Or why good writing and dark chocolate have more in common than you think…

I’ve just started reading a book on mindfulness. It’s a term you’ve probably heard bandied about over the last decade or so as the answer to all our woes. From insomnia to digestive disorders, from stress to depression, mindfulness is the new miracle cure. By practising it, you’ll be calmer, more centred, more rested and more organised. And yet, far from being a new idea, it’s as old as the hills. Focusing on one thing at a time, while forgetting all external pressures and influences has been an open secret for centuries. The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said that most of man’s troubles come from not being able to sit quietly in a room. And that was before Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. So what does all of this have to do with copywriting? And with chocolate, for that matter? More than you think.

Me too

Have you crossed any red lines recently? If so, you’re in good company. David Cameron’s said it, and so has Barack Obama. And yet just a few short years ago, we crossed lines without specifying the colour. Originally, it was a specialised term. Editors redlined passages of an article that needed rewriting. Lawyers redlined sections of a contract that were unacceptable. A red line was simply a way of drawing attention to something that needed changing – and the easiest way of doing that was with a red pen. Early word processors duly took up the term, and let you redline paragraphs of text, mimicking the editor’s pen. Over the years, it morphed into tracking changes in a document, a feature that still uses red lines. But then, the lines got blurred. And now, we can’t just cross any old line; it has to be a red one. And when you hear somebody else saying it, there’s an irresistible temptation to copy them, even if you don’t know why you’re doing it. Or even what it means. Similarly, we’ve started kicking the can down the road on just about every issue. There are no longer questions about certain things, but question marks. Vicious cycles abound, as do virtuous cycles, as we all forget that we should actually say circles. The point here is that we’re on autopilot. We don’t even notice we’re saying these things, still less that we’re saying them because we’ve heard or read them. It’s one of the reasons that so much copy fails to work. It simply reaches for the nearest cliché, and uses it with scant regard for what it really means, and whether it’s appropriate. The result is writing that’s rushed, formulaic, hollow and meaningless. Worse, it does nothing to distinguish itself from anybody else’s copy. And yet the danger signs are easy to spot. You write copy because there’s a box to fill on a web template – not because you’ve got anything to say. You have a mission statement or values page on your site because everybody else has one. You keep writing because there’s no limit to the length of a web page. You use jargon and buzzwords liberally, because you think they sound impressive. But they don’t. And they definitely won’t set you apart from the crowd.

Make haste slowly

So instead, stop and slow down. One of the first lessons of mindfulness is to bring your thoughts back to the most basic of things: your breath. And with your copy, you should always come back to basics too:
  • Why are you writing this?
  • Who are you writing it for?
  • Why should they read it?
  • Does it add to your reputation, credibility or likeability?
  • Does it move you closer to the sale?
  • Have you said it in as few words as possible?
  • Have you said it in your words, or have you unwittingly slipped into buzzword mode?  
  • And crucially, if you cut it, would anybody miss it?
Really focusing on what you’re writing as you write it makes an enormous difference. So it’s worth setting aside the time and effort to get it right. And if you’re outsourcing it, making sure you have enough budget, a clear brief and a good idea of what success looks like. Otherwise, you’re writing – or getting somebody else to write – on autopilot. Which brings us all the way back to chocolate. The book I’m reading starts with getting you to really focus on what you’re doing, to the complete exclusion of everything else. One of the very first exercises is The Chocolate Mediation. It’s a very simple, but startlingly effective, demonstration of how concentrating on what you’re doing can transform the results. Believe me, chocolate never tasted so good. And if you apply the same approach to your copy, it’ll go down a treat, and leave a very pleasant taste in the mouth. Find out more: