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The 4 Cs of Effective Writing

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Direct marketing writer offers tips that can be adapted by editors.

By Robert W. Bly

I confess: I love copywriting formulas! Why? For two reasons.

First, the best formulas are simple, easy to remember, and rapidly mastered. Knowing them can enable you to create copy that's twice as effective -- in half the time.

Second, the reason they became formulas in the first place is that they work.

Old-timers like me know there are literally dozens of time-tested copywriting formulas. Yet most of today's newbie copywriters have only heard of that handful, and have mastered even fewer.

Why is that bad? Because if you don't know all the formulas, you could unnecessarily be wasting your time reinventing the wheel each time you write. You also could be writing inferior copy that diminishes your impact.

I'd like to share a copywriting formula I use -- one of my own invention. I call it the "secret of the four Cs." It says that every good piece of copy is: clear, concise, compelling, and credible. Let's take a look at each element of the four Cs formula in a bit more detail.


What you write must be clear. Not just to you or to your colleagues or bosses, but also to your ultimate audience, the readers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson defines clarity in this way: "It is not enough to write so that you can be understood. You must write so that you can not be misunderstood."

The typical advice given to writing classes about clarity is to use small words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. This is sensible advice. Breaking up long text into sensibly organized sections, each with their own headings, also helps.

But clear writing stems primarily from clear thinking, and the converse also is true. If you don't really understand what you are talking about, your writing will be weak, rambling, and obtuse. On the other hand, when you understand your subject matter, know your audience, and have a useful and important idea you want to convey, the clarity of your writing inevitably reflects your well-thought-out idea.


Now, you may be thinking that "concise" might apply to other types of writing, but not to yours, because your audience favors long copy.

But concise and brief are not synonyms. "Brief" means "short." If you want to be brief, you simply cut words until you reduce the composition to the word count desired.

"Concise" means telling the complete story in the fewest possible words. In my direct response work, copy is long because, to make a sale or generate a qualified lead, we often have to convey a lot of information. But in good direct response copy, we convey that information in the fewest possible words --- no rambling, no redundancy, no needless repetition, no using three words when one will do.


It is not enough that copy is easy to read. It must be so interesting, engaging, and informative that the reader cannot put it down -- or at a minimum, feels compelled to skim the text to glean the important points.

A major reason so much copy is not compelling is it is written about things that interest the writer, not the reader. In marketing, the marketer is interested in his product, his organization, and, in particular, his "messaging" -- key points he wants to get across to the reader.

Unfortunately, the reader is not interested in any of these things. The reader is more interested in the reader -- his problems, needs, fears, concerns, worries, challenges, and desires.

As copywriter Don Hauptmann often said, the more your copy focuses on the prospect instead of the product, the more compelling it will be. The product is only relevant in so far as it addresses one of the reader's core concerns or desires.


Copywriter Herschel Gordon Lewis has noted that we live in an age of skepticism: Simply put, prospects are disinclined to believe what you say precisely because you are trying to sell them something.

Fortunately, there are a number of useful tools for building your credibility and overcoming reader skepticism.

One way to do this is by publishing a lot of content. Prospects are distrustful of advertising, but somewhat more trusting of information sources such as websites, white papers, and magazine articles.

[Editor's Note: Unlike marketers, as a publication editor your copy is usually accorded a presumption of credibility that others must work hard to achieve. Your challenge is not to achieve credibility, but to avoid losing it. That loss can happen through practices such as publishing articles that court advertiser favor rather than satisfy reader needs, offering advocacy (sometimes paid advocacy) in the guise of journalism, or otherwise abrogating your responsibility to serve reader needs and interests.]

Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 75 books, including The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Rancom). You can find him on the Web at www.bly.com, email him at rwbly@bly.com, or phone 201-385-1220. He also writes for Target Marketing Magazine, where the original version of this article appeared.

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