Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sometimes I have to revise my copy five times before my client says it's right. What should I do? -- signed "Tired of Rewriting"

Dear Tired:

It's a sad fact: not all clients say what they mean or mean what they say. Part of your job as a freelance copywriter is to get the message straight---before you start writing. Most advertising agencies and design studios use an account planner to draft a “communications brief” (also called a "creative brief") at the start of any creative project. It’s an essential document that gets agency and client singing off the same sheet of music. But as a freelance copywriter, you probably don’t have an account planner. No problem, just ask your client the following six questions, the answers to which will make your life a lot  easier. 

Who are we talking to?
List the audiences and influencers for the project. Order them by importance. 

What do they believe about (Company/Product/Service) now?
Put down what the target audience thinks about your client’s company/product/service, e.g., “Target audience thinks that Company A only sells server software.”

What do we want them to believe?
Put down what you want the target audience to think about Company A after they read your copy, e.g., “Wow, I didn’t know that Company A offers a full range of software for desktops and networks.”

What is our key message?
The key message is the principal idea or claim your copy should deliver. Don’t confuse the key message with a tag line, positioning line, headline or theme. It is none of these. It is simply a one or two sentence statement that describes the focal point of the piece you are writing. Nail the key message correctly upfront and your copy will practically write itself. (Not really, but it will seem that way.)

The key message should sound believable. And interesting. The trick is to come up with a set of words that not only defines the uniqueness of your client’s company/product/service, but is also capable of supporting the creative concept you’ll develop.

Continuing the example from above, one possible key message might be: “Company A’s comprehensive software offering makes it easy for customers to find the tools they need to maximize their productivity and efficiency—regardless of the software platform they use.”  

What makes this true?
Using bullet points, list three to six facts or proof points about Company A that validate its key message. 

What affects the creative concept?
Describe any limitations or mandatories that affect the work, e.g., “In building Company A’s brand, it’s important to a find a unique space that Company A can own and occupy by itself. Therefore, the creative concept for this project should help define what that space is.”

One more thing...
The communications brief you develop is of no use until you share it with your client and he or she signs off on it. Once it’s approved, you’re ready to write. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Will using big words make my copy sound more intelligent? --signed "College Grad"

Dear College Grad:

Writing awkward-sounding, jargon-riddled compound sentences that run on for lines doesn't make you appear smarter. So what does? Writing more using fewer words. Don’t kid yourself; that takes work. Blaise Pascal (1623–62), 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, once wrote to a friend. “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” My wife’s grandmother defined a “lady” as a woman who  studies herself in the mirror before she leaves the house and takes off one accessory. Make that a metaphor for your writing. 

Most important, be sure what you write makes sense. The following example, taken from an actual published Letter to Shareholders, does not make sense. The implication here is that along with writing less, you must also write with greater clarity. In this example, the words were already there, so it was more a case of following grandmother’s rule and pruning away the unnecessary ones.

Our commitment to sustainability is deeply rooted in the culture of our company. We believe it is our responsibility to focus on leveraging our leading global platform to bring together the best and most cost effective, energy-saving and environmental practices from around the world to create value in a sustainable manner.
Our company creates sustainable value for customers and stakeholders by bringing together  the most cost-effective, energy-saving and environmental practices from around the globe. 

Your Assignment:
The world is brimming over with run-on sentences that don't make sense. Pick one and rewrite it. 

Dear Freelance Copywriter is brought to you by Robert Roth at ROTH copywriting.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What makes a good tagline good?-- signed "Slogan Challenged"

Dear Challenged:
As United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, "I know it when I see it." Freelance copywriters could say the same about good taglines. In an recent blog post, Creative Review asked a panel of industry experts to name their top five taglines. If you want to hone your know-it-when-you-see-it skills, see their answers here.

Dear Freelance Copywriter is brought to you by Robert Roth at ROTH copywriting. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What is the Rule of Three? Does it have anything to do with devil worship? -- signed "Gothic W. Riter "

Dear Gothic:

You’re thinking of 666. The Rule of Three is different. Photographers, graphic designers, interior designers and architects follow it. So why shouldn’t copywriters? Actually, many do.

Visually, the Rule of Three is about harmony…and odd numbers. Cecilia Walker at Cecilia Walker Design explains the Rule like this: “The basic idea is that details and objects that are arranged or grouped in odd numbers are more appealing, memorable, and effective than even-numbered pairings. While it is easier to create symmetry by balancing elements in twos, odd numbers create harmony.”  

