How to Write Well: The World’s Simplest Formula

May 31, 2010  |   Posted by :   |   Copywriting,Corporate Messaging,Corporate Writing,Slideshow   |   5 Comments»

Guest Post by Michael Masterson.

Writer Insider Note: Michael makes a compelling case for balancing logic and emotion in every communication, something I learned very early in my career. Separately, logic and emotion can be powerful in their own right. Together, they are the mark of a good ‘salesman in writing.’ Michael completes his essay with a coldly-objective way to evaluate the potential success of any given communication. What do you think of it? Leave a comment and let me know.

Here’s Michael’s article:

“Good writing is like a windowpane.”  George Orwell

My income is based almost entirely on writing. And it has given me a very rich life — rich in every sense of the word. It can do the same for you.

I spend half of my working time coaching copywriters on how to write better marketing copy. I spend the other half writing memos.

The purpose of most of my memos is to persuade my clients to make business and marketing decisions that will make them more profitable. If I fail to persuade them, my ideas don’t get tested. If they don’t get tested, I can’t help them make money. If I can’t help them make money, they will stop paying me. To date, I have never lost a client. (Knock on wood.) I attribute my track record to the effectiveness of my memos.

Over the 30-odd years I’ve been doing this, I’ve developed many complicated theories about what good writing is. But now I’ve jettisoned them all in favor of a very brief, straightforward definition.

My definition of good writing applies to every sort of non-fiction writing that I can think of. It applies to writing books, magazine articles, and direct-mail sales letters. It applies to business correspondence, telemarketing scripts, and speeches.

Here it is:

Good writing is the skill of expressing compelling thoughts clearly.

That’s it.

When I say this to copywriters, I get incredulous looks. “How could it be that simple?” I can hear them thinking.

And then I explain. And re-explain. And eventually some of them get it. And when they do, their writing gets much, much better. Their incomes get better too.

Let’s go over that definition in detail. It has two parts:

(1) Compelling Thoughts and (2) Clear Expression

By compelling thoughts, I mean ideas that make the reader think, “Boy, that’s interesting!” Or, “I never thought of that before!” Or, “I’ve got to remember this!”

Good writing, then, has nothing to do with correctness. It doesn’t matter if the idea you are expressing is well reasoned or even factual. What does matter is that your writing engages your readers intellectually and emotionally and then motivates them to do or think what you want them to do or think.

Notice I said intellectually as well as emotionally. I have Don Hauptman, a living legend in the advertising business, to thank for that additional word.

After a speech I made to a group of 300 marketers and copywriters, in which I emphasized the point that advertising had to be engaging on an emotional level because people buy for emotional reasons, he strongly objected.

“This lie,” he said, “just invites the critics of advertising and capitalism to charge that consumers are being ‘manipulated’ by evil businesspeople who exploit their emotions and irrationality. So we’re cutting our own throats if we perpetuate the ‘it’s all emotion’ fallacy. I know you don’t want to encourage that, any more than I do.”

He is absolutely correct. Not including the intellect in this discussion is incorrect and potentially harmful. It invites critics of advertising to accuse persuasive writers of pandering. And it encourages writers to believe that if they pander, they are writing well.

The most successful marketers and copywriters know that good writing requires us to engage our readers on both levels simultaneously. Ezra Pound had the same theory about writing poetic images. He called them “emotional and intellectual complexes in an instant of time.”

The Aha! Effect

And that is what I mean by a compelling thought: an emotionally and intellectually engaging idea expressed clearly and succinctly so the reader “gets” it in a moment. That is what produces the Aha! effect.

Malcolm Gladwell is an expert at this — which is why he has become a multimillionaire by writing books about arcane and academic subjects. His detractors naively knock him, arguing that some of his ideas are incorrect. But as I’ve already said, correctness is not what makes for good writing. It is the effect it has on the mind and the heart of the reader.

If you want to be a wealthy marketer,copywriter, or businessperson, you must be able to come up with compelling ideas. You must be able to recognize ideas that are intellectually and emotionally engaging, ideas that will arrest and charge up your readers and make them think, “That’s good! I never thought of that before!”

How do you find intellectually and emotionally compelling ideas?

In all the years I’ve been struggling to answer this question, I’ve found only one answer: You must read.

Successful writers are all voracious readers. Their ideas don’t spring fully formed from the thigh of Zeus; they come from hours of reading — reading vertically and horizontally about the subject at hand. They read and read until they come across something that gives  them an Aha! experience.

