Some of my best copywriting lessons came from Ernest Hemingway and journalism.
One of my first copywriting jobs was with a marketer who upon reading some of my copy, said, “Are you sure you’ve just started copywriting because it doesn’t sound like it. This is really good.”
I told her to thank my journalism experience for that. Before I was a copywriter, I was an English and journalism teacher. I taught writing and studied lots of writers. One of my favorite authors was Ernest Hemingway. I liked his economy with words. His mid-scene descriptions. His ability to pack a lot of meaning into a few, simple words.
While Hemingway was not a copywriter, he was first a journalist and I’ve found many characteristics in his fiction writing that apply to copywriting.
These are the copywriting lessons I learned from Ernest Hemingway and journalism:
One true sentence
Hemingway said about writing, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
All copywriting starts with this one true sentence– your headline, your hook sentence, your USP.
Your job as a copywriter is to understand your product or service and your audience and write that one true sentence. When you do, you capture your audience.
Communicate difficult topics in simple, powerful ways
Hemingway said, “Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.”
Some of his most famous books were on a 4-6th grade reading level For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell Arms, even though they were about very complex topics.
As copywriters, we are often charged with taking a complicated product or service and making it easily understandable to the reader.
A copywriter who can make the seemingly difficult sound simple is a master at writing.
Show don’t tell
Using small details and descriptions to pull the reader in and see themselves using and benefiting from a product or service is key.
Hemingway said, “Write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feelings you had.”
We can’t tell them how to feel, but we can show them how they might feel and that is the difference. The features never matter as much as the benefits and when your reader seems themselves reaping the benefit, you’ve made a sale.
Brevity wins, but variety is the spice of life
Use short, simple sentences. This makes reading simple and allows for skimming which is what the majority of readers do.
This doesn’t mean that every single sentence needs to be short.
Breaking up short sentences with a longer sentence keeps your copy from becoming boring and improves the cadence. Read your copy out loud and see how it sounds. It should flow seamlessly. If it sounds like the sentences in our first grade reader, spice it up with sentence variety.
Short paragraphs are important too.
If a paragraph is too long, readers tend to skip it entirely. Forget what you learned in English class about 5 sentence paragraphs. A one-sentence paragraph is perfectly okay and often preferred when you are writing copy.
Plus shorter paragraphs create more white space on the page which gives the eye a break and also helps guide the reader down the page with ease.
Show empathy and know your reader
Hemingway knew how to “Get in somebody else’s head for a change. As a writer, you should not judge. You should understand. When people talk, listen completely.”
This advice is gold when you are trying to get into the head of your reader. Through empathetic listening, you can learn so much and then know how to write your copy.
Using your audience’s own words and experiences makes them say, “They get me. This is just how I feel. This was made for me!”
Make every word count
Hemingway was known for getting down to the bare bones and using words that were short, direct, and to the point.
Precise nouns and action verbs win out over adjectives and adverbs. Use adjectives and adverbs only when it changes the meaning of the word it modifies. Too often adjectives and adverbs are used as filler and repetition that detract from the key message.
Given a choice, use words that are simple and easy to understand.
A well-placed word impacts an entire sentence. A verbose word only complicates the meaning.
“Cut out the crap”
In typical Hemingway prose, his advice was to cut out the crap. Say what you need to say in the shortest way possible.
Once you’ve written, go back and shorten your wordiness.
Due to the fact that= Because
Concerning the matter of= About
Over time I came to the realization that= Eventually I realized
In the event of= If
At this point in time= Now
In spite of the fact that= Though
In the near future= Soon
Owing to the fact that= Because
Take your reader on a journey
The final lesson is how Hemingway used each sentence to take the reader on a journey.
He allowed each sentence to focus on just one small idea. Then he let the next sentence build on that idea. And the next and so on as his story unfolded in tiny, logical steps.
Imagine the simplicity of a sales page that does this.
Carefully structuring your sales page to take the reader on a journey through the headlines and copy results in a reader who won’t turn away because they want to read the next sentence.
Copywriting Lessons Learned
The true masters of the written word can teach us much, even long after their death.
There are many things I learned in school that I’ve never used again, but the copywriting lessons I learned from the writing of Ernest Hemingway and from my journalism classes are lessons I use daily with my copywriting business.
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