5 WAYS TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD SENTENCE:
More than mastering freshman English
“The skill it takes to produce a sentence,” Stanley Fish said, “the skill of lining events, actions, and objects in a strict logic — is also the skill of creating a world.” In other words, sentences are the engines of creativity.
Take this sentence for instance: “Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth.”
There is a mountain of meaning buried in those eight words. Sure, change the sequence and you change the meaning, but as long as you don’t screw with that framework, people will stay with you (unlike the misguided James Joyce).
But as a copywriter it’s not just about mastering freshman English. There’s more to it. Eugene Schwartz has the answer:
No sentence can be effective if it contains facts alone. It must also contain emotion, image, logic, and promise.
Here’s a great example: “Baby shoes: for sale, never worn.”
That’s Ernest Hemingway, and that little six-word story is possibly his best (his own estimation, not mine). Why? It’s a story selling a pair of shoes … shoes with an intense emotional connotation.
See, your sentences don’t have to say much. They just have to say the right things. Our imaginations will fill in the blanks.
So, when you are trying to get people to respond to your requests, subscribe to your email newsletter, or donate to your cause … you need to write seductive sentences, and you need to do it naturally.
Here’s how it’s done.
1. Insert facts
This is nothing more than basic subject and verb agreement: “Moses ate a muffaletta.” Logical and consistent. The building blocks of a story.
You insert facts by thinking through the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why. Think specific and concrete, but how you say it matters, too.
Compare “On the first day of winter Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth” to “On the last day of winter Moses fed his muffuletta to the woolly mammoth.” The significance is heightened in the first sentence, minimized in the second. All by one word.
And notice how your sympathies change when I write, “On the first day of winter, Moses fed his muffuletta to the three-day old woolly mammoth.”
Those new facts heighten the emotional appeal of that simple story. It’s the same sort of feeling you get when you read “Baby shoes: for sale, never used.”
2. Create images
It’s not a coincidence that the root of “imagination” is “image.”
Imagination is the capacity for people to see the world you are trying to paint. Intelligent people like to use their imagination. Don’t insult their intelligence by over-explaining, but also don’t abuse their intelligence by starving it.
Use active verbs and concrete nouns and you will naturally create images. “The buzzard bled.” Introduce one, two, or all of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound), and you’ll enhance those images: “The screaming buzzard bled.”
Use phrases like “imagine this” or “picture this” to signal to your reader you are about to paint a picture. That’s how I opened up the 10 Productivity Tips from a Blue-Collar Genius:
Imagine a fifty-something man in a blue long-sleeve shirt, the cuffs unbuttoned, his knuckles thick and coarse. He’s on the side of the road, quibbling over a stack of used cinder blocks with a merchant.
In those two sentences you learn the color of the shirt, the state of the cuffs, the condition of his knuckles. I tell you where he is and what he is doing in concrete language.
I use very precise language to tell you what he was doing: he wasn’t talking, he was “quibbling.” Something entirely different than chatting.
3. Evoke emotion
You can naturally get mood into your sentences if you follow the two steps above, but as a copywriter you don’t want emotion to be an afterthought. You must carefully plan and manufacture emotion.
This starts by asking: what is the dominant mood of your reader or customer? What problem is he or she trying to solve? Is it fear over losing a job? A spouse? A scholarship? Pride of donating to a good cause? Joy for finally getting muscular definition in his calves?
You must know what keeps your ideal customer up at night. What makes him get up early? What are his hopes, dreams, and fears? And then you must insert that emotion into your sentences.
In a post introducing the benefits of our Authority membership site, I wrote:
How often are these little tragedies repeated in your life?
- You write something clever, but everyone ignores it.
- You hear about a new opportunity, but don’t pursue it because you don’t have the skills or confidence to attempt it.
- You get overlooked by everybody – including your boss – because the guy in the next cubicle seems to know everything about SEO, email marketing, or copywriting.
- You hear about all the new clients your peers are picking up … but none are showing up at your door.
I identified the relevant pain and agitated it so the solution was a no-brainer. In other words, if you can identify with those conditions, then the solution is probably a good thing for you.
But notice those four conditions are all about rejection. Yet I didn’t use the word “reject,” or a derivative, once. I didn’t tell you the emotion you should feel. I simplyshowed it to you. Big difference in the quality of writing.
4. Make Promises
But as a copywriter you aren’t merely interested in heightening people’s emotions for the sake of heightening emotions, otherwise you’d be a novelist or screenwriter. Entertainment is not a copywriter’s bread and butter.
Getting action is.
So, you need people to see hope in your sentences:
- What promises are you making to the reader in this sentence?
- What advantages will the reader gain?
