Waffle. Ramble. Repetition. Pointlessness. These are clear signs that your structure (narrative logic) needs fixing. When your copywriting is not ordered into sound logic, the text can disorientate, flounder, and even confuse your reader.
Think of it as a spine. This is more obvious in multi-page documents like brochures and white papers, where each section is a vertebrae in the overall structure (over-arching story). However, the same metaphor can be applied to a one page, long form piece such as articles, web copy and blog posts. And that’s what we will focus on here.
Between the first impression (headline, opening hook line and introduction paragraph) and the last impression (the conclusion) there is the substantiation section (the narrative spine). This is where you talk features, benefits and key points that support your proposition. These substantiation sentences must persuade your reader to buy in to your argument.
Whether you write this section in prose or bullet points (or more likely a combination of both), the order you arrange the substantiation points shows direction as you move story forward. It is this narrative logic that guides the copywriter and the reader.
While we all judge quality copywriting in terms of ideas, writerly verve, and the ten principles of clear writing¹, narrative logic is often overlooked in the conversation. Perhaps because we tend to be too lenient about structure. As long as the key points are made, who cares which order they come in, right?
Never underestimate the conscious, and especially sub-conscious, decisions your reader is making about your piece (and its author). I started taking subconscious decision-making seriously after researching the psychology of the hospitality and restaurant industry. Andrew Freeman², a professional consultant on the subject, revealed that we make decisions about the slightest thing (stain on the menu = kitchen is dirty; the lighting makes your skin look good = hotel manager is attentive).
What’s worse, we tend to focus on the wrong more than the right. Even if five things go right, it only takes one thing to go wrong for us to be left with a negative impression. Ever read three good reviews followed by a bad review in TripAdvisor making you have second thoughts about that hotel?
So too in all types of writing.
Especially copywriting, where the audience is reluctant and impatient. One bad move in the logical flow can be like that stain on the menu.
If you start with a communication brief, you will have already listed the key points in the Reasons to Buy-In section. But if you’re rewriting an existing piece, then you extract and list all the key points mentioned in the existing draft. Either way, here are the three stages in designing and building a strong back bone for your story:
The key points must follow logically from A to B to C to D and so on. This can be sequential (a, b, c …) cause and effect (this leads to that leads to this …) or in order of importance (inverted pyramid style). Most of the time it’s cause and effect, like in the following example of a Copywriting in Action project on Life After Fossil Fuels: Toward a Low Carbon Economy.
Listing all the facts, stats, virtues, points, relevant quotes:
You might find that some of the key points are not relevant to the story you have come up with. Or perhaps some key points are closely related and therefore can be merged into one key point. It’s not unusual to start off with 10 key points and end up with five or six — depending on the story or word count limit or time.
You’ve got to be very logical here. And consider the delicate cognitive processes of your reader.
Point #1 below is the whole reason for the post, so it makes sense to start off with Bob’s arrival to Oz. Then we need to know why he does what he does, so Points # 2 and #3 (interrelated) explain that clearly, showing us the driving force behind his exceptional ability to bring opposing forces onto the same page. This is demonstrated with Points # 5, #6, #7 and #8, all of which are set up by Point #4 which packages them into the idea of “ground-breaking coalitions”. Then Point #9 makes a nice summary by quoting an expert on the subject we all know and love.
It pays to make time at the beginning of the drafting stage listing, organising and shaping the parts that make up the narrative structure. You not only ensure solid textual architecture, you also save a lot of post-draft time editing, revising, and rewriting.
Here’s the final draft of the Life After Fossil Fuels: Toward a Low Carbon Economy from one of my 2015 Copywriting in Action courses:
¹ The Ten Principles of Clear Writing:
Keep sentences tight
Prefer the simple to the complex
Prefer the familiar word
Avoid unnecessary words
Put action in your verbs
Write like you talk
Use terms your reader can picture
Tie in with your reader’s experience
Make full use of variety
Write to express, not impress