The Gateway Arch Principle of Copywriting


The Gateway Arch is not the be-all, end-all of St. Louis. Why do you always assume that it is? There are other things to do there, you know.

And thus begins today’s post on copywriting. Can you tell where this is going?

I can’t say that what follows is the best writing advice that I’ve ever recieved, but it’s the piece that has stayed with me the longest. And the one that I cite the most when people ask “what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received.” So maybe it is the best - why can’t I just say that?

This advice came from an article about travel journalism. I know nothing of its author except that she is very wise indeed. For pronoun simplicity and since I can’t remember, I’m going to assume that the author is a woman and, by employing the present tense, that she is still with us. He could be dead – who knows.

In a nutshell, here is her advice:

If you’re writing a travel article about St. Louis don’t start your article by talking about the Gateway Arch because that’s the first thing that almost everybody thinks of when the subject of St. Louis comes up. So by mentioning the Arch, you’re not telling the reader something they don’t already know and they may feel there is no point in reading further.

By offering them something new and mysterious, however, you can pique their interest. A lesser known fact about St. Louis will do a much better job of compelling the reader forward. For example, did you know that Stephen Hawking was never born there? Not once.

I tried to demonstrate the Arch principle with this very blog post. You came here expecting some quasi-expert advice on writing, delivered congenially, and instead you were hit instantly with an allegation over a transgression you didn’t commit. But did you continue reading?

That’s why I’m a big proponent of not writing marketing materials so they read as encyclopedia entries. Yes, that whole 5W and 1H thing has its place in most pieces, it just doesn’t need to be right there at the start, taking up prime real estate. The job of that first paragraph is to interest people enough to get them to read the second, and with hope, on through to the end. And one of the best ways to do that is to start with something unexpected.

That said, your lede paragraph does need to be honest and relevant to the subject at hand. Don’t claim to be in possession of jaw-dropping or tear-jerking information only to follow with a list of ten ways to make “social media work for you.” Being deceptively provocative will quickly get you pegged as a clickbait artist and no one will like you or your writing ever again.

Well, that’s it for today. Don’t be obvious. Shoot for compelling or unusual or mysterious. And if you ever get to St. Louis, you simply must visit the . . .

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About this BLOG

I’ve been a professional business writer for over 20 years. It’s what I do best and I’ve learned some things along the way. I’ll share them with you here and you’ll do well. You may still want to hire me to do some writing when you’re busy doing the things that you do best. I’ll be happy to help out.

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