Sure, everyone knows how to write a sentence, but crafting punchy, exciting, and cleanly written content can be daunting for some. Margot Lester, an expert freelance writer and co-author of Be A Better Writer, shares her tips to add some serious zip to your next piece of content.
If you’ve been writing for more than five minutes, you’ve probably been told your writing needs more “punch”. And if you’re like me, your response is something like, “Thanks, but what the heck does that actually mean?” (Ok. That’s just what I want to say).
People use the term so frequently and offer clear explanations and actionable advice so infrequently that no workable definition of “punchy” copy exists. But neither does “safe” offshore oil drilling and people still keep asking about that, too.
Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with a set of models and criteria that pin down punch. Based on input from clients and my own experience, I’ve determined that punchy copy meets these criteria:
Striking and precise description
Concise expression of ideas
From this, I developed a few strategies that snag that pesky punch and bend it to my will! Here’s how:
1. Choose the best words for the job
The most obvious way to add zest to your copy is word choice. Look at this paragraph from a May 2010 Esquire article by Tom Junod called “Hillary Happy”:
She is wearing black pants and a boxy jacket, creamsicle in color, jauntily severe, country-club Maoist, with a scarf wrapped around her neck like a bandage. Her hands are folded before her, and among the men assembled around the lectern, she looks as small as a Rolling Stone.
"Jauntily severe" and "country-club Maoist" are crisp and precisely descriptive. And even though they don't seem to go together at first, they build on each other to bring the picture into sharper focus. The penultimate similes in each sentence ("scarf wrapped around her neck like a bandage" and "as small as a Rolling Stone") are like bonus icing on an already delicious cake.
And note how the word "creamsicle". "Orange" might have worked, but that’s really a range of colors. “Creamsicle” is a specific, pastel shade; and no other term would describe Secretary Clinton’s jacket quite as well.
STRATEGY: Begin looking for great word choice in the stuff you read every day and study the best examples. In your own work, draft as quickly as you can, then go back through the piece and look for opportunities to insert more descriptive, precise language. This is often where metaphors and similes begin to congeal. If you need some help, try the Tell-Show Strategy. Take any simple sentence that mentions something you can describe and write it on the “Tell” side of the chart. Visualize the sentence in your mind and put all the things you see, feel, smell, touch, hear on the “Show” side. Here’s an example from a piece I wrote for the International Cinematographers Guild magazine:
Doing what you love, that's what life is all about, right? Ted Bendixson, Elance writer and snowboard-enthusiast, shares his experiences on how he managed to balance his freelancing life with something he truly loves while staying extremely happy.
What do you dream of doing today? The new way to work gives us an astonishing degree of freedom. I got into freelancing because I wanted to create a schedule for myself that allowed me to snowboard every day of the season. With a traditional job, this is practically impossible. People want you to be in the office from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. This also happens to be the best time to ride. In order to work the hours I wanted, and ride almost every day, I had to come up with a better system.
With time on my hands, a few grand in the bank, and a small client base, I gradually figured it all out. Within two months, I had enough clients to cover my living costs and keep my business afloat, all while snowboarding almost every day. Here are a few of the lessons I learned in the first year of operating my freelance writing business.
Photo by Geno Fonderoli
Get your clients stoked about your passion.
Don’t try to hide what you love to do. Be proud of it. Tell your clients about your dream while you’re casually discussing business through the Workroom or over Skype and email. When your clients know what you’re up to and that you’re genuinely excited about it, they will help you set up your schedule so you can do what you love and help them at the same time.
At the start of my freelance career, I wondered if I should try to polish my image and make myself appear more professional. I very quickly threw that idea out the window. It simply wasn’t me. I’m not a guy in a suit. I’m a guy who gets out.
Believe it or not, people loved it! I got more clients because of my willingness to show off my passion. Think about it. If you can demonstrate that you are dedicated to something like rock climbing or photography, you are showing your clients that you are someone who gets things done, even in your leisure time. Dreams sell.
Be the most communicative Elancer your clients have ever worked with.
When you aren’t out painting the Sistine Chapel, you should be communicating with your clients and delivering your work ahead of schedule. I stay connected during my working hours so my clients can reach me if they need something, and I also answer every email as soon as I receive it so my clients don’t feel like I’ve disappeared.
When you communicate this much, your clients start to trust you. You can just tell them that you’re going snowboarding for the day, and you’ll get the work done that evening. They’ll never have a problem with your schedule because you communicate, and you always deliver the work on time.
