Q It Up: Copywriting Basics

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95Q It Up: This question is for the copywriters in the RAP Network. If it were up to you to give a novice copywriter some training, what would be some of the basic lessons you would try to get across? What would be some of the items on your “Do” and “Don’t Do” list? In what direction would you point them for further training and knowledge in the art of writing copy for radio?

Rob Frazier [robnokshus[at]yahoo.com] KLSX, Los Angeles: WORD ECONOMY: This is one of the very first concepts I try to impart to aspiring copywriters. You have sixty seconds to get your point across; make your words count! “Are you thinking about getting a new pair of eye glasses?” can easily be condensed to, “Need new glasses?” This then gives you more lines to extol the virtues of the optometrist, eyeglass store, or whoever the client happens to be. Hemingway was the master of word economy. Go read some Hemingway.

WRITE OUT LOUD: You are writing for the ear, not the eye, so make sure your copy sounds good. The only way to do that is to read it out loud as you’re writing it. Don’t worry if some doofus salesperson walks by and sees you talking to yourself; write your copy out loud. You will often find that the line that looks brilliant on paper, actually sounds, well, kind of stupid when read aloud. Your copy should have a natural, conversational flow to it. The only way to tell if it does is to write it out loud.

16 LINES EQUALS ONE MINUTE OF COPY: Use this simple formula and adhere to it and your copy will not have that annoying, rushed quality inherent in so much of today’s radio advertising (unless, of course, that is the effect you are going for).

IT’S NOT ART-IT’S A RADIO COMMERCIAL: Didn’t want to hear that one? Too bad. The sooner you accept this universal truth, the sooner you will attain peace of mind. Clients and salespeople are going to rip your darling little piece of copy to shreds, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it! Remember; it’s only a radio commercial. Practice some deep breathing exercises and move on to the next challenge.

ODDS & ENDS: Read! Not just TV Guide, but books, novels, short stories and poetry. Read some Henry Miller if you want to learn some interesting new (or arcane as the case may be) adjectives; Tom Robbins is the master of the humorous analogy; Steinbeck, an incredible storyteller; and if you’re looking for that “everyman” quality, anything by Charles Bukowski.

Know your stations target audience and write your copy for them, or more precisely, to that ONE PERSON. (Radio is the “one on one” medium, remember?) None of that “Hey all you guys out there…” crap, OK?

Finally, after spending four years at home with the kids during an extended hiatus from radio, here are some things that I will NOT write into a commercial: Crying babies, cell phone rings, sirens, bodily functions (belching, farting, vomiting…). All of these are MAJOR annoyances and distractions for your average listener and ultimately, TUNE-OUT factors. Face it, no one wants to hear a crying baby or cell phone that is not theirs, sirens in traffic are not only distracting but dangerous, and as for bodily functions, they get enough of that from your on-air talent already!

Well, that’s it for me (seeing as I’ve already violated my first rule!).

Happy copywriting!

Pete Jensen [PETEJ[at]kxly.com], KXLY Broadcast Group, Spokane, Washington: I’d encourage the novice copywriter to listen. To all the stations in the market, to the CD from RAP, to the BBC, to TV, to the Internet. And ask WHY something is good, or bad. What’s the target audience? Why was it effective/ineffective? Was there a clear message? Was it crammed with crummy clichés? (sorry) Listen actively.

I’d encourage the novice copywriter to learn how the words get translated into a spot: spend some time with the production person, see what works and what doesn’t from that perspective. Do the same thing with the sales department: go on some calls, see what they go through, see what works for them.

I’d encourage a look at danoday.com as a great starting point for more information, including books and links to other radio sites.

I’d encourage flexibility and daring: try everything at least once - don’t get stuck in a hole of your own making. Find someone you work well with, who can help you brainstorm new ideas. Have some fun.

And I’d remind the novice copywriter that it’s radio copy, not literature. Maybe some spots will be brilliant, but some will also be rejected. It’s bound to happen, so don’t take it too personally.

