With more than 350 million copies of his stories sold, it’s hard to deny that Stephen King knows the secret to writing that sells. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he discusses the beginnings of his career, his ups and downs, and his advice to other writers hoping to make a living by selling their work.
Even though King’s writes fiction, his tips easily apply to copywriting, since they encourage being clear and concise with your storytelling techniques. When you write copy, you’re also telling a story – the story of how the business you’re writing about can solve the problems of its potential customers.
Here are some of King’s main pieces of advice for writers that especially apply to good copywriting.
‘Get to the Point’
King urges aspiring writers to value their reader’s time by reducing the amount of ‘noise’ in a story. In other words – kill the filler. He classifies this noise as long intros, unnecessary anecdotes, and excessive babbling that can get in the way of telling a story.
Applying this tip to copywriting should be a no-brainer. When you spend too much time setting up a point, you can lose the attention of someone who doesn’t have time to cut through the filler to find the real message you’re sending – that the business you’re writing about is the best choice.
Getting to the point is even more crucial in web copywriting, since the typical attention span of someone looking for information online is a mere few seconds – much tinier than someone who’s reserved an afternoon to get into a good book.
In this bridal site example, you can see how the fluffy language gets in the way of clearly delivering the main message. Scanning the existing copy to distill the most important points produced this:
Best For Bride offers a wide selection of elegant, high-quality dresses and accessories for weddings and special occasions, with options for purchase or rental. Whatever your price range, body type, or event, you can shop online, or visit our stores in Toronto, Etobicoke or Barrie to find everything you need, including:
- Traditional, modern, or one-of-a-kind bridal gowns
- Bridesmaid dresses
- Mother of the bride/mother of the groom dresses
- Cocktail dresses
- Prom dresses
- Clearance and discount dresses
- Accessories including veils, tiaras, gloves, shawls, and jewelry
Plus, we’ll help you select the fabric, colour, and style to ensure you find the perfect dress for your special day.
If you compare the above copy to the current Best for Bride About Us page, you’ll see that all of the unnecessary filler has been killed. From almost 1,600 words, down to just 111. Much better, right?
‘Be Relatable and Honest’
When Stephen King writes, he tries to create the most honest, believable characters possible, by writing them with both good and bad qualities. He also uses uncomplicated language, opting for a more conversational style with easy-to-understand vocabulary, rather than fancy words.
Being honest, and being clear are both important qualities of good copywriting. Advertising copy, and advertising in general, often gets a bad rap for promising happiness in the form of products. When writing your copy, only offer the truth about what you are selling, without making promises you can’t keep. You don’t have to expose the bad as King does with his characters, but you can be honest about the benefits of your product.
Using relatable language is also important, because you want your copy to be understandable to the average reader. This doesn’t mean that you have to ‘dumb it down’ necessarily, but you should avoid obscure language that sends them flipping through a dictionary, or abandoning your copy altogether.
King believes that using the first words that come to mind is a good method. This might not always work in the case of copywriting, but straining your mind to find words that make you sound smart will only make your copy sound forced and unnatural, not to mention hard to understand.
When you edit your copy, ask yourself if there’s a simpler way to get your idea across, and exchange obscure words for more common ones. A good way to do this is by reading your copy out loud. If it sounds unnatural to you, it will read that way, too.
‘Write the Draft. Then Let It Rest’
Editing is a crucial part of the writing process, and King’s tip in this regard is to write your first draft, and then let it rest for a while before editing. The reasoning behind this is that when you are writing about the same topic for extended periods of time, you tend to get into a stale mindset. If you let your first draft rest while you exercise your mind in other ways, you can come back to your text with a fresh perspective, almost becoming your own second set of eyes.
King put away his first drafts for several weeks, which may not be realistic for your deadline, but there is no rule on how long your draft should rest. Even a few hours can be enough to recharge your fine-tuning skills.
‘Cut Down Your Text’
After you’ve let your draft sit, King suggests coming back and removing even more unnecessary filler text. You might be surprised how much more you can remove, while still getting across the same message. He refers to this process as ‘killing your darlings’ or, in other words, getting rid of those parts of the story that you couldn’t let go the first time.
This step involves closely examining every word and asking yourself whether it supports your main point. If you can’t put your finger on why it should stick around, then it’s time to make the cut. But be careful not to remove the vital parts of the story, however, lest you kill it altogether.
King received a tip in a rejection letter that he believes was a golden ticket: the second draft = the first draft – 10%. Of course, this number won’t always apply to everyone all the time, but challenging yourself to reduce the amount of words you use to get a point across is killer advice for any writer.