Leverage your time away from your dream for increased productivity.
As much as I love to snowboard, I can’t do it every day. Guess what I’m doing on the days when I’m too sore to make it up to the mountain?
Days off are great for catching up on projects and marketing yourself to new clients. When you take a day off of pursuing your dream, you shouldn’t be sitting on the couch watching reruns of Murder She Wrote. You should be getting ahead of projects and surprising your clients with super fast turnaround times.
If your dream has a season, work longer days during your offseason time. Market yourself more intensely, and get a start on projects you otherwise wouldn’t have the time to start. That way, when it’s time to pick up your passion again, you won’t have to work nearly as much during your time off. You’ll be able to enjoy yourself while keeping your obligations to a minimum.
With roughly 30,000 new jobs posted every month on Elance, there's no doubt that entrepreneurs and businesses both small and large are tapping into freelancers and contract professionals to help launch their businesses and keep them running smoothly. Today, Tracey Corcoran of iPilates has dropped by to share her story on how elancers have not only helped her start her new online business but also change the way she works.
Our business, www.iPilates.co.uk, simply would not exist without Elance and the wonderful people who work through it. This is our story.
We are two friends and business partners, Tracey Corcoran and Julia Jackson, who decided that we wanted to create an online business that incorporated what we were doing on a day to day basis. This was teaching pilates exercise in a studio environment. However, neither of us had the slightest idea how to design a website or a logo, nor did we have a large budget.
Fortunately, we happened to read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, which set us thinking that we too could use skilled Elance providers and experts to help us to create the business we wanted. So, with excitement and fear in equal measure, we embarked on our business journey.
I took the responsibility for the administration side of the business, allowing Julia to concentrate on creating a superb product range. The first impression I had of Elance was how easy it was to use, the web pages were clear, simple and followed a logical path, which meant I was able to get our jobs requirements posted online immediately upon registration. This meant that almost no time was wasted in getting the business started.
We had three things that we wanted to achieve in the first instance: The creation of a business logo, the development of a website and some market research work.
The logo creation was easy as we had been given the name of an Elance provider who had done a similar job for someone we knew, so we invited that designer, Draward, to bid alongside other providers.
Within a matter of hours, we had tons of excellent proposals to choose from. It took a while but I soon became accomplished at working out who had really read our brief and created a bespoke bid, as opposed to those providers that just sent out a standard bid reply.
This morning, the latest contractor to join our crew asked me: "Why does MTV want to work with us? They have amazing designers and are a huge company. What can we do that they haven't completely mastered?" It was a fair question. Why does MTV outsource work? Or AOL, SAP, NBC or any of our other customers? Is it because any company with a three letter all-cap acronym can't built its own technology? Nope, that's not it at all. We've personally run into 6 different reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if there were others, and I'd be stoked to hear all about it in the comments. Ok, let's kick it off:
The idea/strategy was pitched and included your services.
They are stuck.
The internal team lacks a specific specialty.
Politics prevent internal allocations.
Accountability. We just get things done.
"Help us [obiwan kanobi]. We have more tasks than people." This is by far the most obvious answer. Some times, they are just plain busy. Of course, that doesn't stop executives from thinking up innovative solutions to company problems. It certainly doesn't stop customer service from digging up issues with their applications. The needs just keep rolling in.
At SXSW, we heard a speaker from Google describe project managers as having either "a s**t funnel, or a s**t umbrella". Either they are trying to drink from the fire hose of requests and steer everything, or they are trying to protect the focus of their team to get some key project completed. Either way, their job is to effectively use available resources to accomplish the most things with the highest business value. Sometimes, companies have more money available than people. And that is where we fit in. You, my friend, are a tool in their belt. They have a deadline, a scope and a budget. The pm is your best friend. That is actually who contracts you and pays you bills. Executives are great and are often the person who can offer a way in. Project managers are the freelancer's real customer and keep the door open.
The idea was pitched and included your services.
The MTV project came though a media strategy company. We are a sub contractor, the execution arm of the project team. They approached MTV with an idea: "You could increase your business by tapping into this specific market segment in this way. " Executives at MTV examined the proposal, deemed it valid and agreed. Design was included in the strategy proposal. Enter Shane, Peter, Reid & Crew.
I love this sales method. No RFPs. No competition. Simply find a way to add value to a company, get to the right person and then pitch the idea. Its a phenomenal approach to gigs with great companies. If the idea is yours and they like it (as long as you can back your ability to deliver), the project is yours to implement.