- What pain will they avoid if they obey you?
In the opening to The Dirty Little Secret to Seducing Readers I wrote:
I’m guessing you want to write copy that sells. You want to write copy so irresistible it makes your readers scramble down the page — begging to do whatever it is you want when they’re done reading — whether it’s to make a purchase, send a donation, or join your newsletter.
The promise is that you can learn how to write in such a way people can’t resist your words. And that’s compelling for the right people.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Writing great sentences takes work.
At first it may feel mechanical, wooden. That’s okay. The goal is to get to a point where you unconsciously blend these elements so they feel natural in the sentence and can’t be pulled apart.
Sort of like when a golf instructor stops your swing to adjust your mechanics. That may feel mechanical and unnatural, but eventually your swing becomes natural and he stops interrupting you.
Here are some exercises to help you improve your sentence writing:
- Copy great sentences: Hand-write 100 great first sentences. Memorize portions of great sales letters. Dissect killer lines.
- Opening and closing paragraphs: It’s arduous to consciously think about each and every sentence you write in a 500-hundred word article. However, you can pour energy into every sentence inside the opening and closing paragraphs.
- Headlines: Your headlines won’t be complete sentences, but they offer you an opportunity to focus closely on what you are writing.
- Subject lines: Unlike headlines you can use your subject line in an unconventional way. Write complete, robust sentences. “Thought of you while I was at the steam bath.” Who’s not going to open that email up? Measure responses, adjust, and test more ideas.
- Tweets: Twitter is the perfect mechanism for perfecting your sentences. You are forced to say a lot in 140 characters. And you get feedback. People either respond — or they don’t. Check for retweets, favorites, and replies. And if you don’t get a response, try sharing it again.
Got a (finalized) present from Kelsey today!
I don’t know how bif these are - posting this from my phone - but if you’d like any enlarged let me know.
Matching Avatars For You And Your Friends I guess.
AGHHH SO CUTE
my whole soul cries out for american magical realism
where are the little midwestern towns with the waving grass in summer and the deep snow in winter, towns full of young women in white and slender-wristed dead hitchikers drinking merle’s coffee
where’s john henry raising black dogs and sasquatch footprints left outside the public library and no-face charlie walking the streets at night, whistling ‘o susanna’
there should be crumbling overgrown cemeteries and diners with faded linoleum floors, and molly pitcher pours cheap beer on bingo nights and crows are good luck when you catch sight of them perched on the cart return outside of walmart and out of the corner of your eye you see coyote, laughing at you
I realize this probably isn’t a post you were looking for a response to, and I’m sorry if some of these are ones you’ve already read/don’t consider magic realism [esp. since magic realism is one of those things thats devilishly hard to define] but —
“The Witches of Athens” by Lara Elena Donnelly [the Athens in question is Athens, Ohio]
“Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” by Andy Duncan (probably almost anything by Duncan counts, tho I’ve not read v much)
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
“Anansi Meets Peter Parker at the Taco Bell on Lexington” by Douglas Kearney
“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel” by Shaenon K. Garrity
“The Ice Princess” by Jae Brim
“Hope Chest” by Garth Nix
Beloved by Toni Morrison (Also, I think Song of Solomon qualifies too, but I haven’t read that one yet.)
“All the Young Kirks and Their Good Intentions” by Helena Bell (okay, technically, science fiction-y, technically, probably doesn’t count, but also, i would ask you to consider the fact that it also totally counts)
“The Glass Bottle Trick” by Nalo Hopkinson (tho this leans more heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition than the magic realism side of things.)
“Non-Zero Probabilities” by N.K. Jemisin
“In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
“The Hotel Astarte” by M.K. Hobson
“Lark Till Dawn, Princess” by Barth Anderson
“Fate” by Jenise Aminoff
Honestly, probably the majority of Mojo: Conjure Stories edited by Nalo Hopkinson (which is where I read “Lark Till Dawn, Princess” and “Fate”)
“Jesus Christ in Texas” by W.E.B. Du Bois
And then stuff I’ve heard of/read about but haven’t yet to read, but am pretty sure qualifies & am fairly confident quality-wise:
“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” by Kij Johnson (which was first published in an anthology called The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales so that’s probably a good bet for some more, and looking @ the TOC there’s tons of good authors.)
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
“The Hag Queen’s Curse” by M.K. Hobson
“Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, In the City Under the Still Waters” by N.K. Jemisin
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
I can palpably feel myself leaving out some good stuff, but that’s as far as I can remember/fetch easily. It’s sort of light on novels, but hopefully it’s a start.
Oooh. Reblogging for later reading. I think the only ones on this list that I’ve read are Six Gun Snow White and Beloved.