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With elegant graphics dominating
communicationsˇand budgetsˇwhy
should anyone care how good the copy is?

writing clip art Hiring a professional writer can be hard to justify. In producing any form of communication, especially with the use of colorful photos and graphics, written text may be little more than filler which readers barely scan. If writing quality is not a high priority, if all that matters is getting the necessary information across in grammatically correct form, then there's no need of a professional. Anyone who did well in seventh-grade English can write your copy.

On the other hand, if the text must produce results, if it is to have particular effects on readers such as leading them to understand your message, feel a certain way about it and take actionˇthen it makes sense to use a professional writer experienced in developing the complex writer/reader relationship. It is the writer's job to design the reader's trip through your message and to see that the intended results are achieved. It is the writer's job to create writing that works.

Who's in control of your message?
While the differences between professional and amateur writing may not be immediately apparentˇespecially to non-writersˇthere is a big difference in effectiveness. Consider two saxophone players: a beginner in a junior-high band and a professional jazz veteran. Either can play "The Saints Go Marching In" from start to finish without missing a note. But while the beginner may render the song correctly, professionals achieve far greater control over their music, enabling them to reach an audience on several levels at a time. Writers are similar to musicians in that professionals have greater control. To be of value to you, a writer must have more than just the ability to understand your message and the results you want to achieve with it. You need a writer capable of understanding and empathizing with the intended audience, who can then design their experience of your message in terms of their needs, and who can control that experience successfully on many levels at once.

Getting attention, and keeping it.
No matter how good a piece of writing is, if it isn't read it can't do its job. Catchy titles and teaser lines, often combined with smart graphics, can grab attention and direct it to the text. But no matter how clever titles and teasers may seem, they cannot work unless they appeal directly to the intended readership by addressing their needs. Professional writers are better able to convey the feeling that something in the message is at stake for readers, that there is something to be gained by reading further, or lost by not.

The leadˇsometimes called the hookˇexists in those critical first few sentences where readers either become fully engaged or stop reading for lack of interest. Depending on the type of message, the lead may simply expand upon the title and teaser line, giving a broader look at the controlling idea of the message to follow in terms that appeal to the reader. It may also be a short narrative, a story illustrating that same controlling idea. Putting the reader directly into the story with use of second-person (if you've ever waited in a busy checkout line only to have your ATM card rejected for insufficient funds....) may be particularly effective. Professional writers structure leads appropriately for the message and the audience, often testing a variety of approaches to find which works best.

Experienced writers craft prose that reads smoothly and quickly. Awkward prose that has readers stumbling alongˇhaving to reˇread passages and secondˇguess at intended meanings-doesn't deserve to be read. Professional writing lets readers forget they are actually reading and allows them to experience the message more vividly. An appropriate narrative voiceˇwhich readers may imagine as a person speaking the text to themˇmust be carefully developed and consistently applied throughout the piece. It must be a voice they can trust.

The rhythms created by the arrangement of sentences and phrases should be varied and interesting, carrying text the way percussion carries a popular song. The pace of the writing is better if it ebbs and flows, bringing impact to the most important ideas. No one likes a droning monotone, whether written or spoken.

Too many clever lines or turns of phrase will remind readers they are reading and distract them from the experience of the message. Such intrusionsˇor clunky writing in generalˇcan undo what a good title, teaser line or lead have accomplished, by interrupting a receptive state of mind. The writer and the writing must be invisible unless there is something to be gainedˇsuch as name or slogan recognitionˇby being otherwise. John Gardiner once described the experience of reading good writing as a vivid and continuous dream. When you lose yourself in someone's message, as opposed to struggling through it, do you find yourself responding more favorably toward the message and the sender?

Subtext: the body language of writing.
Text is more than the sum of its letters and punctuation. Subtextˇthat which can be read between the linesˇis as important as the text itself. Subtext may be obvious to the point of being in your face or subtle to the point of being subliminal. Readers may be unaware of it, but it's still part of the message. For some audiences the use of subtext in the form of subtlety, nuance or satire may work. Others need a direct and consistent message in which subtext is held firmly in line with the text. In no case can your message benefit from the misplaced, uncontrolled or unintentional subtext that often appears in amateur writing.

