I’m Writing to You like I’m Talking to You

Using a casual or conversational voice is a must when copywriting gets your message across in a friendly tone  and gets that message to stick. After all, who is your audience more likely to listen to – a tight-laced lecturer or someone telling a story?

It can be hard to find your voice when first starting to relax your writing – especially if you come from a structured background in journalism, academia or – yes – certain suffocating, creativity-killing content writing mills. If you learned to write in a formal or limited style, it’s a tough habit to break without coming off as trite, juvenile or even silly.

While developing an informal style of business writing might be a grammatical nightmare at first, it’s a great way to hit that common ground with your audience, build some trust and attract more customers for your client. Here are a few tips on how to loosen up that tight-assed writing.

Make it personal

Talk directly to your audience by using the word “you”. It lends a personal touch to your message by engaging the reader one on one. Using the more formal “those who” or “one” relays a sense of detachment by teetering on the lecturing fence.

Contractions are your friends

We naturally use contractions when speaking – it helps get the words out faster and it’s a more relaxed way to talk – so don’t be afraid to use them when writing. There’s nothing as irritating as reading, “Do not worry. You will be the envy of the neighborhood.” Instead of the more natural, “Don’t worry, you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood.”

Shorten your sentences

  • While this writing style is usually beaten into the heads of journalists, it’s often neglected or even discouraged in other writing genres. Let’s face it – shorter sentences make articles easier to read.
  •  You always come up for air when you speak, so try it when you write. Break up long sentences into two pieces by the clever (and simple) use of punctuation. Ellipses, commas, em dashes and semicolons are wonderful things … when used correctly.
  • If your run-on sentence contains two thoughts or messages, use a period. Period. And start that second sentence with “and” or “but”. While this may cause the specter of your high school English teacher to loom into view, shake it off and do it. We do it all the time when we talk; besides, it’s a catchy way to carry over the point of the previous sentence.

End with prepositions

Serious grammar Nazis aside, ending a sentence with a common preposition such as “of,” “in” or “on” will not cause fits in the majority of readers or editors. It’s actually a great way to write in the active voice while being conversational.

Many (if not all) of us have been taught that “You will be proud of the kitchen cabinets we build.” is correct, while “We’ll build kitchen cabinets you can be proud of.” is a punishable offense. Live dangerously.

Keep it simple

Conversational writing doesn’t mean choking every paragraph with jargon, bad jokes or overly technical terms. Keep it simple, just as you would in a regular conversation. Leave out the $10 words unless you’re targeting an audience that uses and understands them.

Adjectives are wonderful – great and faithful pals in the copywriting world, but only if used sparingly and creatively. Gushing is a no-no, so leave the purple prose to the Bronte sisters. Would you really want to read, much less submit, this sentence when writing for a florist shop: “Our carefully tended flora is so glorious that every wedding bouquet blazes with resplendency.” After laughing yourself silly … no.

Use slang where it works

Don’t overdo the slang or use mild profanity unless you’re certain that your audience uses it as a matter of course in daily conversation. While the occasional use of “hell” or “damn” is acceptable when writing for a motorcycle site, it might not sit as well with the owner of a kids’ consignment shop.

Everyone uses slang – but again, consider your target audience. Kids and younger adults use slang that many parents and older folks don’t get and vice-versa – so don’t use slang that is so dated that many potential customers wouldn’t recognize it.

For example, “keen” and “swell” would barely be recognized as words, much less as once popular slang terms, while the slightly less dated “cool” and “awesome” are still commonly used.

Don’t get ridiculous

Conversational writing is not at all like talking to a friend – so it should mimic a casual conversation, not reproduce it exactly. Don’t get too relaxed or informal when writing for a client (no cheesy jokes) and never wander off on unrelated tangents. Never pad the piece with useless “trendy” terms and empty filler words:

  • Very long
  • Really difficult
  • In the field of
  • At the end of the day
  • For all intents and purposes
  • One of the most
  • In light of the fact that

Okay, that’s enough of that.