In copywriting, the Rule is about words, obviously. But more than that, it’s also about what those words (or phrases) look like on a printed page or computer monitor (or in any other form of communications). Additionally, it’s about the rhythm of the words and how they sound when read aloud (or silently).

For instance, how enduring would Timothy Leary’s 1960’s mantra be if it was just “Turn on, drop out” versus the actual 3-part one: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”?

How memorable and engaging would the Pep Boys be if they became “Moe and Jack” instead of “Manny, Moe and Jack”?  

How iconic would Nike’s “JUST DO IT” be if it became “DO IT”?  

Copyblogger founder Brian Clark wrote an excellent, in-depth article on subject: “How to Use the ‘Rule of Three’ to Create Engaging Content” It’s a must read.

Dear Freelance Copywriter is brought to you by Robert Roth at ROTH copywriting

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I’ve been told my copy is too 'staccato.' I don’t even know what that means. What should I do? – signed “Short N. Choppy”

Dear Short:
Not to worry, a few well-placed transitions can fix your copy. Think of writing as a relay race: the runners are the sentences; the hand-offs are the transitions. Your job is to make them as smooth as possible.  Conjunctive adverbs and phrases can help.

A conjunctive adverb is an adverb that connects things. Use it as a transitional device between one main thought and another. Or to show relationships and sequence.  It can also be used to compare or contrast ideas. Most importantly [adverb], it can be used to shape the personality of your narrative voice. 

OK, enough grammar. Let’s look at an example of conjunctive adverbs in action:

Bennie’s cheese-steak sandwiches are delicious. In fact, they've been voted best in Philly six years in a row. What’s more, they’re made with 100% Angus beef. Even better, they’re on sale now. So, don’t waste your money elsewhere.  Instead, head down to Bennie’s, today.  

A Partial List of Conjunctive Adverbs and Phrases

as a result
at last
at the same time

just as
in addition
in comparison
in contrast
in fact
in the meantime
on the contrary
on the other hand
that is
to be sure
without a doubt


  • When a conjunctive adverb connects two independent clauses in one sentence, it is preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma.
  • If a conjunctive adverb is used in any other position in a sentence, it is set off by commas.

Dear Freelance Copywriter is brought to you by ROTH copywriting ---

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Is there a place for sentence fragments in my copywriting? -- signed Unpunctuated

Dear Unpunctuated:

Most certainly. Using sentence fragments can enhance your writing style by adding a more conversational quality to it and improving flow. For an example, I grabbed a paragraph at random from jelly-maker J. M. Smucker's 2009  annual report:

Here's how it read originally: 
"The 'Great American PB&J' has been part of family meals for generations and is particularly relevant for the comfort and value it offers in the current economic environment. As consumers reach for what is America’s favorite sandwich, we continue to offer both traditional and new alternatives."  

Here's how I rewrote the paragraph using sentence fragments:"The PB&J. America's favorite sandwich. And a staple on family tables for generations. In today’s economic climate, it’s more than just a comfort food; it’s also a good value. And as consumers reach for more, Smucker’s continues to offer both traditional and new alternatives."

There's something else going on here: the principle of three's. More on that later.

Dear Freelance Copywriter is brought to you by Robert Roth---expert Atlanta freelance copywriter.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What's my Swedish furniture name? --"Justa Chair"

Dear Justa:

This is not the first time I've been asked this question. Brand consultancies have spent countless dollars trying to figure out how a certain Swedish big-box furniture retailer comes up with the names on their hang tags. The answer is at the URL below: 

The Blogadilla Swedish Furniture Name Generator

By the way, here's what my Swedish furniture name looks like:

Dear Freelance Copywriter is brought to you by Robert Roth---expert Atlanta freelance copywriter.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What are the "Secrets of Copywriting" and how can I learn them? -- Unschooled

Dear Unschooled:
The secrets of copywriting are that not secret. Copywriter Bhaskar Sarma does a great job of revealing ten of them in his blog post, "From my Notebook:10 Copywriting Tips from William Zinsser" (author of On Writing Well).

It's worth the read---especially if you're serious about becoming a better writer tomorrow than you are today.

Who am I?
ROTH copywriting is Robert Roth---expert Atlanta freelance copywriter.

What I'm working on now
Writing more content articles for a global crop science company; finishing monthly newsletter for the CDC; in discovery phase of writing a  corporate capabilities brochure for Boston-based financial services company.   

