Spice Up Copy with Specifics

You’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and all of a sudden you see a car swerve off the road and hit a small dog. Before you can even think, the driver speeds off, leaving the dog lying dazed on the sidewalk.

You call 911. The police arrive. One of the officers asks you to describe the car that hit the dog.

“It was elegant,” you say.

“Could you be more specific?” the officer asks.

“It was stunning.”

“Details?” asks the officer, tapping his pen on his notepad.

“Yes, it was finely detailed. In fact, from the ergonomically appointed grill to the tastefully balanced trunk, it personified painstaking attention to old-world craftsmanship, a host of unique innovations, and classic yet contemporary charm.”

“Color? Size? Number of doors?” shouts the officer.

You close your eyes and furrow your brow, but you can’t summon any details.

“Let me guess,” says the officer. “You write catalog copy.”

FAR-FETCHED? Maybe. But much of the catalog copy I read these days makes me think that the writers are addicted to adjectives, adverbs, and other filler that leave customers more baffled than enlightened. Consider this headline from a catalog that sells items for the home:

Exquisite Pieces for Exceptional Living

And this copy from a women’s clothing catalog:

Elegant, sophisticated and exceedingly comfortable, this sweater has all the right moves.

And this, from an upscale furniture catalog:

This stunning sofa was designed with a rigorous sensibility detailing its form down to essential lines. The intimate feel and European rustic tones are offset by unconventionally inspirational flourishes.

The good news is, there’s a cure for this copy: Replace fluff with facts — namely, with details and benefits that arise from each product, and with words that the customer can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

If you’re writing for a travel catalog, for example, you can replace “Experience Belize’s breathtaking natural beauty” with “In Belize, you’ll walk on sand so fine that it squeaks beneath your feet, across a beach so secluded that your only neighbors are toucans and sea turtles.”

If you’re writing copy for audio equipment and your reader is a young male, you can replace “Immense, powerful sound” with “With a bass that registers a 9 on the Richter scale and a treble that peels paint, this stereo might be illegal. Check your local laws.”

If you’re writing about a bar of soap, you can replace “Old-time effectiveness and rich scent make this soap a winner” with copy such as this, from Rivendell Bicycle Works:

Made the same way since 1878, with a strong pine scent and thick suds that cut through stench and dirt but rinse off without a trace. Many customers even use this soap as a contact lens cleaner because it’s mild, and as a shampoo because it never builds up and doesn’t strip your hair of beneficial oils.

And if you’re writing for a gourmet foods catalog, you can replace “savory, delicious bread” with copy about bread so fresh and soft “that it doesn’t so much shatter upon first bite as give way with a sigh.”

By the way, that bread copy didn’t come from a catalog. It came from a book called Southern Belly by John T. Edge. John T. Edge is not a copywriter. Neither is Calvin Trillin. In writing about a fish called the snoek, Trillin noted that its bones are straight. To illustrate, he said, “If mice went in for the decathlon, they’d use snoek bones as javelins.”

MY POINT? If you want to write clear and persuasive prose, look beyond catalogs that you admire. Read the work of journalists who would starve if they subsisted on adjectives. Read authors whose books remain in print for decades or even centuries. More often than not, these writers write with nouns and verbs. They show more than they tell. If you do the same in your catalog writing, you’ll likely sell more merchandise.

But what if you have no product details to work with? Do your own research. Badger the merchandise manager.

And what if you don’t have enough space in which to paint word pictures? Well, that’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. For starters, remember that the product photograph is worth at least 100 words. Then write about something that’s not evident in the picture.

Say, for example, that you’re writing product copy beneath the heading of “Suede Oxfords” and you have a small space in which to write. Can you do it in 10 words or less? How about “Silent on pavement until the leaves fall.” Bottom line, when it comes to catalog copy, don’t settle for puff when you can write poetry.

Evan Elliot is copy director of Haggin Marketing (www.hagginmarketing.com), a Mill Valley, CA-based direct marketing/creative agency.

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