Is 3 The Magic Number In Copywriting?

Many of us love reading and writing list posts or articles. They break down otherwise chunky paragraphs into straightforward, bite-sized nuggets of information that are easy to absorb and digest. They are also relatively easy to write, since one point doesn't necessarily need to flow seamlessly to the next in the way paragraphs do.

But do the number of points in a list matter? How many is too many, and how few is too few? Is there an optimum number that will ensure maximum impact for readers? While “74 Guaranteed Ways to Make Money Online” sounds sumptuous as a headline, how many points will one really remember after reading the article? On the other hand, a post titled “2 Reasons to Visit Bali” comes off as underwhelming and somewhat under-researched.

How Your Next Headline Can Engage Your Target Audience With Deadly Precision

The overwhelming importance of headlines needs no re-introduction, and as writers or copywriters, you'd no doubt have already mastered a rolodex of techniques on headline-crafting that drives positive reader response. Different situations call for different measures though, and if you experience struggles in aligning your headlines with what your readers desire to see, you can add the following tool to your arsenal.

The Brain-Scan Grid
When I was introduced to this nifty, audience-centric method at a Think On Your Feet® course, immediately I saw immense value in using it to write headlines that would cut right into the hearts of readers. The Brain-Scan Grid is extremely simple to use, and is made up of a table that basically looks like this:

Background Information

Twenty-Nine Ways to Stay Creative

A lovely infographic I came across on social media. Dedicated to all the blocked minds out there. Adopt where applicable.

Credits: Islam Abudaoud

Harnessing The Power Of Word Repetition

Word repetition is something that many of us have learnt in English writing classes to avoid. For good reason too.

Consider this copy accompanying a gift card from a store:

How does this card work? You use this card exactly like cash to make any purchase at the Check-out, Restaurant & CafĂ© and Food Market. You can make multiple purchases with this re-loadable card. The card has no value until purchased. The card can only be used in the country of purchase. The value of this card cannot be exchanged for cash. This card will expire if not used for two years.

What did you feel about the writing? Did it make for comfortable reading?

If it didn't, you could probably point out the problem rather quickly. The word "card" was driving you up the wall due to its sheer repetition in every sentence. A common fix would be to use connectors and pronouns to break the monotony.

On the other hand, when executed well, word repetition can become a powerful tool to drive home a message. Let's look at an excerpt from one of the most famous speeches in history courtesy of Sir Winston Churchill:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Now how did this compare to the first example of word repetition? How could the same literary device have made for such boring reading in one copy, but worked so brilliantly for another?

How Much is Your Writing Worth? (Hint: It Sure Ain't Worth Nothing!)

Recently an ex-colleague who had gone on to set up his own freelance writing business texted me, asking whether I would be interested in contributing paid articles for an online magazine that his company was about to launch.

Our exchange went well; the magazine's angle sounded appealing, the rates offered were pretty decent, and we came into agreement on copyright issues. Just as everything was seemingly done and dusted came this deal breaker in his next text message:

If you don't mind, we would like you to write us a sample article of about 300 words on an assigned topic. To see if your style suits our magazine and vice versa. You ok with that?

Not one of those again, I thought. I wasn't about to write a customised article simply for a shot at getting a freelance assignment, and nothing more.

I politely turned down his request, and suggested that I send him a portfolio of my previous works instead for him to decide if I was suitable. Somewhat unsurprisingly, I never heard from him on this again, which put an abrupt end to the project before it even began. Was it one that slipped away? I didn't think so, because I knew my worth, and it sure wasn't worth nothing.

Writing for Free?
This is not simply a matter of pride. It's a case of protecting our own interests as writers, and from a wider point of view, looking out for the interests of the industry. Every now and then we come across news about people having to work below minimum wage levels to keep their jobs, or fresh graduates working for free in order to get one. That makes the news because it is an outrage. Yet how many times have we come across magazines or editors soliciting sample articles on specific topics of their choosing without offering a single cent, and how many writers have complied as if it was the norm to do so?

Perhaps some writers will reason that writing for free has its merits. Let’s examine four commonly-heard arguments, and allow me to put them into perspective.