Monday, July 25, 2011

What should a freelance copywriter know about folds? --"Always Flat "

Dear Always Flat:
If you're working with a ho-hum designer or looking for a way to impress your client, knowing how to fold a brochure can add a WOW factor to the project. 

Copyright © 2011 Blockbuster Print, Inc. All rights reserved.

Forget the conventional tri-fold; it's boring. Go for a gate fold. Or a double gate fold (my personal favorite). With a double gate fold, your piece can have two reveals (1 on the cover + 1 on the folded inside gates) and four inside panels for text. For more on reveals click here.

Another favorite is a Z-fold cover. It gives you two separate
front covers, (you turn the book upside down) which provide two separate signature (groups of four pages) areas. Just like a certain breath mint, this gives you two brochures in one. Great for playing two ideas off of each other. For example, let's say you are a custom tailor that also sells prete-a-porter suits. Your custom line goes inside one cover, your ready to wear inside the other.  

A handy folding guide is available at:


Monday, July 18, 2011

The deadline is looming. I'm tired. Is there a tool to help me think? --"Out of Ideas"

Dear Out of Ideas--

You're in luck.  Just head over to

It's called the Wheel of Concept, from Tribal DBD New York. Just enter your client's name, spin the wheel, and up pops an idea. Even better, you can download a PDF presentation of the idea, personalized with your client's name and logo.

Actually, there are now two wheels: the original for digital tactics and a recently added one for PR tactics.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Is there a recipe I can follow to become a better freelance copywriter? --"Alone in the Kitchen"

Dear Alone:
Yes. In French cooking, many recipes begin with the phrase: “Make a roux” (butter and flour cooked together). In creating annual reports, rack brochures, direct mail pieces, and other forms of marketing communications, we often begin with the phrase: “Make a reveal.”

What is a “reveal?” If you’ve ever read a humorous greeting card, then you’ve experienced a reveal. The format is generally the same: a setup on the cover—a question or something that piques the reader’s curiosity or is intriguing—followed by a strategic payoff on the inside.

How does a “reveal” work? Here are three examples:

Example 1: A regional power company was expanding into new forms of energy and needed a way to tell that story to investors. On the cover of their annual report was the phrase, A word about our future. On the first text page inside was the payoff— the single bold word, Energy.

Example 2: A national exterminating company launched a new commercial service and needed a direct mail piece to send to potential clients. On the cover was the statement, Now the technology to eliminate bugs fits in the palm of your hand. A visual payoff—a telephone handset—was used on the inside along with a call to action to call the company for a free inspection. This promotion was a self-mailer. (For more about using post cards, see June 6th post)

Example 3: One of my old self-promotion pieces was targeted to advertising agencies with agri-business clients. The cover asked the question, What could a nice Jewish boy from Miami Beach possibly know about farming? The one-word payoff on the inside: Plenty. The question-answer format is a popular way to create a reveal. A question on the cover piques readers’ curiosity—hopefully enough to cause them to open the piece. This promotion fit in a catalog 

Now it’s your turn…


Who am I?
ROTH copywriting is Robert Roth---expert Atlanta freelance copywriter.

What I'm working on now
Just finished writing content articles for a global crop science company. Starting on a monthly newsletter for the CDC.   

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I've been offered a job writing 200-word content articles for $10 a pop. Should I take it? "Unsure"

Dear Unsure:
Let's do the math. A good freelance copywriter can bill at $100/hr. or $800/day
For you to earn $800, you'll need to write 80 stories. 
So, what are you going to be--a good freelance copywriter or a content writer on food stamps? 
(It's a rhetorical question.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What can I do to strengthen my brand as a freelance copywriter? --"No Identity Yet"

Dear No Identity:
If you could add value to your personal brand for less than $50/year, would you do it? 
Here's how: Use a branded domain name for your email address. 
Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc---sure they're free, but they do nothing to set you apart from the mushrooming legions of freelance copywriters. Plus, they're a dead giveaway that you're a newbie. And they do nothing to support your brand. 
The good news is for less than $15, you can register a unique domain name. And for about $2.00/month, you can use it for your email address. For the details, just search on "domain name for email."  

Monday, June 6, 2011

I’ve put up a website to showcase my freelance copywriting services, now what? — “Passively Promoting in Pittsburgh”

Dear PPP,

No, this isn’t another SEO article. This one is about active self-promotion.  

For freelance copywriters, self-promotion boils down to one thing: helping you stand out from the thousands of other freelance copywriters, website writers, content writers, online writers, technical writers and PR writers out there. So, after you've put up a website, listed yourself on some directories, and maybe started a blog—what’s next?