I’d like to tell you there is an easier way. Some copywriting gurus will tell you that you can swipe good ideas from successful advertisements, past and present. This is horseshit, plain and simple. Stolen ideas are like luxury cars. They lose 40 percent of their value the moment you take them out of the showroom

The reason my number one client is the dominant publisher in the information publishing industry is precisely because its 100+ writers have had my definition of good writing drummed into their heads. They know that they can’t expect to write blockbuster promotions consistently without compelling ideas. And they know how to find those ideas.

Ask them how they come up with their great ideas and they will tell you: “I read and read until I find one.”

Where to Place the Compelling Idea

The compelling idea must be in the lead. It cannot be lingering on page three or 33. It must be up front so the reader can have his Aha! moment before he tosses the copy away.

It is the same for writing essays or memos.Present your most compelling idea very early in the piece and your readers (prospects, clients, whomever) will be excited. If they are excited, they will read on with enthusiasm. If not, you will lose them.

If you have the good fortune to discover several compelling ideas, put the best one first and let the others follow as soon as possible.

Don’t make the mistake of “leaving the best for last.” You don’t have the liberty to do that. Hit ’em quick and hit ’em hard with your best stuff and spend the rest of the ad/essay/memo proving your points.

You must prove your points, because people tend to be skeptical of new ideas — no matter how compelling they may be. Your reader’s subconscious tells him: “You have just been seduced by an intellectually and emotionally compelling idea. Before you act on it, make sure it makes sense.”

So the good writer knows he must support his compelling ideas rationally by providing compelling proof that they are “true.”

Truth, of course, comes in many shapes and sizes. And so does proof.

The Three Faces of Proof

There is factual proof. There is anecdotal proof. And there is social proof.

  • Factual proof is easy to come by if your idea has been well researched. Anyone with an Internet connection can find all the factual proof he needs on most any topic.
  • Anecdotal proof includes stories — factual and non-factual — that support an idea by “showing it” instead of “telling it.” Anecdotal proof is very powerful, because it appeals so immediately to the emotions. People are not skeptical when they are reading a story. Their purpose is to be entertained. This gives the writer a strong advantage.
  • Social proof refers to the influence that other people have on our opinions and behavior. A good way for a writer to support ideas with social proof is to use testimonials and expert endorsements.

So that’s how you incorporate “good thinking” into your writing. Now let’s talk about the second part of my definition of good writing…

Clarity of Expression

By “clarity of expression,” I mean the ease with which your readers can understand your compelling idea and the proof that follows. This is very important, because the easier it is to comprehend, the more likely it is that your reader will find it to be true.

There is a new science called Cognitive Fluency that supports this assertion. Among other things, it studies the effect of language on readers. What researchers have found is that a simpler statement has more credibility than a more complex one — even if they both mean the samething. It appears, the scientists say, that our brains are hard wired to trust simpler (and familiar) things.

New writers don’t understand this. They operate on the assumption that good writing is grandiose. They strive to make their writing intellectually and emotionally impressive or even intimidating. They have been mis-educated into believing that complexity is a sign of good thinking. And so they complicate their writing with convoluted sentences and uncommon words.

This is a big mistake — a mistake that is obviously foolish if you think about it. After all, if you have gone to the trouble of coming up with a really good idea, why would you want to hide it from your readers?

The best tool I have found to help writers keep their language clear and uncomplicated is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. The FK (as it is known) looks at the length of your sentences, how many syllables there are in each word, and other data. The result is a score that indicates how easy the text is to read. At ETR, our policy is to keep the FK below 7.5 — which means the average seventh-grader should be able to read and understand it easily.

To help writers understand what I mean by good writing, I ask them to include two things at the top of the first page when they submit an essay or advertising copy to me for review: a one-sentence explanation of the main idea and the FK score.

When I see an entire paragraph above the copy, I know — without even reading it — that the writer hasn’t identified a truly compelling idea. And if that paragraph contains long, complex sentences, I know he’s way off base. I send the piece back.

If the FK score is above 7.5, it gets rejected too. I reject it because I have found over many years that essays and advertisements that have high FK scores don’t get results. I used to think it was because they don’t get read. That is certainly part of the reason. But after learning about Cognitive Fluency, I now understand that it is also because they don’t get believed.

Let me give you an example of what I’ve been talking about here. What follows is a paragraph by a seasoned financial writer. I had asked him for a brief summary of the “big idea” for his next essay. Here’s what he sent me:

“Simon Properties is making good on its promise to swallow up the minnows. It’s buying mall owner Prime Properties for $2.3 billion and not even using up all the cash it’s been hoarding to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace. Simon is big and flush with cash. And it’s doing what big bad companies should be doing… beating up their little brothers, grabbing the best deals out there… getting bigger… and capturing market share from other companies.”

