There are four purposes of copywriting (and all types of writing for that matter): to inform, to instruct, to persuade, to entertain or a combination of these.
But how do we make sure that our purpose is properly executed in words?
This is where style comes in. And the better our understanding of writing styles (genres), the better we become in crafting sentences that achieves one’s objective. There are six genres and Part 1 will discuss and demonstrate the Expository, Descriptive and Persuasive genres. Next week, Part 2 will discuss and demonstrate the Poetic, Technical and Narrative genres.
1. EXPOSITORY COPYWRITING … THAT EXPLAINS EVERYTHING!
We do it every day. We get it every day. We are confused or clarified by it every day. The difference it makes is like night and day — communication breakdown and communication breakthrough.
When you’re writing to explain, clarify, define or instruct, you’re employing the most commonly used of all genres: expository copywriting. It’s not only an important writing skill but also an important life skill. Clear and cohesive communication is what brings everybody on to the same page.
Although expository writing may include elements of narration, description and argumentation, it’s primary purpose is to deliver information about an issue, subject, method, or idea, and deliver it in a fair, logical and balanced way supported by the facts. This usually means censoring your opinions or emotions.
You will see exposition at work in letters, newsletters, dictionaries, instructions, guidebooks, catalogues, newspaper articles, manuals, reports, research papers and blogs like this one. This post is a 10 minute copywriting course that demonstrates exposition by explaining its structure and strategies.
For those of you in particular who write articles, tenders, reports or research papers, (and us who have to read them and, in my case, edit them) the know-how of expository writing is a must. So let’s begin by unpacking its seven main elements:
- A focus on a main topic
- Logical order supported by facts
- Details, explanations and examples
- Strong structural organisation
- Unity, coherence and forward movement
- A primary objective to inform and clarify
- Transitions that move discourse forward
You would be right in thinking that this list could apply to all types of writing, but it’s more-so-than-ever in expository writing where structure, logic and clarity is everything. I’ve talked about the Anatomy of Body Copy in a previous post, but here is a slight variation of it for exposition. The substantiation section is broken up into three paragraphs with transitions in between.
Along with a strong structure comes a repertoire of strategies for explaining, clarifying, defining or instructing within each paragraph. You may employ one or more of the following strategies for each paragraph:
Analogy: you reason or explain by referencing a parallel case, often by simile (an expressed analogy) or metaphor (an implied analogy).
Exposition is like building a road, the objective is to get people from A to B smoothly, surely and safely.
Analysis: you unpack a subject into its elements or parts, examining and evaluating the pros and cons of the details.
The seven characteristics of exposition are: topic, logic, detail, organisation, coherence, clarity and transitions.
Cause and Effect: you analyse the reasons behind the consequences of an action, event or decision.
One of the most common reasons behind muddy communication is the lack of know-how in expository writing.
Classification: you arrange people, objects, or ideas with shared characteristics into classes or groups, often including examples and supporting details organized according to types, kinds, segments, categories, or parts of a whole.
There a six genres of writing: descriptive, expository, persuasive, narrative, technical and poetic.
Compare and Contrast: you examine similarities and differences between two people, places, ideas, or things.
While expository writing shares similar techniques as descriptive writing and narrative writing, it’s purpose is primarily informational.
Definition: you explain the meaning of a word, phrase or concept. This may be brief or an entire article/essay.
Expository writing is used to explain, clarify, define or instruct the reader (and this whole post is an extended definition).
Examples: you clarify, explain, or justify a point through narrative (the genre of storytelling) or informative details.
As participants exited the classroom, the teacher sensed confusion still lingering in the air on the subject of structure. So he made it his priority before the next class to explain more fully.
Sequence: you structure the paragraphs in order of first, second, third and so on.
First, establish the topic. Secondly, state the topic and purpose in your introductory paragraph. Thirdly, Write a transition that leads into your first substantiation paragraph.
Process Analysis: you explain how something works (inform) or how to do something (direct) step by step.
The Exposition table above explains how it works and the steps you take from introduction to conclusion.
Question and Answer: you structure your piece into FAQs or use the interview style Q & A approach.
Q: What is expository writing? A: Clarification through a logically organised unfolding of information.
Problem and Solution: you reveal or explain the problem and then propose a solution.
There is a lot of confusion about to how to structure a piece of writing. This post recommends the practice of expository writing as a means of getting clear about structure.