They are stuck.
I used to ask one of my early mentors every time we met, "What do you know about my business that I don't?" It is fairly common on long projects to be so involved and married to assumptions and ideas, that you suddenly end up trapped. You can't see anything past your own shoes.
"Jeremy Neuner, co-founder and CEO of NextSpace Coworking + Innovation, Inc, likes to use this provocative turn of phrase: "In the future knowledge economy, everyone will be a freelancer." In this post, he talks about how NextSpace, Elance, and Freelance Camp are driving this (r)evolution of work.
In September 2009, a report by the Pew Research Center confirmed what many of you reading this post already know: Self-employed adults, including freelancers, are significantly more satisfied with their jobs than other workers. The report, called “Take This Job and Love It,” also confirmed another fact that many of us are all too familiar with: Freelancers have less job security and feel more financial stress than people who hold more traditional jobs.
More than one in ten Americans are self-employed. The slow economic recovery, advances in technology, and a desire for a better work-life balance are causing more Americans to opt for self-employment every day. So as this sector of the workforce continues to grow, how do we get more of the good stuff in the Pew report (job satisfaction) and less of the bad stuff (financial stress)?
Our good friends at Elance are solving an important piece of that puzzle. Freelancers are always looking to do two things: find new clients and get paid by existing clients. By creating the largest online marketplace for freelance talent, Elance vastly increases the chances that a freelancer will have a steady flow of new work. And by managing and delivering that work through Elance's platform, freelancers are guaranteed to get paid by their clients. With Elance, they can spend more time doing what they love (providing great services to their clients) and less time hustling for their next gig or chasing payments. Voila! More job satisfaction, less financial stress.
Referrals are a key driver for success in the business world today. John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing and author of the upcoming book essential for businesses titled "The Referral Engine" gives us some insight on how building a strong level of trust can truly impact your business. (We're giving away five copies of The Referral Engine - scroll down to the bottom of this page for more information.)
In a recent survey of small business owners I asked - What’s the number one consideration you make when giving a referral? 73% answered - I trust they will do a good job.
In the business of referrals, trust is the most important reason a recommendation is made and, conversely, lack of trust the single greatest reason referrals don’t happen. There are countless ways that companies build and break trust with their customers, but most can be summed up with the term “honesty.”
What builds trust?
Trust is earned by keeping promises: tangible things like delivering on time, paying bills on time, and honoring guarantees; and less tangible things like authentic marketing messages, caring service, and a culture of respect.
What erodes trust?
Trust is also lost by overpromising. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t aim high, but I am suggesting you must know what you are capable of doing and do what you say you are going to do. It sounds so simple, yet it’s the number one reason people lose faith in businesses and in entire industries.
Trust and mistakes
When you have trust—earned by keeping your promises—you can make mistakes, own up to them, and correct them without loss. One of the hallmarks of a highly referred business is that they work as hard on fixing mistakes as on any other aspect of their business.
Of course, there are two sides to trust. Trust is a quality that must be extended as well as earned. You can see this in the types of employees an organization attracts and develops by trusting their staff to make smart, customer-focused decisions.
If there's one thing in common across all small businesses, it's that they all want to grow. Fast. However, especially in today's economy, finding success running a small business can be a daunting task. Ramon Ray, founder of the Small Business Tech Summit in New York City and contributing author, gives his 9 rules of success to take your business to new heights.
Smallbiztechnology.com, is a very small business. Me (in my home office) and a virtual team, spread around New York City. However, the things we produce, like the Fifth Annual Small Business Summit with 500 attendees and journalists are pretty amazing.
If you're the owner of a small business you have to work harder, sell better, think smarter and move faster than your competitors. There's 9 rules that I follow as I grow Smallbiztechnology.com.
Here are my twelve rules. (If you want to read my Six Rules of Technology Success when you're finished - check it out here.)
I easily see hundreds of business professionals every month. Sometimes I see them selling something, sometimes I see them being sold to. One thing that is often missing is a good smile.
An honest, from the heart smile, is one of the easiest and most powerful things a business owner can project. Whether you are selling something to someone, speaking to an employee, listening to a partner, or just talking to a cab driver - smiling is essential.
When you smile, you convey a sense of pleasantness and calmness to the recipient of the smile.
