (which, I feel compelled to add, unless you are a spectacularly fast writer with a very good agent, is a fool’s game).
I mean “writing to the market’ as in writing copy for marketing. Which is what I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks.
You see, my wife opened a business.
For the past two weeks (and a bit more) we’ve been working on her website. But just as a website needs navigation menus and SEO tags, websites needs content. Content means words. And words means writing.
Anyone who can write can write copy; not good copy, but copy. It does not follow, however, that anyone who can write well can write good copy. Copy — content for ads, articles, brochures, catalogs, anything consumer-oriented, really — is an art form all its own. Verbs are punchier. All non-essential words (and perhaps even a few essential ones) have been cut away. The content “faces” the consumer, talks directly to the reader.
For those of us who are not professional copywriters, writing good copy can be next to impossible.
Which is where our old frenemy, our nemesis, the monster in our writer’s closet, comes back in. To paraphrase Hamlet, be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape editing.
Editing copy, I found, is editing on steroids. It’s Ken Rand’s Ten Percent Solution, trebled. And it’s bloody exhausting.
My wife wrote the original draft — her business, her words — and then we attacked it. We ran it through our standard edits; we dumped passive voice, pulled gerunds back into active forms, excised haves and ofs like precancerous growths. Naturally, the result was better than the original, but it still wasn’t “copy.”
I couldn’t put my finger on it for a long while, couldn’t really pin down the X-factor that kept what we’d written from being what I would consider “copy.” Our edited, polished prose was descriptive, it was accurate, it was well organized, it was lean, but it didn’t …
It didn’t engage.
That was it. The words didn’t engage the reader, didn’t reach out and tap folks on the shoulder and say “Psst…check this out.” As a writer of fiction, I have worked arduously to become invisible as an author. I don’t want my words to call attention to themselves. I don’t want the reader to say, “Wow, Kurt was really on his game when he wrote that paragraph.” (Well, better that than “Wow, this jamoke can’t write for beans,” but you get my point.) In fiction, I want my words to flow from the page into your mind without you being aware of it.
In copy, though, the words are more than just an information delivery system. They are actors. They perform for you, they tug on familiar tropes to get your attention and pique your interest. They manipulate with unabashed self-interest.
Once I grokked this concept, turning our prose into copy became easier. Words like client and customer became you. We tailored each sentence to fit the prospective customer, and talked to them as if they’d already made the decision to engage my wife’s services. The next step was to tone it down, pull it back from a Billy Mays shouty-font commercial level to a calmer, friendlier, waiting-in-line-at-Starbucks sotto voce level.
And it worked. What we now have is what I consider good copy. The content both honestly represents the product and also engages the person in the marketplace, the prospective customer.
Once again, the adage proves true:
You learn more about writing by editing than you do just by writing.