And so concludes this segment of my little copywriting course on explanation, clarification, definition and instruction on exposition. May you have a clear and illuminating day.
2. DESCRIPTIVE COPYWRITING … GOD IS IN THE DETAILS
I look into my pensive expression reflecting back at me on my glossy Macbook Pro screen, waiting to see what I have to say about copywriting today. Thoughts on the subject of descriptive copywriting take form and travel down my brain’s radial, median and ulnar nerve-ways. They finally reach my fingers, animating them all into a river-dance on the keyboard. One by one, the letters appear like raindrops plonk, plonk, plonking on a driver’s windscreen; just a tentative few words at first but within seconds they multiply into a shower, then climax into a heavy downpour of words that finally make up this, the second part of my little copywriting course on genres of writing.
My humble attempt in the opening paragraph shows how descriptive writing breathes life into dead facts and the following techniques employed:
Show Don’t Tell
I could have written the opening paragraph of this post by telling you that, ‘this post will discuss the craft of descriptive writing and how it can turn abstract ideas into concrete images’. Telling is … well, just telling. There’s no engaging any of the reader’s senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, touch or tasting. It’s all quite abstract. It also leaves the reader’s cognition to its own devices, which may undermine your intention. In short, it’s a flat line experience (using the electrocardiogram as the metaphor). What descriptive copywriting does is bring the dead facts to life by evoking our senses. It is through our senses that we engage and relate with the world around us.
Five Senses of Engagement
Vision is perhaps the most commonly evoked sense because we are often trying to picture the idea. In copywriting, we call it ‘writing pictures’:
The beach curved into a smile.
But you can also write sounds:
When she laughed, a wild chorus of cockatoos burst from within her.
You can write smells:
Her presence was felt like the scent of a newly opened rose.
You can write touch (feelings):
The sand massaged her bare feet like a thousand tiny hands.
You can write tastes:
The curry set my mouth on fire.
There are three main characteristics of descriptive writing: simile, metaphor and personification. These figuratives unpack ideas using rich, vivid and lively detail, here’s how:
Abstract: It was a nice day.
Concrete: The sun was shining and a slight breeze blew across my face.
Abstract: I like writing poems, not essays.
Concrete: I like writing short, rhythmic sentences and hate rambling on about my thoughts for 1000 words.
Abstract: Mrs Hodgeson was a great teacher.
Concrete: Mrs Hodgeson really knew how to help us turn thoughts into lively stories and essays.
Like a Simile
This is a figure of speech that compares two things that are similar in some way. You can pick a simile by the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. In the opening paragraph, the clause ‘…the letters appear like raindrops plonk, plonk, plonking on a driver’s windscreen’ compares letters with raindrops. Here are some other examples of similes:
The night heron’s shoulders hunched like a grumpy old grandfather.
On the wide-open road, the car was like a boat at sea.
The still and silent sea was as blue as the sky.
Metaphors of Unrelatedness
When you make a direct comparison between two unrelated subjects, you create a metaphor. In my opening paragraph, I compare fingers typing with river dancing. There’s no relationship between the two but it conjures up an image of fingers dancing up and down on the keyboard. Here are some other examples of metaphor:
The resident cat was a streak of lightening across the room (cat and lightening).
The clouds sailed quietly across the sky (cloud and boat).
The sand massaged her bare feet like a thousand tiny hands (sand and hand).
Personify into Animation
Personification involves giving inanimate objects human or animate qualities. In my opening sentence, ‘I look into my pensive expression reflecting back at me on my glossy Macbook Pro screen, waiting to see what I have to say today’ endows my laptop with a human quality. It is no longer a machine, but a person waiting to hear what I’ve got to say. Here are a few more examples of personification:
The wind whispered sweet nothings in her ear.
The sun played hide and seek with the clouds.
Time marches to the beat of its own drum.
Start Making Sense
A useful way to get started with descriptive copywriting is to draw up a table like this and fill it with sensory experiences relevant to your story. This approach is particularly valuable when you need to give your reader the experience of place, people and objects, such as in travel writing.
Fill in the table with as many senses as you can imagine. This forces you into ‘being there’ so you can describe it. Answer these questions:
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What do you feel?
Put your answers in the table. Then you have a palette of colours from which to express your picture/sound/flavour/aroma/feeling. Decide which sensory descriptions are most applicable and develop your sentence until it gives your reader a vivid impression or experience. There is always the risk of over cooking it, but give yourself the freedom to explore, then edit later.