I e-mailed back, telling him that I could see, by reading between the lines, that he had a good idea in his mind. But he had failed to identify the core of it. He had failed to turn it into a “big idea” that he could base his essay on. Here’s what I said in my e-mail:

“You say that Simon Properties is a good buy because it is buying up smaller, cash-starved businesses. This is a sound proposition, but it’s not a compelling idea. It’s really just an assertion. To make it emotionally compelling, you have to make it both more universal and more unique. You have to find the idea behind your idea.

“In short, you have to find something that would make your reader sit up and take notice. You have to give him an idea — preferably in a single phrase — that he could repeat that night at a dinner party, something that would launch an interesting discussion.

“For example, you might have said,’There are companies — I call them Sharks — that outperform the market by three to one by gobbling up good profitable companies that are small and easy to ‘eat.’

“That is an engaging idea. The reader gets it immediately. He wants to know more.

“But to make this work, you would need to prove to your reader that, in today’s market, Sharks are good investments.Only after you have done that will he be interested in your assertion about Simon Properties.”

So now you have my simple formula for good writing — the skill of expressing compelling thoughts clearly. To come up with compelling ideas, you must read until you experience an Aha! moment. Then you must prove your promises and claims with clean, simple language — language that scores 7.5 or below on the FK scale.

This discipline has saved me lots of time and has accelerated the learning curve of every writer who has worked under my direction. I recommend it to you.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • arfa

    January 19th, 2011 on 2:06 pm

    Great article and highlights what we copywriters already know and understand. When a prospect turns into a buyer, they buy on emotion first and justify with logic later.

    Writing compelling pieces requires a sound understanding of the core message and then plumping it up with emotion, facts, figures, scenarios and most important of all – benefits.

    I always find that your headline should engage the reader by a) mentioning the biggest benefit and b) written clearly and simply so ANYONE can understand what it means.

    When writing for others, consider the audience and pitch it at their level. No one wants to spend an hour reading an article or promotion if they need to pick up the dictionary every few minutes – that’s just plain showing off and highly unnecessary.

    Use technical jargon only if your audience is familiar with it, or else explain it as necessary. Better still, if you really don’t need it in your work, leave it out.

    The idea is to write something which can be understood immediately and which can engage the reader on many levels, especially emotionally and intellectually. And no, being an intellectual doesn’t mean painting your work with fancy words, it means being able to write a compelling case for something which makes the audience understand and agree and see it from your point of view.

  • Andy Bartling

    January 19th, 2011 on 2:19 pm

    From Arfa of LinkedIn’s Copywriters group:

    Great article and highlights what we copywriters already know and understand. When a prospect turns into a buyer, they buy on emotion first and justify with logic later.

    Writing compelling pieces requires a sound understanding of the core message and then plumping it up with emotion, facts, figures, scenarios and most important of all – benefits.

    I always find that your headline should engage the reader by a) mentioning the biggest benefit and b) written clearly and simply so ANYONE can understand what it means.

    When writing for others, consider the audience and pitch it at their level. No one wants to spend an hour reading an article or promotion if they need to pick up the dictionary every few minutes – that’s just plain showing off and highly unnecessary.

    Use technical jargon only if your audience is familiar with it, or else explain it as necessary. Better still, if you really don’t need it in your work, leave it out.

    The idea is to write something which can be understood immediately and which can engage the reader on many levels, especially emotionally and intellectually. And no, being an intellectual doesn’t mean painting your work with fancy words, it means being able to write a compelling case for something which makes the audience understand and agree and see it from your point of view.”

  • Andy Bartling

    January 19th, 2011 on 2:19 pm

    Beautifully said, Arfa.

  • Rosie Heptonstall

    January 20th, 2011 on 3:16 am

    Hi Andy, some good insights here. I discovered the Flesch-kincaid readability test recently and it’s really helped me to improve my writing. I know there are no magic tricks to writing great copy, but these sorts of ideas help to get us all going in the right direction. Thanks!

  • Andy Bartling

    January 20th, 2011 on 8:29 am

    A new comment from a LinkedIn reader:

    “Hi Andy, some good insights here. I discovered the Flesch-kincaid readability test recently and it’s really helped me to improve my writing. I know there are no magic tricks to writing great copy, but these sorts of ideas help to get us all going in the right direction. Thanks!”