By John Drewry – Wordsmith
Most commercial text is invisible to the reader. That’s because it’s generally written through the writer’s eyes instead of the reader’s. The reader has a different agenda to the writer. But as you don’t know what that agenda is, it’s best to assume it includes no interest in your document. You therefore have a very short time to change that mindset – probably a few seconds.
Don’t try to change things during first draft. Write as you’ve always written. Then apply the following rules to make the necessary changes, for a much-improved second draft.
Use Drewry’s Traffic Lights Test. Take three coloured highlighters, Green, Yellow & Red. In your first draft, where are the Offers, the Promises? Highlight them Green. These are principally what will attract the reader. Where are they? If they’re not in the Bold headlines or prominent in some other way, your document is likely to fail.
EXAMPLE: A headline in your first draft says TRAINING, which doesn’t mark Green because it’s purely factual, a chapter heading. However, in the body text is a sentence “Our training is supplied free-of-charge”. This marks Green. Without changing the body text, this is a signal to change the headline to FREE TRAINING, which marks Green.
RULE 3. Highlight Benefits in Yellow.
EXAMPLE: In the body text is a sentence “Our training has been shown to speed up the chances of promotion”. It would be a good idea to embolden that sentence, so it stands out when the reader is scanning.
NOTE: A Green headline encourages the reader to scan the body text. All readers start as scanners – if you don’t get the scanner, you don’t get the eventual reader. So the Yellow text should be emboldened for the scanner, so it stands out in the body text or as subheads.
NOTE: Having highlighted Yellow (Benefit) text, it’s often simple to turn it into Green (Offer) text. For example, “Our training has been shown to speed up the chances of promotion” could become “Speed up your chances of promotion”.
RULE 4. Text that is neither Green nor Yellow marks Red, i.e. purely factual text.
EXAMPLE: “Training sessions are on the first Mondays and Tuesdays of each month”. Factual (Red) text is, of course, important, and indeed may form the majority of your document. But readers have to get there. You will best ensure this by drawing them in with prominent Green & Yellow text.
For non-marketing text, i.e. text which wouldn’t contain Offers or Benefits but is just factual, use Drewry’s 10% technique. Word-count your document, e.g. it’s 1000 words long. The 10% technique pretends you only have 10% of the word count, i.e. 100 words, not 1000 words.
So you need to find the most important 100 words in the document which still tell a cogent story. This is sometimes called ‘the elevator version’, i.e. the quick version if you were telling a stranger in a lift. These crucial 10% words can then be featured prominently in different ways, e.g.
- Adding them at the top of the document in Bold type as an introductory (or executive) summary
- Breaking them up into headlines and subheads, positioned appropriately throughout the document
- Used as flashes or highlight boxes in strategic positions.
Limit sentence length to 20 words, using punctuation and / or eliminating unnecessary words. For long sentences containing several related features, you can often verticalise them into bullet points. The 20-word rule will profoundly increase readership of body text. Readers recognise long sentences when scanning, and will often skip to the shorter ones (or misread, or give up altogether).
John Drewry, August 2016