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This site is essentially defunct. It hasn’t been updated regularly in many years, and much of the formatting, including the images, were lost during a move from one web host to another.

I’m blogging regularly on writing, story telling, language and life at simontownley.com, a site dedicated mainly to my fiction.

I also post about copywriting and marketing issues, albeit less frequently, at simontownley.co.uk – a site mainly focused on bringing in clients to my business.

I’m leaving most of the written content of this site online for now in case it is still useful to anyone. Some of the more tangential stuff will get pruned over time.

 

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I’ve given this blog a kick to wake it from its slumber, so that I can rant a little: Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song…

There’s been a debate, here in the UK, sparked by The Booker prize. It’s a literary prize for the year’s best novel.

It’s been controversial this year, even more so than normal, because the judges have been saying they wanted to reward books that were readable. That ‘zip along,’ as one of the judges put it.

The literary elite have come over all pompous and offended. The self-appointed literati seem to think novels need to be slow and ponderous and incomprehensible in order to be any good.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, a fair number of people, including quite a few who actually buy and read books, have been pointing out that it is, sometimes, an entirely good thing that a novel has a coherent narrative.

Not so, say the literati. A work of ‘literature’ should have higher ambitions than that. And of course, they do have a point. We wouldn’t want all the bookshops to be filled with clones of James Patterson and Jeffrey Archer, now would we?

So who’s right? Should we reward and hail the novels that contain literary ambition, which set out to chart new territory and stretch the art form? Or the ones that represent a damn good read?

I think you know the answer. Drum roll please. As readers, what we crave and desire and want and deserve and demand is….

BOTH!

Both goddamn you. Both, you silly little intellectuals in your ivory towers. Both, you publishing apparatchicks with your expense account lunches and your ridiculous shoes.

Why can’t we have novels that are well written and a good read? A good story, characters who come alive on the page, suspense, interest. Combine that with a strong theme, something to say about the human condition, imaginative use of language, care and control over every word on the page. Art and story combined. That would make for a terrific novel.

Is it really too much to ask?

 

 

Photo by h.koppdelaney.
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There’s hype all over the internet. You’ve probably noticed that already. It’s especially bad when people have something to sell, of course, although sometimes it’s simply people clamouring for attention.

With all this activity, people have to try hard to be heard. They make big claims, false promises.

As a copywriter, I can see a lot of people making a fundamental error with the way they pitch their products and services, or even simply the information they are offering for free. It comes down to a simple rule, one that most people are familiar with, and even if they’ve never heard it before, probably know it anyway, on an instinctive level:

If it sounds too good to be true…. then it probably is.

If someone’s offering you a way to make easy money, and there’s really no catch, none at all, then you’re right to be suspicious. If someone claims their online course will make you rich, or have you earning thousands of dollars a day in no time, then being wary, cautious of such claims is only natural.

If it sounds too good to be true…. then it probably is

You see, there’s a lot of people writing sales material on the internet, having learnt a few tricks here and there, brushed up on the tried and tested headlines techniques, and slapping together sales pages full of sound and fury that rarely signify anything more than an insatiable desire to con people out of their money by selling them garbage.

There’s a simple rule I often use when shopping around, on the internet or out in the world in general. It’s a bit of an admission from someone who makes his living by writing stuff for the marketing departments of corporations, but here it is:

The slicker the marketing, the worse the product.

The reasoning behind this is fairly simple and obvious. Some people invest all the time and money in developing or creating something great. Other people skip this bit, and concentrate all the time and money on the marketing, to shift their piece of garbage.

The slicker the marketing, the worse the product

Now, clearly there is a middle ground here, where sensible and legitimate businesses invest in their product / service, and then promote it with balanced and generally true marketing messages. But bear with me here, I’m trying to set things out in black and white, get some stark contrast going.

So, those with the great product tend to rely on word of mouth, letting people try the product or service and see for themselves how good it is. While those with garbage to sell will focus all their attention, and if they can, all of your attention, on their big, fat ‘BUY’ button.