How about a nice old-fashioned postcard?

Zig While Others Zag
Old is now new again. Forget email blasts; you need an opted-in list to send them. Consider a snail-mail postcard. Here’s why:
  1. Creatives—from copywriters to designers—hardly use postcards anymore, so yours has a chance to be noticed.
  2. A mailing address list is much easier to scrape and compile than an email list. If you don’t know names, you can address by title, e.g., “Marketing Communications Manager,” “Creative Director.”
  3. Postcards are fairly inexpensive. For example, you can print 100 4-color, oversized postcards at Vistaprint for under 25 bucks. But you don’t have to use them. Just search on "postcards" and take your pick of vendors.
  4. Show how creative you are. Make the card clever and engaging. In other words, make an impression. If they like your postcard, they'll probably like you. If you can afford it, print a folding postcard and use a reveal—put an intriguing headline on the cover, and pay it off inside.
  5. Show off your work. Create a portfolio postcard and include thumbnails of your best stuff.
  6. Specialize. For instance, if you’ve done automotive copywriting, create a postcard targeted to car dealerships.
  7. Postcards are easy to design (even a copywriter can do it). The postcard printer you use will have a free template you can download. You can also design your postcard in WORD or MS PUBLISHER. 
Sending out postcards can pay off indirectly as well. In my experience, promotional activity creates energy in the marketplace. Don’t be surprised if you get a call from a new client who wasn't on your mailing list. It happens.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What are Google Alerts, and why should I care? --signed "Out of the Loop"

Google Alerts are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic. Alerts are a passive source of valuable info, sort of like an online "wiretap." You can use them to get up-to-the-minute information and activity on the search terms of your choice. For example, set up a Google Alert for the term "freelance copywriter jobs," and you'll get information (and links) on new projects as they are searched for. Or set up one for the name of your client and keep up to date with key events as they happen.

Here's how to set up a Google Alert
Go to the Google search window, click "more" at top of screen, click "even more" at the bottom of the list, scroll down to Specialized Search, click "Alerts." Or just click here. Then follow the easy directions. Once you set them up, you can edit your alerts and add new ones to your heart's desire.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How can I add more creativity to my writing? -- signed "Waiting for the Muse"

Dear Waiting:

To write more creatively, one must think more creatively. Here are six ways to go about that:

Look at Other People’s Work
This is the low-hanging fruit. Get out some of those awards books and start turning pages. It’s a great way to kick start inspiration.

Make a Word List
More than just an exercise, the word list you construct can help you develop a concept. Write down (or key in) every word that comes to mind about your creative problem or key message. Don’t prejudge. Write down all the words that pop into your head, even those that don’t make sense or seem way off target.

Next, play with the words. Try combining a few of them. Add some synonyms to the list. Use one or two words in a phrase. Do words on your list suggest other words? Write them down, also. Next, narrow your word list down. Which words on your list link best to your key message? Put them on a separate list and think about them some more.

Sleep On It
This is a very useful and effective method for solving problems—creative or otherwise. Known as “unconscious problem solving,” it consists of feeding your mind a problem to solve just before you go to sleep. Psychologists call that incubation. You can think about the problem, read your notes or look over your word list. When you awaken the next morning, your mind magically has an answer.

TIP: If you don’t already, it’s a good idea to keep a pen and small pad of paper next to your bed. Sometimes the answer comes in the middle of the night, and unless you write it down, you won’t remember it. Promise.

Pretend you have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Some of us don’t have to pretend. In creative daydreaming, let your mind wander. Your subconscious will do the heavy lifting. Ask “Why?” Think of your creative problem as a big red onion. Asking why is a great way to peel back the layers and get to some inner truths. Police detectives ask "why" a lot.

If you’re part of a creative team, lock yourselves in a room for a brainstorming session. Start throwing out creative ideas in rapid-fire succession. Get someone to write it all down on an easel pad.

There’s only one rule: no discussing or analyzing the ideas until the brainstorming session is over. Sometimes it pays to let the ideas cook overnight before you evaluate them. The brainstorming context should be creative, playful, imaginative and fun. Don’t criticize or judge, no matter how lame the idea sounds.

Map your ideas
A mind map is a diagram of your creative thought process. You can draw it on paper or use an online program, such as Mindomo. Creating a mind map is a great way to break down a complex concept into simpler components. Or vice versa. You can use a mind map to put your creative thoughts down and see where they lead. 

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