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Writing Sales Copy – A Lesson in Third Grade English
Dear business builder,
My 12-year-old son has set himself up as the “policeman” around our house.
As soon as someone lets his or her pants slip a little low and then bends over, the boy gleefully yells, “Say no to bursting!” – and then collapses helplessly in fits of laughter.
It happened to me last night. In front of the nanny. Fucking humiliating.
Now, as your friend and mentor, I’d hate for that to happen to you—especially when you’re pitching your copy to a client.
Showing off your keester—proving that you acted awkward the day they learned grammar and punctuation in third grade—is no way to advance your career!
No, I’m not kidding you. In fact, this question is more about my health than your career.
You see, I get tons of assignments and samples from writers who want to work with me. Additionally, I edit a ton of sales copy from both “A” and “B” level writers who work for my agency, Response Ink.
And if I have to correct one more stupid and/or careless mistake in grammar or punctuation, my head will explode.
And so, in what I’m sure is a futile attempt to prevent a heart attack or stroke, I’m sure I’ll guess the next time I see the same brainless mistakes in sales copy – here are 17 simple guidelines I found on an educational website that can help…
1. Verbs must agree with their subjects.
2. Also, never, ever use repeating redundancies.
3. Be more or less specific.
4. Parenthetical notes (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
5. No sentence fragments.
6. Foreign words and phrases are not appropriate.
7. Don’t be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it is very redundant.
8. Never generalize.
9. Never use double negatives.
10. Avoid ampersands and abbreviations, etc.
11. The passive voice should be avoided.
12. Remove the commas, which are not necessary. However, the words in parentheses should be commas.
13. Never use a capital word when a diminutive or small word will do.
14. Use words correctly, regardless of how others use them.
15. Understatement is always the absolute best way to deliver earth-shattering ideas.
16. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
17. Proofread carefully to see any word.
Now, I hear that in addition to the above rules, those of you with sheepskin on the wall have also been taught some things about effective English communication that are simply not true – like…
1. One word sentences? Eliminate. No chance! I’ve found that when used judiciously, one-word sentences and even one-word paragraphs in sales copy add emphasis and make a page look more engaging.
2. Who needs rhetorical questions? I know – that’s who! Rhetorical questions are a great way to stop a prospect in his or her tracks and make them think. My rhetorical title, “What’s Wrong with Get Rich Quick?” sent for years.
3. Contractions are not necessary and should not be used. Baloney! Contractions should always be used when writing sales copy – unless NOT using them adds appropriate emphasis: “Don’t buy any shares today” is much less emphatic than “DO NOT buy shares today”.
4. Prepositions are not words that end sentences. Not necessarily true. Remember: our goal is to write colloquially – and most of our prospects break this rule with wild abandon.
5. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. WRONG! Conjunctions are connecting words… when used at the beginning of a paragraph, they can be very helpful in getting the reader going.
6. It is wrong to ever divide the infinitive. Again – speaking colloquially to your prospect can sometimes be helpful.
7. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.) That’s as stupid as a bag of hammers. Clichés, metaphors, and other figures of speech are more than just colloquial and comfortable; they tend to paint vivid mental pictures. And as we both know, a picture is worth a thousand words.
8. Also, always avoid boring alliteration. Some of the most effective headlines ever written used alliteration to make them memorable. Bencivenga’s legendary “Lies, Lies, Lies” “12 Smiling Swindlers” etc.
9. Comparisons are as bad as clichés. WHO wrote these rules though? Comparisons are important in sales copy. To be fair, I often compare something happening today in the economy or the stock market to something that happened years ago.
And to simplify things, I often compare something going on inside your body to something going on outside: “This supplement is like a rotor-rooter for your arteries.”
And of course, comparing the high value of the benefits that my product brings with the low price is a proven winner.
10. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake. Again – analogies are word pictures … used in colloquial conversation … and they’re a quick way to drive your point home.
11. Kill all the exclamation points! Not always! Judicious use of exclamation points when writing sales copy is useful for emphasizing important points! However, overuse can kill!
12. Eliminate quotes. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” You can quote me on this: Waldo was a drooling moron. Citing implicit or explicit support from a top expert for your rationale, topic, or product is a powerful way to establish credibility.
13. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; no writer in a million can use it effectively. Hyperbole is like art: no one can define it, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. As a writer, it’s up to you to judge whether your tone and word choice are appropriate or exaggerated.
14. Puns are for kids, not groan readers. Tell that to Arthur Johnson: He knows that light humor – including puns – can be a powerful readability and response booster, especially in headlines and subheadings!
15. Go around the barn at noon to avoid colloquialism. Nonsense. Colloquialisms communicate. See above.
However, there is another set of rules that I strive to follow carefully – and that I see broken more than any other…
Use an apostrophe in its place and omit it when it is not needed.
Ah, apostrophes. Those little demons seem to confuse everyone I know. The problem is that apostrophe abuse is my favorite.
I can’t explain why, but when they’re used incorrectly in the copy I’m reviewing, critiquing, or editing, they make me see red.
My blood pressure “skyrocketed”, those little “veins” on my forehead bump, a gallon of adrenaline “rushed” into my bloodstream and I have to resist the urge to choke the poor person “who” offended me.
In my humble opinion, nothing – NOTHING – makes your sales copy look more ignorant than misusing or abusing the humble apostrophe.
And wouldn’t you know? Almost everyone in my office … every copier I work with … every salesperson who sells things to my companies … every client I have … and even the top writers I manage every day … I can’t don’t use correctly apostrophe if you hold a gun to their “head!”
Look. This isn’t brain science or rocket surgery: there are three times – and ONLY three times when an apostrophe is required…
Time #1 — To make a word possessive:
RULE A: If the root word is NOT possessive and does not already end in “s”, adding an apostrophe followed by an “s” makes the word possessive.
“This is Clayton’s article.”
NO “This is Claytons article.”
RULE B: If the word already ends in “s”, no additional “s” is needed. An apostrophe at the end of the word is sufficient.
“It’s Martin Weiss’ newsletter”
NO “It’s Martin Weiss’ newsletter”
RULE C: Words that are already possessive do not need an apostrophe, whether they end in “s” or not.
“Is this yours?”
NO “is this yours”
“Is this his?”
NO “Is this his?”
“Is this hers?”
NO “Is this hers?”
“Is this theirs?”
NO “Is this theirs?”
“It said its product”
NO “It says it’s a product.”
AND DEFINITELY NOT “It said it was his product.”
Time #2 — Combine two words into one using a contraction:
An apostrophe is used to replace a missing letter in a compound word.
Je = It is
Don’t = Don’t
Won’t = Won’t
I can’t = I can’t
She is = She is
He is = He is
They are = They are
Clayton is = Clayton’s
Time #3 – Colloquial, to indicate that a letter or part of a word or number is missing.
Clayton was called the “Sultan of Persuasion.”
Back in ’87, the stock market crashed…
I feel better.
I’ll never have to fix these things again – will I?
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