Subtext must be part of the overall design, placed to strengthen the message and provoke results, and it must be tested to see that it works. Uncontrolled subtext may insult your reader's intelligence, confuse, misinform, reveal a lack of confidence in the message, or let your own goals show through too clearly. Even charities must keep in mind that their goals, however noble, are not as important to readers as what they get for contributing: feeling good about themselves.

One company who spent a fortune on slick brochures and wrote their own copy, concluded with the following sentence: "Now that you see the potential for increasing your company's efficiency, let us help." Not only had they failed to show such potential in the preceding text other than in vague, indirect terms-they risked insulting their prospects with the phrase: "Now that you see..."

Who wants to be told what they see? Isn't the assumption just a bit arrogant that someone else's company could be more efficient? No matter how obvious your faults, how eager are you to buy services from someone who points them out to you? Unfortunately the text in this brochure neutralized the effect of the impressive graphics, portraying the company and its thinking as immature. A professional writer would have delivered the key ideas concretely, then led the prospects to reach their own conclusions regarding efficiency. Don't we all like our own ideas better than someone else's?

Misused words, misplaced modifiers, bad punctuation or other mistakes can only damage your respectability in the reader's view. Newspaper gaffes such as this lead: Yoko Ono will talk about her husband, John Lennon, who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters; this headline: TUNA BITING OFF WASHINGTON COAST; or Berra-isms such as: "Half the lies they tell me aren't true!" are humorous, but only at the expense of the source. The worst case: problems such as these-or uncontrolled subtext-could make you and your message seem ignorant and unsophisticated to any reader who has a more mature perception of language and communication than does your writer.

Logic vs. emotion.
Humans are, whether we'll admit it or not, driven more by emotion than logic. Few of us are purely objective. We have two reasons for doing everything, one which sounds good (the logical one we tell others), and the real reason (the emotion-based one we keep to ourselves). Successful writers know this and structure their messages accordingly. Even ads for highly-technical goods which appear to present only facts are reaching their highly-technical customers on an emotional level through better, more compelling facts. Logic sells only when the audience can be provoked emotionally by logic. Even the most mundane, fact-bound message needs to be structured to inspire emotion within the intended audience. If it is not, it may fail its purpose.

Here's how a lock company added emotion and conflict to an otherwise factual delivery: "...with pickˇresistant cylinders, a full 1" throw deadbolt plus an exclusive steel door frame reinforcer to guard against 'kick-in' attacks..." If the audience were locksmiths, the technical facts might have been enough, but since the audience is homeowners the image of the "kick-in attack" uses the inherent conflictˇthe threat of burglarsˇto nail the point home emotionally. The features of the product are logical. The benefitsˇwhat the product does to meet the homeowner's needsˇare emotional.

Through discovery and use of the conflict inherent in any messageˇwhich may be developed through proposing and opposing arguments, the anticipation and answering of questions, and the pre-handling of objectionsˇa skilled writer will build the emotional pitch toward the key conflicts, arguments, questions or objections and ultimately show readers what they must do, or have or think to get their needs met. If the ride is properly designed, when it's over the reader will have made whatever decision your message requests.

Your message reveals your thinking.
Writing, in the eyes of most people, is far less important than thinking. Few realize, however, that writing is thinking. It is linear thinking forced into clarity by the restrictions of language. Writing is also a process. Your message is not something that should simply be done, it must be developed. A professional writer understands the writing process, knows how to involve you and your organization through as many cycles of feedback and revision as your message needs to mature and be ready to speak for you.

Ultimately, the process can bring rewards beyond just reaching an audience: With the guidance of a capable writer, developing your message could help you and your organization discover how to define and focus yourselves in new and useful ways. The writing process has a natural, almost magical way of clarifying existing ideas and inspiring new ones.

Who needs a professional writer? The answer, of course, is yours to decide. If this message has given you more to consider, if it has revealed elements of good writing that you hadn't known about before, then it has succeeded. If you still feel text has no role in your message beyond delivering the necessary information, then you truly have no need of a professional writer. But if your message must provoke, change behaviors or bring about specific results-then perhaps you should consider one final question: Are you comfortable leaving this responsibility in the hands of an amateur?

Quentin Eastman
Freelance Writer For Hire

©1997 All Rights Reserved

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