Some of these people make money. Many of them probably earn much more than you or me. But that doesn’t mean we want to be like them and it doesn’t mean we should try to emulate them. Because, even putting the morality aside, it’s a strategy with a short shelf life. And in truth, it only really works consistently well when you’re selling snake oil and get-rich-quick schemes to mugs.

So, if you’re writing sales material for clients, or for yourself, or if you’re simply trying to promote yourself, your creations, your efforts, remember not to over promise. Don’t make claims that people won’t believe. If you make people suspicious, you’ll lose their trust, and the sale. Focus on the real benefits, the real value.

Half the trick to copywriting is finding that true value, and highlighting it in a way that catches the attention of those who will genuinely benefit from it.

I’m not saying that’s easy, or that it leads to instant riches. But at least it’s honest, and in the long run, it’s better marketing.

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A copywriter is someone who writes sales copy. It’s part of marketing and advertising, part of business, and persuading people to part with their money.

Like all of business, however, there are good, honest elements to copywriting (persuading people of the real value of a product or service) and there are the less savoury aspects (conning people into buying c**p).

I’ve been lucky, in that most of my work is done in the business-to-business field, where the less savoury side of copywriting doesn’t rear its head too often. I also turn clients down if I don’t trust them or approve of their business methods.

One area of copywriting that I’ve always steered clear of is the ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. I’ve just today had to turn someone away, who was pleading for help in getting his business venture off the ground.

He’d already been rejected by 55 other copywriters, and he was desperate for me to help him.

Don’t throw good time after bad money. Move on.

Now, swallowing my pride, and refusing to get narked at being number 56 on his list (as you can see, he needs help with his marketing…), I offered to take a quick look at what he was planning to do. My worst fears were confirmed. He is involved in selling products offered by one of the many internet marketers out there. He is selling information products about business opportunities. He insists this is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

I can’t be bothered arguing with him. And I wished him every success. But I had to say ‘no’. Partly, this was self-preservation. He wanted a sales page like this. In return, he was offering 5% of sales, with no up-front payment. That’s not very generous, to be honest.

But I also have a problem with this whole area of business.

There are so many people out there on the internet selling information products about how to set up in business. They sell this information to their customers. All the information seems to amount to is a guide to doing exactly the same thing – the student is encouraged to set up their own business, selling information products about how to set up in business.

Really. I’ve never bought one of these, so tell me I’m wrong by all means. But from what I can tell, that is the whole of the business model. They make it sound exciting (that’s why they need copywriters), and they sell a dream. But the poor student is left out of pocket, and trying to get a business started in a hugely competitive field, with a second-hand, third-rate product.

My advice? Don’t throw good time after bad money. Move on. Because there’s a name for that particular business model. It’s called a pyramid scheme. And even if you do make money out of it, it won’t be good for your karma, your peace of mind, or your reputation further on down the line.

Photo by Yasin Hassan
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The writer’s guide to irony

I have no intention of debating irony. I’m leaving it to this this guy.

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Here’s the fastest way to improve your writing, or master any writing style

If you want to master a particular writing style, there’s one proven technique said by many to be the fastest and possibly most effective method going.

It’s a technique that can be used to master anything, from writing in the style of a particular author, matching a writing voice, or learning how to create copy for specific purposes, such as sales pages or advertising.

What’s more, it’s possibly the simplest and cheapest method you could ever hope to find. You don’t need books, or courses. It takes only minutes to learn. And you don’t even need a computer.

You don’t need books, or courses. It takes only minutes to learn.

All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, plus some text that you would like to emulate. That could come from one of your favourite writers, or from a great sales page, or from a newspaper, magazine – any piece of writing that you really admire.

You take the original text, and you write it out by hand. Again and again. As many times as seems necessary. Once is helpful. Doing it five times or more is better still. If you really want to master the secrets of how a piece of text was put together, you keep going, writing it out by hand until it seems like its part of you.

It’s great way, for example, to learn the rhetorical tricks and techniques used by master writers, or to get a feel for how they express their ideas using a unique voice. This technique won’t necessarily give you full conscious awareness of the writing techniques being used in the original. But you will learn the lessons on a deeper level.

Write it out by hand. Again and again.