Craig Jackman [craigj[at]canada.com]: I asked our Creative Director, Cathy Pendrith to weigh in on this question:

“To begin with, I never hire a writer who hasn’t taken some college level copywriting courses. So, my novice writers, at least, have a basic knowledge of their position. They understand target audiences, and have been exposed to various creative techniques.

Once a new writer is hired, we hone his/her skills to make the commercials as effective as possible for the client. In training we stress the following: 1) Do not begin commercials with a “yes or no” question. You’re allowing the listener to mentally say no, thus psychologically they do not accept the message. 2) Do not cram your commercial with words. Forcing the listeners to try too hard to understand the message causes them to tune out. They will not retain the information in the commercial. Use a good read, sfx, music breaks, dramatic pauses etc., as radio’s “white space” to draw the listeners’ attention. 3) Do not include boring and unnecessary details (model #s, complicated directions, long price and item lists). If you can’t answer “who cares” it shouldn’t be included in the ad. 4) Do not lie. Ever. (Exaggeration as a creative technique is allowed) 5) Do not use clichés. 6) Only use one main idea for a 30" or 60' ad. If you try to get too many points across, none of them sink in. 7) Consider the “Primacy and Recency Effect.” People remember most what they hear last; second most what they hear first; information in the middle is often lost. Whatever you want the listener to remember should be the last thing the listener hears. 8) Do proper and extensive research. Discover what the client wants to accomplish; who the target audience is; who the client’s competition is etc. Work with the rep to ensure that a proper diagnostic interview has taken place, and keep in mind the marketing goal when writing the ad. 9) Edit. Then edit again. Remove all unnecessary words. If you see a preposition, you can usually remove it or rework the sentence to make it shorter. The word “that” is usually unnecessary. Consider each word. Is there a better one to use in its place? Use active verbs and nouns that create mental pictures instead of cramming the copy with adjectives. 10) Come up with a new way to impart an old idea. Make the commercial stand out in a stop set. Make it memorable. Surprise the listener.”

Scott Webb [ScottyWebbVoice[at]aol .com]: Basic lessons I would try to get across? Use your imagination, and not to copy other people’s work. Dragnet and Twilight Zone are not creative copywriting...avoid cliché! Know whom it is you are talking to and gear the spot towards the target listener.

Don’t list: Don’t say “located at...” Seems everyone says, “located at.” Just say the address. Don’t say conveniently located; that is simply impossible. And don’t say “our friendly staff.” Who would say they have a rude staff?

Do list: Make sure that the clients name is said clearly and at least 4 times. I would prefer at the top and bottom of the spot...it is important if anything at all to make sure that the clients name is heard. Also, I would recommend the use of sound effects, and other voices if you can...anything that paints a picture is good, so do it. Also, use the same music for the same client if they come back. That builds brand identity, and make sure not to drown out the announcer in the mix!

Further training and knowledge in the art of writing copy for radio? Believe it or not, phone numbers are rarely if ever copied down, but I have a strong opinion about how to deliver phone numbers. It’s easier to remember 4 numbers than 7. For instance 4-3-2-7-1-7-1 is not as memorable as 431 seventy-one seventy-one, so do the latter. Also if writing a script, spell out the phone numbers. “Seven” takes up more character space than “7” doesn’t it?

Lastly, now more than ever, its so much more concise to say “rapmag dot com,” rather than “www.rapmag.com.” Everyone seems to understand the WWW part, so I have eliminated saying the WWW for a couple years now, and never had a complaint.

Dave Foxx [DaveFoxx[at]clear channel.com], Z100 Radio/New York City: My number one gripe with most copy writers is they never speak what they write. Since 90% of the writing most people are trained in is designed to be read silently, most people never know how to write for reading aloud. Thus, when the reader/announcer or presenter (as our friends in the former British Empire would say) actually says what has been written, he or she sounds like a fourth grade student, stammering through an impossibly difficult essay on the relative diameter of navels of albino planaria.

And the client wants me to sound friendly?

Budding writers, do yourselves and us a BIG favor. Read what you write...out loud. Try to imagine someone you know (not in the business) saying what you’re saying, not as an announcer, but as a common, every-day Joe or Jane on the street. If you can’t, chances are, you're writing to be read, not writing to be spoken. Writers tend to not use contractions. Joe and Jane do.Writers tend to not use the implied “you.” Jane and Joe most of the time, do. Slang? You’d better if you want to be effective.