Word Muddle 3: Unchartered & Uncharted

My writing juices were flowing, and I was churning out sentences like one smooth operator for my short story. But it all came undone in a matter of a few paragraphs down the page:
Al was beginning to feel an ominous sense of unease. He had been doing drugs for a considerable time, but helping to prepare them for distribution on the streets was uncharted territory for him.
Then it struck me, What does "uncharted territory" really mean? Could "unchartered territory" make sense as well? It was one of those phrases I always came across but never really paid attention to. My old wretched habit creeping in, I simply had to get to the bottom of the matter before I could continue with my writing.

A quick search on how news sites were using this phrase netted mixed results, bringing me some comfort that I wasn't the only muddled one.

This word muddle put me in uncharted/unchartered waters.

And The Point Is...?

As editors we have come across our fair share of less-than-stellar writing that, in better of moods may leave us mildly amused, and on other days can be downright infuriating.

The tell-tale signs are there when a writer is struggling for depth, or is desperately trying to fulfill a word count to meet submission guidelines. When I came across this paragraph in a manuscript for a students' magazine, it was probably a case of both:

Superstition gives us a sense of control over situation (sic) when we feel that we are no longer in control. By practicing (sic) superstition in situation (sic) of importance and uncertainty, it benefits us psychologically as it helps to reduce tension and reduces the sense of helplessness in a seemingly hopeless situation. 

Do not try to cheat an editor! We will sniff you out in a second, and writing in circles essentially saying nothing does your credibility no favours. Always take a step back to re-read your writing before submission to ensure that it is to the point and actually headed somewhere:

Superstition can psychologically give us a sense of control in important or uncertain situations by reducing tension and feelings of helplessness.

Write to clarify, not stupefy. Your readers (and editors!) deserve better.

The Ideal Writing Environment

What is considered an ideal environment for writers to perform at their optimum? Peace and quiet at home? Solitude in the countryside? Or at the very least, a neat, uncluttered working area?

With hectic schedules, never-ending commitments and crazy deadlines to meet, we know the above are often only attainable in the realms of fantasy. Even the uncluttered working area.

I used to emphasise on setting up a "good" environment to get into a writing mood. My desk had to be tidied up, some light music turned on, and a cuppa by my side. And then I'd begin. The problem was, I seldom began. While clearing my desk, I would get distracted. A magazine lying there? I'd start browsing. A stack of notes? I'd start rearranging. So this would go on, and by the time I was finally satisfied that my desk had the semblance of a proper working space, I would have been tired out, and lost all momentum to write. Another day gone, another day wasted.

Then a few years back I had the fortune of attending a talk given by Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and one of the editors of the wildly-popular blog Boing Boing. One of the things he shared about was exactly what I struggled with—a proper writing environment. His secret?

To Write is Not to Edit

Late last year, I was commissioned by my ex-company to contribute a number of real-life short stories based on interviews with reformed ex-convicts. The stories were to be compiled and published as a book. 

I was certainly breaking new ground with this project; I'd done editing, copywriting, and produced some articles and write-ups. Conducting interviews was a first. And story-telling was something different altogether.

Nevertheless, when I was offered this opportunity, I jumped at it. But I gauged the amount of effort required on top of my regular work and knew I could not do it on my own, so after some discussion with the publisher, I roped in a friend to co-author the book with me. He could write well, there was no doubt about it, but he was a greenhorn to publishing, so this was a first for him as well.

I'll mention more about the book next time, but in this post I'd like to talk about the functions of writing and editing, using this experience as an example.

The Agony of Slow Writing
Writing this book turned out to be an immense struggle for me as I grappled with research, arranging for interviews, listening to the interview recordings, taking down notes and trying to piece the stories together coherently.

But the hardest part of it all was when I actually got down to writing the story. I was literally stuck, one word at a time. I could spend an entire night reading everything I'd written right from the beginning over and over again, trying to improve on whatever that was written thus far, and thinking of what I could write in the next line. I often sat through hours drawing a blank. I couldn't believe it.

Four Easy Steps to Writing a Great Headline in Five Minutes

If you are reading up to this point, I reckon this headline has successfully retained your attention, or better still, brought you into this site from elsewhere because of it!

We all know the importance of a headline; the short string of words that makes or breaks an article or a copy. As a result it also gives us one of the biggest headaches when trying to pen one that packs the most punch. And when time is of essence and a deadline is looming, we simply can't spend the entire morning mulling over those few words that are to appear in larger typeface.

Which is why I find the following method a real time-saver in coming up with a simple but solid headline that can accompany the body of almost any promotional copy. In fact, I used this very method to write the title for this post, and hence I'll use it as an example here.