If you want to emulate one of the great writers of fiction, or a master prose stylist, then this is an immensely rewarding, and enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

It’s also one of the fastest ways to learn how to write effective copy for use in advertising, sales and marketing environments. It is method recommended by Ted Nicholas in his book Magic Words That Bring You Riches, and by Maria Velosa in Web Copy That Sells. Maria writes:

In web copywriting, the best way to model success is to select a website that you admire greatly and that you know has produced tons of sales for its owner. Start copying it by hand. Write the entire sales letter out in your own handwriting. Write it out two or three times over the next week. Depending on how fast you write, this will take roughly five hours—less if you write quickly or if the sales let- ter you choose is short.
This takes a lot of discipline, not to mention time, but I assure you, it is worth the effort. You will not know the value of this until you do it. It’s positively eye-opening.

So, if you want to emulate any writing style, from the directness of web sales pages to the high rhetoric of the greatest prose stylists, the shortcut is to take out your pen and paper, and get copying by hand. Give it a try, a let me know your thoughts if you can. I’d be interested to hear how you got on.

Photo by e_walk via flickr.
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If you’re selling your own products on the web, or promoting affiliate products, then you need to produce compelling sales copy.

Ideally, you would hire a professional copywriter to do this for you. But what if you can’t afford one, and simply have to produce your own sales page?

How hard is it? Not too hard, providing you can write a decent sentence or two.

In this post, I’m going to give you a five step formula for producing sales copy for use on the web. It’s not the final word in copywriting, but if you simply want to produce an effective sales page, this will get you started.

You’ve set out the problem, shown why other attempts to solve it went wrong, painted a picture for what life could be like if only it would go away, and demonstrated that your product is the true solution. Now tell them to buy it.

To start with, why would you write your own sales copy instead of going to a professional? Because copywriters are expensive. I should know, I’ve been working as a freelance copywriter for more around 13 to 14 years. Most of my work is for large companies, businesses with marketing teams and budgets and such like.

If you’re promoting a new business, or simply setting yourself up to sell some stuff online, bringing in a professional copywriter is likely to be one expense you’d rather avoid.

Don’t worry, I understand. I won’t take it personally.

So, you’re going to write your own sales page. Where do you start? With your audience.

1. Hey, what’s your problem?

Your product or service has been designed to solve a particular problem, a pain or a predicament that your audience faces. They may not know they have this problem, in which case you’ll need to let them know that they do. Or they may need reminding what a pain in the **** the problem can be in their lives.

As the writer, you should jot down what these problems are. Your headline and opening paragraphs are going to address this problem.

2. Why hasn’t someone solved this already?

So, your audience has a problem. Hopefully, (for your sales and marketing efforts), there are lots of people who share this pain, this predicament. So why hasn’t someone done anything about it yet? Why have previous efforts to solve this fallen by the wayside?

What’s wrong with those previous efforts? Why does the problem persist? Why won’t it go away?

3. If only

The next step is to ask what life could be like for your audience if this problem could be solved. Could their teeth be whiter and their smile brighter? Could they become smarter, richer, happier? Generalisations are OK, but it’s better if you can be more specific.

As the writer, you should make notes about all the ways your audience could benefit from your product or service. Think broadly. Think visually. Picture how the person’s life or circumstances could change for the better. Are there ways you can paint that picture with your words, so they can see it too?

4. What’s new?

So, the audience has a problem, it won’t go away, but if only it would, then life could be so much better. What’s new? Your product or service, that’s what. Now is the time to explain what is new and different about what you have to offer, how it can help them to finally overcome the problem and reap the benefits you set out in step three.

Make a note of what is truly different about your product, and why it changes the game as far as this particular problem is concerned.

5. Do this

You’ve sold them by now. You’ve set out the problem, shown why other attempts to solve it went wrong, painted a picture for what life could be like if only it would go away, and demonstrated that your product is the true solution.

Now tell them to buy it. Really. Don’t be shy about this. Tell people exactly what you want them to do. Do you want them to sign up, give your their email address, press the buy button, ring you? Whatever it is, make it clear.