My second (and last for the purposes of this diatribe) gripe with writers is something that is basic to every kind of writing. Try not changing person in mid-stream... please? First person - I am talking about my or our experience. Second person - I am talking about your experience. Third person - I am talking about their product.

If you start by talking about how great Jimmy Bob’s car service is, you’re speaking in third person. Don’t end it with “We stand behind our work so be careful when you back up.” That’s first person and makes no logical sense whatsoever. When in doubt about using a pronoun, ask yourself “Who is we?” If “we” are a radio station, “we” do not stand behind anything. “We” sold airtime to “them,” Jimmy Bob and his band of mechanics. You should write, “They stand behind their work....”

I know, it sounds like a small thing, but believe me, if there is any confusion about who is who, the listener’s mind will subconsciously say, “Does not compute,” and your client has wasted his money and you and your listener’s time. Nobody wants that.

Ed Thompson [ethompson[at]notails out.com], No Tails Out Productions & Waitt Radio Creative Services, Omaha, NE: I refer any copy writer to what Roy H. Williams said, “Bad advertising is about you, your company, your product or service. Good advertising is about the customer, and what your product or service will do to change the daily world of the customer. Talk to the customer - in the language of the customer - about what matters to the customer.”

Do...pull events from your own experiences. Change the events, the names, whatever, but, keep the emotion! Mark Twain used his real-life experiences for some of the greatest stories ever told. Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher, Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer were based on real people from Twain’s boyhood. That’s what made them so sincere. Tell a story that makes the same emotional contact and the script will be a winner. Maybe the batting cage vendor wants an ad for their new summer hours. Write about how Dad taught you to play ball and how surprised you were when you hit your first single. It’s possible that the hot tub dealer is having a sale. Write about sitting in a hot tub with the bubbles popping over your tired flesh as you slowly forget about the dent in the fender, the salsa stain on the carpet, or your sixteen-year-old daughter’s new tattoo. Or perhaps the mental health clinic needs a new image campaign. Write about a bigger-than-life hero, who did things anyone in everyday life can relate to...like Abraham Lincoln, who struggled daily with severe depression.

Don’t use those familiar phrases like, “conveniently located,” “friendly, courteous staff,” or my personal favorite, “for all your [insert whatever here] needs.” (Whenever I hear that line, the only thing I “need” is an aspirin. Ask my wife.) And God, save us from the two-voice spots that use the “conversation that would never occur in nature.” You know the one:

Voice 1 - Thanks Jenny. What was that number again?  Voice 2 - 555-1212. Voice 1 - Great! I’m calling right now.

Good luck, new kid and remember Rule #62. “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” Because, in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a commercial, and you ain’t Mark Twain...yet.

Ron Harper [ronharper[at]fuse.net], The New 96.5 / ESPN 1160 BOB: I think the biggest thing novice copywriters have to learn is that commercials don’t have to sound like commercials. I show all my interns how to move away from the trite phrases, and keep it real. The top three lessons are: 1) Never start with a question. 2) Dialog spots start in the middle of the conversation. 3) Anyone who uses the phrase “For all your **** needs” will not die a natural death.

Brian Wilson [bwilson[at]dfwradio .com]: On my “Don’t” list: Never write a two-voice situational spot where average people are spouting off technical information and phone numbers like a yellow page ad; leave that for Mr. Big Voiceover Guy. For instance: “Wow! You look great! What’s different about you?” “I got my teeth professionally whitened, and it was so easy!” Enter Big Voiceover Guy: “Now, you can make your natural teeth look artificially white at the Dental offices of Doctor Frank Gasbag, etc.” as opposed to: “Wow! You look great! What’s different about you?” “I had my teeth professionally whitened using the Stainmaster Laser Discombobulator at the Dental offices of Doctor Frank Gasbag, at 33216 Central Avenue, suite 1124, one block south of Der Weinersnitzel on McKinney Street!” While this seems obvious, I hear it every day on every station and it just makes me nuts!! Arg.

I feel better now.

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