How to Write a Damn Good Sentence
Average copywriters write average sentences. You, I’m guessing, don’t want to be average.
You want to be great. You believe you can be remarkable.
That means you need to write damn good sentences … without even thinking about it … day in and day out.
Do that and you’ll become an unstoppable writing machine. You’ll become a killer copywriter.
See, everything you write … every blog post, every landing page, every email, short story, or Google+ post … begins and ends with a sentence. Bone up on your sentence-writing skills and those pieces of content will only get better and be more widely shared.
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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.
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 simply showed 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.
Your turn …
Each sentence in a 500-word landing page may not be great, but the more you pay attention to the fundamentals above and practice the techniques, the closer you are going to get with each draft.
Don’t give up. Keep plugging away.