Ask Elmore Leonard – and other tips for good copywriting | Plain Text
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Ask Elmore Leonard – and other tips for good copywriting

Ask Elmore Leonard – and other tips for good copywriting

A while back we challenged ourselves to single out one thing we had learned in our time as copywriters. Here are the results so far from four people who write for Plain Text.


Paul Connolly, copywriter, journalist, novelist:
“Ask Elmore Leonard”

Sometimes I run into a wall on a project. Perhaps the client’s voice isn’t strong enough or I’m not capturing that voice. Anyway, I’m marooned. I’ll give it twenty minutes before I cave in and consult with the master, Elmore Leonard. Usually, it takes just a glance at his rules for writing and I’m through to the other side of the wall. The rule that always catches my eye? “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”


Andy Bunday, copywriter, cartoonist, art director:
“To change someone’s mind, first get inside their head”

A colleague asked me the other day: “Who are you writing for at the moment?”

“A middle-aged married man with erectile dysfunction, “ I replied.

He looked at me quizzically for a moment before comprehension dawned.

I was referring to my intended readership, rather than my client (a German pharmaceuticals giant with whom my primary contact was actually a female marketing director).

What I was getting at, and what my client actually understood rather well, was that in the end, all copy should be written for the benefit of the reader. If I get it right, then like the corporations that pay my invoices, I’m in business to provide a service to the consumer.

It’s the reader’s current beliefs, concerns, hopes and needs an effective piece of copy needs to address. A good brief should set all that out clearly. If it doesn’t, I ask for more information. Because I find it nigh on impossible to change your customer’s mind without first getting inside their head.


Paul Waddington, copywriter, mountain leader:
“Nothing makes good copy like a good brief”

I really had no idea this residential property company and its market were so interesting. At least not until Richard the ad agency planner told their story. He paced the room, delivering an impassioned monologue that perfectly and powerfully explained the product and the problem it solved.

When the client knows exactly what he or she wants – that’s when writers do their best stuff. The brief could be a 4-page doc or a fascinating story. But if it communicates the pure essence of whatever the proposition is, and what’s more, makes the writer care deeply about it, the resulting words will be 10 times more powerful.


Paul Roberts, copywriter, spin bowler:
“If you can’t oppose it, don’t propose it”

Former UK home secretary, chancellor, founder member of the Social Democratic Party (remember them?) and prolific biographer Roy Jenkins is reputed to have applied a simple test to policies and political pronouncements. If no sane politician would oppose them, then they were utterly meaningless.

To me, it’s a principle that applies equally to marketing writing – and is a great way to help root out cliche and jargon. Take the popular message “we want to be the provider of choice”: the only alternative is to be the provider forced on people, which – totalitarian leanings aside – is something few would aspire to. Or the promise of personalised service: do you know any business which would promote impersonal service?

It’s not just marketing copy where this applies. It often starts with tone of voice guidelines which advise writers to be “open, clear and direct”. Seriously, if you have to give writers this instruction, then maybe you should think again about which writers you’re using.

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