2. Be honest
Honesty is something that we learn from our mothers and fathers as soon as we can gurgle a few words. However, as business professionals, some of you lie to your clients, lie to your employees, lie to your customers. It's not necessary. Being honest about mistakes made or envisioned problems is the best way to build trust and confidence in those we work with.
In 2005 I was calling upon many company's (BIG companies) to sponsor the First Annual Small Business Summit. On one of the calls, one of the potential sponsors asked me, "can you guarantee that you'll have the projected attendance?" My answer, "No. We might have NO attendees and you'll have lost your investment". We received a sponsorship check from them the next week and they've been a sponsor ever since!
3. It's YOU. Not Your Business
Sometimes we forget that as small businesses, we don't often have a 20 year track record of success behind our logo, nor do we have the look or feel of a BIG business that we can hang our hats (or purse or shawl) on. The most important asset we have is ourselves. Whether you are selling a copier, steak or marketing services, businesses will (for the most part) be influenced to buy from us based on our personality and "vibes" they feel about us.
John Jantsch from Duct Tape Marketing says it best: Marketing is getting people to know, like and trust you. Once you have these things taken care of, the sale is pretty easy (assuming they have the budget and/or need/want your product)
The smaller you are the more important your personality is to the success of your business.
I have a real problem with traditional financial planning. Early on in my career I did a financial plan for a client. I told them that all he had to do was to cut his cable bill, stop going on vacations, eliminate eating out, and bring a sack lunch to work every day, and that he would have enough to retire in 40 years. I said this with a straight face. He looked at me like I was a moron, and I was. I was basically saying, “Sacrifice your life for the next 40 years and then you’ll have enough money saved that you can quit working and live the same lifestyle.”
Here are the top 7 problems with traditional financial planning:
Sophie’s New Choice. The limitations inherent in traditional financial planning run deep and have created the dilemma I described above. It’s what I call Sophie’s New Choice. Should I skimp and save for the next 40 years so I can then squeak by in retirement or should I enjoy life a little now and pray I hit the lottery when I retire? These are your options? The choice is as subtle as Vinny asking, “Would you like it in the head or the chest?”
Age-related issues. You don’t have to be Dr. Oz to know that the older you get, the more health issues you face. During your prime years—the years when you are the most vibrant and healthy, you’re working. And that when you retire your health begins to deteriorate. As your years increase your energy decreases. You won’t have the same bounce in your step as you age. One retiree said, “Now that I’ve finally got the ability, I don’t have the mobility.”
A headline is just a headline, right? Not exactly. When building your website, choose your words wisely, as it may make a huge difference in your revenue stream. Beth Kirsch, Elance team member and in-house Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing expert, shares some of her insights on the mysterious world of landing page optimization, why it's so important, and tools and resources you can use.
Landing page optimization is the quickest way to increase your web site’s revenues. A visitor arrives at your web site and decides to either buy something or not. It doesn't really matter what the page looks like, and you just think the user will make their decision based product features and functionality, right? WRONG!
Did you know a couple tweaks of a headline or a simple change of a button could double your conversion rates? So, as a marketer, you can spend a lot of money doubling the number of targeted visitors arriving at your site or you can conduct some simple tests and double your landing page conversion rate. (In internet marketing, conversion rate is the ratio of visitors who convert casual content views or website visits into desired actions based on subtle or direct requests from marketers, advertisers, and content creators.)
Life comes down to the decisions you make. Oren Peli was faced with a decision not too long ago. Fortunately for Oren, he decided to take a risk. Even though he didn’t live in Hollywood, had nothing more than an idea, and was working as a videogame programmer, he decided to make a little movie.
You can watch Oren’s movie if you’d like. It’s not on YouTube though. If you want to see Oren’s film, check your local megaplex.
Oren’s film is called Paranormal Activity. It’s been called “One of the scariest movies of all time,” but the most shocking thing about this movie doesn’t happen on the screen. Nope, the most shocking thing about this film is that it cost $11,558 to make and it has grossed over $100 million. I’m writing this late at night, but that is not a typo. If I tried to figure out the return on this film, I think my trusty HP 12C calculator would start smoking.
I bet you’ve got an idea. Maybe not for a movie, but you’ve got an idea for something. A software application? An eBook? A website? An invention? You’ve probably had it for some time. You think about it often, especially after a tough day at work. You cling to it, fantasizing that someday you’ll get around to it.
I know what you’re thinking . . . “Sure, I’ve got an idea, but I’m not Oren.” You’re not Oren, but you can learn from what he’s done. Follow these rules: