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What Copywriters Can Learn From Novelist Kurt Vonnegut

What Copywriters Can Learn From Novelist Kurt Vonnegut

Well loved novelist and satirist Kurt Vonnegut knows a thing or two about capturing the attention, interest and respect of its readers.

Kurt Vonnegut is well known for his best novels and also knew about copywriting 

 

He published an essay in the 1985 anthology, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word,  which are still relevant for copywriters today.

 
 

 In the essay, brilliant author shares eight rules for great writing with style.  Rules that can be applied to any type of writing -- including copywriting.

 

You might ask how it's possible?  How can a novelist and a copywriter base their work off on the same standard principles?​

 

Because every writer is working with the human condition.  ​

That's why you're gonna want to read this through the end!

Now, let's take a closer look at Vonnegut's eight rules for great writing.  I've outlined key takeaways under each to highlight how copywriters can use it to command attention and influence action.

 

Let's see how it can add spice whether you're an in-house copywriter or you're kickin' it as a freelancer.  Here are 8 lessons from his essay, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.

 

The Kurt Vonnegut Guide to Great Copywriting

 
 
 
 
 
 

1.  Find a Subject You Care About

 

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

 
"Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others care about.  It is genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style."
 
 

Takeaway:  The key to writing well is to find a topic you really care about. You might ask how can this be realistic for copywriters? The answer is research. The more you know about the subject, the more you can be passionate or hone  writing about it.

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​Whether you are sculpting a landing page, composing a sales letter, or writing a blog article, if you're not passionate about the product or service you're selling, it will come through in your copy.

How can a ​copywriter force herself to care about teakettles if she loves coffee?  Or dog food is she's a cat lover?

Here's what is recommended:​

  • Be selective about the projects you take on.  If you don't like guns, writing web copy for a hunting site might not be a good fit for you.  That's a personal call!  It'll require your brutally honest evaluation.
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  • Research like crazy.  If you do choose to tackle an unfamiliar topic, get your hands dirty.  Dive into your new product, service or industry headfirst.  The more you know, the more you show you care.
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2.  Don't ramble.

 

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

 
"I won't ramble on about that..."

Takeaway:  Good copy is concise.  Don't use three words when one will do.

 

3.  Keep it Simple. 

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

"Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred."
 

Takeaway:  Write in clear, simple language.  Be straight to the point.  Your message should be easy to understand by your readers.  If it's not, you run the risk of losing your prospect.  So, how can copywriters keep their message simple and succinct?

  • Use clean, short, understandable words.  Be incredibly clear.  Don't write three words when one will do.
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  • Use clean, short, understandable sentences.  Don't fear periods, go easy on the adverbs, and avoid passive voice.  Here's a great tool that can help you do this.
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4.  Have the Guts to Cut.

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

 
"If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out."
 

Takeaway:  No matter how in love you are about a sentence that you wrote, don't hesitate to cut it if it doesn't contribute to your purpose.  If it doesn't speak to your target audience and make the reader crave the next sentence, it's probably best to delete it.  A copywriter's end goal is to fluidly move prospects down the page until they reach a call-to-action, which, then, asks them to move on to the next step of the buying process.  Fluff will only serve to disrupt that process.  And that negates the whole purpose of copy.  So go ahead, have the guts to cut.

5.  Sound like Yourself.

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

"I myself find that I must own writing most and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.  What alternatives do I have?  The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago."
 

Takeaway:  For a copywriter, the innovation is to choose or create a persona, and write consistently according to the voice of that persona.  It will give your content a unique, one-of-a-kind tone.

6.  Say What You Mean To Say.

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

“I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more.  I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say.  My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.  The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all.  They hoped that I would become understandable -- and therefore understood.  
And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of Jazz Idols did with music.  If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood.  So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.”
 
 

Takeaway:  Good copy is, first and foremost, understood. That's why good, conversion-driven copywriters won't be caught dead distracting readers with fluff.  Respect your readers’ time.  Minimize their cognitive expenditure.

7.  Pity the Readers.

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

“Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately.  They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don't really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school -- twelve long years.
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists.  Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”
 
 

Takeaway:  A successful copywriter knows that long-winded copy won't get the job done.  Your concern should always be the convenience and understanding of your audience.  It’s all about being clear and concise because catering to the reader will be rewarded with trust, credibility, and influence action.  So do your readers and yourself a favor: Show mercy.

8.  For Really Detailed Advice.

Kurt Vonnegut writes:

“For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.”
 
 

Takeaway:  Always provide readers with value.  When failed to do so and all the other rules on this list become obsolete.  Value is born when your copy solves a specific problem or pain point for your reader.  Or when it assuages a fear. Or when it meets a desire.  Your content will only matter if it’s going to be helpful, relevant and entertaining for your target reader.  It should always answer the question, “What’s in it for me?

The next time you sit down to write your landing page or sales letter, or your next blog article, as yourself - who is this for? What information do they need or want?  And perhaps, what would Kurt say or do?

 

What do you think of these writing rules?  Do you follow a certain set of writing rules?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.  I would love to read them!

 
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About the Author Heartie Queen Tamayo

Heart is the creator, engager, and implementer at Stellar Virtual Solutions. She uses the stellar powers of creative collaboration with her beloved clients to help them fully experience the joy of purpose, freedom, and profit. She also loves alliteration and run-on sentences. She's passionate about helping women entrepreneurs create freedom in their business and life through developing business processes and systems which help their business scale and grow.

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