Ask questions

Asking one or two hypothetical questions will add to the conversational tone of your copy, but don’t go berserk and toss one into every paragraph. The judicious use of such questions, followed by the answer, helps readers feel more engaged. After all, you’re speaking to each one of them personally, right? (see what I did there? ;) )

Read, edit and read again

  • Read your article out loud – either to yourself or to an audience – and take note of any copy that sounds forced or awkward. Fix it.
  • Pay attention to where you are in the copy when you stop to take a breath and then shorten either the sentence or the words.

Finally, take the time to “get to know” your target audience by visiting the client’s website and reading a few articles or blog posts. And don’t panic if your first few attempts come back to you covered in red ink – it takes practice to hit the right tone. Track your progress by checking your submission against the published piece or asking your editor for feedback.

Know Thine Audience

Updated February 18, 2015

Kristi Waterworth

It’s a much-spouted theory that start-ups are doomed and any business that’s been around more than a couple of years is probably going to start feeding itself to a dark pit of extravagance and hedonism as it expands.  Let’s assume that’s a given, why not?

The actually truth lies somewhere less dramatic, but only just: 29 percent of businesses that start today will be around in 10 years.  The number one reason those companies fail is incompetence — and I wouldn’t argue against that stat.  What I would argue, though, is that the true root of most business failures that aren’t related to too little start-up funding or freak accidents is specifically not giving a second thought to who makes up their customer base.

The First Commandment of Business: Know Thine Audience

Businesses everywhere make this same mistake, and they make it every day.  They have no idea who their customers are, so when they call me because they want to go online in the hopes of getting more attention, they can’t really identify their audience.

“Who is your audience?”

“I don’t know: the Internet?!”

Before you set out your shingle, stock your online shop or even dream of your future business, you’ve got to figure out who your customer base is — and that’s exactly who your audience should be.  You’ve got to get this right, because the Internet isn’t a little fish bowl on your desk — it’s the motherfucking ocean.  If you have no idea who your audience is, you’re never going to pick the right lures and fishing spots to reel them in.

Not all audiences or demographics are going to respond to the same type of marketing, and many will be receptive to specific styles of writing on your blog.  Although the casual voice dominates web marketing, there are some folks out there who still prefer to be addressed in formal English.  You have to know that right away — otherwise you can kiss your online customers goodbye.

Survey Says….

There are two main ways to identify your target audience and therefore, your target market.  First, you can decide who you want to target — that’s the easiest for a lot of products and services that aren’t really made for one group or another.  You can decide to market your free-range organic eggs to middle aged grandmothers.  Decide who you like, if you can, but cast that net carefully — after all, every demographic group has a few people that will undoubtedly want your product, but you need more than a few sales to stay afloat.

What I mean is that if you’re selling adventure vacations on the Colorado River to octogenarians, you might want to reconsider what you’re doing with your life.

The other way people identify their target markets is to look around them.  Who is already buying the product or service you’re selling?  Check out the competition when you’re just breaking into the market.  If you’ve managed to build a thriving business by pure dumb luck, survey your buyers — ask them who they are.  Are they males between the ages of 20 to 50?  Do they make above $25,000 a year?  Are they of a specific nationality or belong to a cultural or ethnic group?

These things do matter.  Your vegan followers are going to be repulsed by your brand new lambskin purses in the same way that your middle-aged Jewish male is going to go berserk over your new Nazi-themed hams.

So What?  Screw ‘Em!

If I’ve ever seen a single statement that marks the day a person has decided to drive their business into the ground, it’s these four words when uttered in relation to their target market: “So what?  Screw ‘em!”

Perhaps you’ve forgotten that your business doesn’t exist in a bubble of endless cash flow, where the only opinion that matters is yours.  You absolutely don’t have to be all things to all people (and eventually we’ll get around to why that’s not a great idea anyway), but you must strive to be the ultimate resource for your target audience.  In short, if you piss them off, they’re going to leave you high and dry.

