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Kill Cliches and Go Deeper: 4 Questions to Improve Your Copy

In 2012, I wrote everything from restaurant news to educational curriculum to blast engineering website copy, but as the year closes, I am reminded how the writing process can be both as painful as a bloodletting and as satisfying as placing the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle as I wrote, massaged and sweated over three essay pieces I submitted to our local newspaper’s call for columnists.

Marketing copywriting is straightforward. Punchy verbs, short, synthesized ideas and calls to action drive landing pages, direct mail letters and website content.

Publication writing requires objective alliteration, service points and a friendly, readable voice.

An opinion column must employ all of these with the additional offer of a jugular vein. Inherent to editorials are reader responses, agreeable or scathingly otherwise. Short of writing a memoir, I can’t think of a more exposed stage on which to be vulnerable.

It’s frightening.

My tendency, of course, is to draw upon copywriting and publication work protocol, arranging words and arguments but daring to add but a dab of my own big toe.

In these moments, my inner editor comes down especially hard. He challenges me to up the process, asks me to be better, or as someone once told Matt Damon, “don’t suck.”

It is no accident that the letters on my delete key are nearly worn away. I became intimately familiar with it as I waded through cliche sludge and circled ever deeper into my soul as I was forced to submit my writing to these  questions:

  1. Are you saying what you think they expect you to say? Too often, the answer was yes. First drafts are notorious for skimming surfaces and putting too much stock in what we think our audience wants. Antiseptic arguments and underbaked opinions make for dry, tell-me-something-I-don’t-know  reading. Who wants to waste time on that? Jeff Goins, a writer I admire, says readers “can tell when you’re being disingenuous. It feels too clean, too literal. Our souls thirst for more.” He challenges writers to write things that ache, that readers won’t agree with, that points to a broken world but tries to make sense of it. In other words, write with the truth we find within ourselves.
  2. Are you showing or telling? Showing writing incites imagination, adds texture and touches readers’ five senses. I could say I had a good Christmas morning or write about the aroma of fresh coffee and cocoa or how it felt when my three fully-grown children hopped on my bed and sat cross-legged with their Christmas morning stockings, wiggling with anticipation as they nudged my husband awake. Showing a story moves dreary to dynamic.
  3. What is really the big question or conflict? For one of the pieces, I wrote in circles about the homeless problem in Redding. Part fear and part unsifted processing kept me from making a point. It took 3,000 deleted words before I landed on the big question. Without conflict or conclusion, writing is rambling. But it takes guts to stay with a piece long enough to find out what it is you really want to say.
  4. Where are you in the piece? By far, this was the hardest for me. I had to first give myself permission to show up in my work and then be brave enough to be there.

It remains to be seen whether or not I’ll fill the columnist position but one thing is for sure, preparing for the audition forced me to hone my craft in a new direction and reminded me I can apply all of these to the rest of my work, too.

How about you? How are you stretching your craft? What can you do to take what you do in a new direction? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to share your journey.

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