I often compare writing a successful direct-response sales letter to passing your driving test…
Providing you don’t make any major errors and you manage to keep the minors to a minimum – you should be OK.
If figures then that when you start learning about copywriting, you generally tend to focus on avoiding the bigger blunders.
Just as you’d rather not run over the instructor’s wife (and accidentally admit you’re having an affair with her too)…
You’d also be better off to include a clear call-to-action at the end of any direct-response sales letter you’re writing.
It makes sense, right?
But as your copywriting improves, you realise it’s not the big errors that are holding you back…
It’s the little ones.
In isolation, these hiccups don’t seem like a big deal.
But the fact is: too many small mistakes can be as bad as a major one.
Sure, you can get away with clipping a curb once…
And you can probably talk your way out of forgetting to check your rear view mirror on turning into a new street.
But when you do both of those things AND you place your hand on the instructor’s knee instead of the gear-stick and wink in an attempt to make a joke of it…
Well, you know you need to book a re-test.
And it’s the same with direct-response copywriting: there are many things you can get wrong that seem insignificant by themselves. But cumulatively, they can kill your copy.
One such seemingly innocuous error called out to me from a newspaper article I was reading on the train home recently.
Though the piece itself was from the sports pages – don’t worry – it has nothing to do with sport.
Take a look and see if you can spot the error?
Aside from the fact that the sentence is so long it leaves you breathless, the problem is pretty simple: it’s the duplication of the word ‘excellent’:
“QPR have an EXCELLENT chance to build on the momentum gained in their EXCELLENT win at Southampton tomorrow by taking maximum points from Sunderland at Loftus Road.”
As I say, it’s almost trivial and obviously in the context of this very small editorial piece, it’s hardly worth worrying about – hence it slipping past the sub-editor’s eagle eye.
But this struck a chord with me because it’s an error I see so often in direct-response copywriting. And when it comes to long-copy, it can be much more damaging.
Of course, the duplication here is in the same sentence and therefore it’s more obvious. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you’ll see the same word repeated in the following paragraph.
This is still a problem.
The reader’s mind will remember it and, subconsciously, it will disrupt its reading of your copy to check back to see where it saw it previously.
Not good. You want your reader’s full attention, right?
(On some occasions you can use this to your advantage to instil key words and phrases in the reader’s mind that you actually want them to remember. We’ll look at how this works another time.)
As much as possible, it’s important to avoid needless repetition like this.
And the best way I find to do that is to read your copy aloud.
Remember, this is all about flow. Good copy is easy to read and should run smoothly when read aloud. But if you have duplicate words close together, a reader is more likely to stumble or hesitate.
Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that anything that stops the reader progressing through your copy is a problem. They might let you off once or twice, but if they keep having to re-read certain sentences or paragraphs…
Well, you’re going to lose them.
So, to make sure you avoid any lazy duplication, always read your copy aloud, conscious of any needlessly repeated words. As soon as you hear an echo, mark it.
Once you’ve read through the whole thing and you’ve marked any words that might be noticeably repeated too often, use the word processor search function to highlight each word in turn.
This will enable you to see just how often you’ve repeated it. You can then work through your copy, assess if the repetition is unavoidable or if you can replace the over-used word with appropriate synonyms.
Finally, to make sure your hard-work pays off, re-read the piece aloud again to ensure that it now flows smoothly and any needless repetition is banished.