Descriptive copywriting is a valuable gift to develop in all types of writing; it enables the reader to experience what you’re talking about. After all, only through experience does one truly learn, understand and appreciate.
3. PERSUASIVE COPYWRITING … JUST DO IT
What you are about to read will fascinate you, or infuriate you, or both. It will also present you with a delicious paradox: proving that a person who decides to stop saving can save considerably more than someone who decides to save diligently all the way to 65 …
Little wonder they don’t build cars like they used to. Building a pen is difficult enough. Oh, the elegant lines of the 1925 Hispano Suiza. Oh, the elegant lines of the 1927 Parker Duofold. The car may no longer be available, but happily the pen is making a welcome return…
Have you ever wondered how men would carry on if they had periods? At the risk of sounding sexist, we must observe that men can be terrible babies when they’re ill. A cold so easily becomes ‘flu’. A headache, ‘migraine’. Indigestion, a ‘suspected heart attack’. If men had periods, the cry would go up for the 3-week month, never mind the 5-day week…
Come on. Admit it. You were persuaded by the thought of the delicious paradox, the pen built like a car and how men would carry on if they had periods.
It’s no wonder John Bevins (for Bankers Trust), Alfredo Marcantonio (for Parker Pen) and Barbara Noakes (for Dr White’s Towels & Tampons) are among the world’s best copywriters. Their introductory paragraphs above are fabulous examples of persuasive writing in general and quality craftsmanship in particular. They reel you in with just the right tension between the writer’s intent and your disinterest: hooking you in, and keeping you in the read.
It always begins with a compelling thought. But it’s how you say it that is the difference between being turned on or off.
That compelling thought is carried through by sound logic. This is the basis of well structured copy, paragraphs and sentences. In my copywriting course, it’s called Narrative Logic.
This logic always begins with your own conviction and enthusiasm for the subject. You must be the first to be persuaded.
Persuasive writing appears in speeches, letters to the editor, editorials, petitions, academic essays, opinion pieces, advocacy campaigns and, yes, advertisements.
The 5 characteristics of this genre are:
- A stated proposition, position or belief
This is expressed in a headline/tag line/slogan: Change We Can Believe In (Obama); We won’t make a drama out of a crisis (Susie Henry) In space, no one can hear you scream (Alien)
- Factual supports
All of which must relate directly to the proposition, position or belief and be accompanied by benefits to the audience or their concerns.
- Persuasive techniques
Know your rhetorical devices, there are about 60 of them and they are the secret herbs and spices that turn a feed into a feast.
What you are about to read will fascinate you, or infuriate you … (contrasting pair).
Oh, the elegant lines of the 1925 Hispano Suiza. Oh, the elegant lines of the 1927 Parker Duofold … (parallel phrase).
A cold so easily becomes ‘flu’. A headache, ‘migraine’. Indigestion, a ‘suspected heart attack … (rhythm of three).
- A logical argument
Every idea of every sentence along the way must be reasonable, and follow a logical order. One point leads to the next, moving the story forward and with it the reader.
- A call to action
Persuasion is the art of swaying your audience from the impossible to the possible; the unlikely to the likely; disinterest to interest. Once you have successfully suspended the former in the introduction and substantiation, your audience is ready to make the move you’re asking for in the conclusion paragraph.
John Bevins finishes his ‘delicious paradox’ with a rhythm of three thought provoking phrases that makes us want to act as soon as possible:
Imagine getting that kind of opportunity, that kind of education, that initiation to the magic, when you were just 21.
Alfredo Marcantonio finishes on a metaphor we as drivers can understand well, eliciting a self-sell of the proposition:
It is an exhausting way to produce a pen. But, as with the Hispano Suiza, the looks and handling provide ample reward.
Barbara Noakes finishes on a note of honesty that secures our trust:
After 104 years in the business, we aren’t naïve enough to imagine we could make your period a lot of laughs, exactly. But we’re certain we can make it less of a (dare we say it) bloody nuisance.
This post finishes by putting you in the reader’s seat with a thought provoking question:
You can say all the right things about a subject or you can create a feeling about it. Would you care to sit through a concert where the musician just played all the right notes?
You’re probably thinking ‘easier said than done’ and you’d be more right than wrong. It’s an art, a science, a psychology and a music.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week when we look at the Poetic, Narrative and Technical writing styles.