Knowing your audience means understanding their needs and wants.  Knowing them means you can find them in the endless sea of the Internet.  Knowing them also means growing your business.  So, the next time I ask you who your target audience or demographic is, I want you to tell me something like this: nurses at major hospitals, aged 40 to 60; new fathers aged 20 to 45; or families who make more than $50,000 a year.

How to Piss Off an Editor

Updated February 11, 2015

Sue McCarty

Most experienced writers have dealt with an editor(s) who are so pinched, humorless and bitter that he or she most assuredly chewed broken glass for nourishment, dumped offal on the heads of innocent passersby from the garret window for fun and used the shredded dreams of writers as toilet paper.

Piss offNot all editors are like that, but all of them will – at one time or another – get you pissed off by not appreciating the effort it took you to produce 800 words on the fine points of buying canned vs. frozen corn. You will come to the conclusion that all editors draw their strength from reducing your carefully crafted – and knee-slappingly witty – work of word art into something unrecognizable.

Good writers take criticism on the chin and use it to make their work better, while others presume their writing has achieved such a level of excellence that they get insulted when editing or rewriting is required. How you deal with such inevitable requests is, of course, up to you – but getting pissed off at an editor because your ego is bruised ain’t the way to do it. Here are a few things that turn otherwise even-tempered editors into glass chewers.

Just keep typing

Get to the point. Run-on sentences are usually not created on purpose and everyone has written more than a few of them. When you do come up for air, do not leave them as is because you believe that – despite their length, they make perfect sense.

The truth is that reading them is exhausting and often confusing. You’re supposed to be a professional – figure out a way to break them up. There are many online entries (and claims to fame) for the “world’s longest” run-on sentence. Don’t add to the list.

Do the bare minimum

Whether you’re familiar with a topic or not, make the time to do some research instead of relying on your possibly sketchy and dated first-hand knowledge. When you do finish writing a piece, read the thing from stem to stern. You’d be surprised at how often you may have unknowingly repeated yourself a few paragraphs lower in the article.

If you’re asked for a revision or rewrite, don’t juggle a couple of sentences around and send it on back to the editor… you’ll just piss him/her off. Despite your enormous sense of justifiable indignation at the editor’s idiocy for not recognizing your genius, get the rewrite in on time and pout later. We all know you have far better things to do and far larger worlds to conquer, but hey – you wanted this fucking job, right?

Do your own thing

No matter how trivial the house (or editor’s) guidelines may seem, do what is required or don’t freelance for them. Editors have their reasons (speeding up the process) for asking you to follow specific formatting styles. Choke off that creative urge to “jazz” up your article with superfluous (and usually lame) jokes, bulleted lists and bolded or underlined bits of highly important text. Now.

Bitch on social media

Yes – you will be receiving unwanted, but hopefully constructive, criticism. What you do not want to do is publicly piss and moan about it every time you get called on bad grammar or punctuation. Giving your editor the proverbial double middle finger in public for less than stellar feedback is not only unprofessional – it could be a job killer. This is an insular business. Your shitty remarks will get around and no editor will want to deal with you.

Half-ass it

Most editors are also writers – they can smell bullshit a mile away. When you phone in a piece you’ve had plenty of time to work on, any semi-conscious editor will spot that crap almost instantly – and so would the client and most of your audience. When an editor is forced to: a) Send the mess back for a complete rewrite or b) Fix the dreck you cranked out the morning of your deadline – you’ve made a major mistake.

From that point on, all of your stuff – good, bad or indifferent – is under the microscope. The very sight of your by-line will crank up an editor’s radar. You’re doing your professional self (and reputation) no good by submitting un-researched, hastily-written and easily checked garbage.

When it’s all said and done, pissed off editors and butt-hurt writers don’t make much of a team – and certainly don’t accomplish much. If writing is what you want to do, then do it to the best of your ability. If you need help, ask for it. And above all, don’t try to bullshit an editor … we’ve been there and done that.

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit, I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”                 – Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934.