How to write sales copy – a few more pointers

So there you have it, a five point plan for creating your own sales copy. But before you go, I’d like to point you in the direction of a few other posts I think you should read before you start to write.

First of all, be sure to read my post on how to write scannable web copy.

Check out some advance techniques for writing to persuade

Brush up your sales psychology with how to motivate anyone

And once you’re done, make sure you review the techniques for checking that your sales copy is on target

Incidentally, if you’re writing sales copy for someone else and need to interview them to get at the information you need, then this five point plan can also be a good way to structure an interview.

You can also use this as a way of testing the marketing viability of a product or service. For example, if your product doesn’t really solve a problem for someone, or doesn’t have anything new or different about it, then that’s a major obstacle. Maybe you have the wrong idea. Or you might need to change your product, adapt it to make sure it meets real needs and solves a problem that no one else is tackling.

Photo by Hilarywho via Flickr.
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How to write a press release: don’t

The secret to writing a great press release is simple: don’t.

Don’t set out to write a press release. Create an article, one that will grab the attention of the readership you are targeting.

You don’t have to actually write the whole thing, but you need an idea for an article, you need a story or idea that will grab those readers.

Once you’ve done that, selling the idea to the media should be a piece of cake. Because you are giving them what they are really looking for, which is content that will appeal to their readers.

Don’t set out to write a press release. Create an article, direct for the end readership you are targeting.

If you can make this leap, to stop thinking about what you want to say, not even thinking about the journalist, but think about what the reader of the newspaper or magazine might be interested in, then you have material which can make for an excellent press release. [click to continue…]

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Some years back, I knew a guy who started a business making puppets. This was long before the ‘Being John Malkovich‘ movie put puppets on the map (even if it didn’t really set out to make them cool again).

To this day, I don’t know how he hit on the idea. But making puppets was something he could do, and he seemed to enjoy. So he thought he could turn his hobby into a business.

Guess what? He didn’t sell any puppets. They weren’t bad puppets, you understand. That were probably pretty good, hand made and all that.

But there just isn’t a market for hand made puppets. Or any kind of puppets really.

He had made the classic business mistake: make something because that’s what you want to make, and then try to sell it to someone.

In business, you do market research, find out what people want, what they will pay money for, and provide it. That’s a business.

Making puppets blindly, then hoping there is a market, that’s a hobby at best, or more likely, a recipe for disaster.

Years later, the guy is an architect, so he’ll probably do OK in life. I think the experience really, really put him off puppets as well, which is probably a good thing.

So, writing? Well, similar principles apply. And I’m not just talking about writing for money, or in professional environments. Even if you write only for pleasure, you still need to consider the reader. In fact, scratch that. You don’t just consider the reader. You have to put them first.

Whatever you are writing, it’s not about you. It’s not what you want to say that matters, it’s the reader that’s important. How will they benefit from reading this? What insights will they take from it? What will they learn? Why should they care?

Take poetry. You know what marks out the ‘amateur’ poet? Emoting. Writing about their feelings.

Now, a ‘professional’ poet uses words to recreate a feeling, to help the reader share that experience. The poet creates an emotion, a feeling within the reader, using words. Everything is geared towards creating that effect: it’s all about the reader. Whereas the ‘amateur’ is just writing about himself.

So, in business, writing, or most other areas of life, it’s not about you. It’s about them.

Photo by Roberto Rizzato
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So, you’ve written a stunning headline, one that pulls your audience into your copy, eager to find out more.

What do you do next? You’ve done the hard part, so it would be a shame to lose them now.

Whatever you are writing, be it an advert, a blog post, an article, press release or letter, your opening paragraph needs to be compelling. It needs to grab your audience and keep them reading.

Are there techniques available for doing this? Tried and tested formulas?

There sure are: these are seven techniques for writing effective opening paragraphs. They come from the world of direct response copywriting, but will also work for blogs, articles, adverts, and probably many other forms of writing.

1. Be startling, or shocking

This techniques depends on delivering a startling or even shocking idea or statement that derails the reader’s train of thought, interrupting their patterns and breaking any boredom. It needs to be something that makes them sit up and take notice. [click to continue…]

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