25 Copywriting Secrets from Literary Masters

Copywriting Secrets

Between the hashtag and text speak, the English language as we previously knew it is gone forever. Print books and media have suffered as consumers worldwide turn to blogs and social media for discovery, education and product research.

While it certainly seems that content marketing is here to stay, as 55% of companies plan to increase their spending on custom digital copy, it’s a mistake to believe that you can abandon the principles of great writing to publish fresh articles as often as possible.

As Laura Ramos of Forrester pointed out recently, content marketing can drive interest or failure, and success hinges entirely on quality. Achieving greatness requires developing authentic brand personality, and writing content that people actually want to read. Truly outstanding creative types know that inspiration can come from unusual places.

Turns out, classic literary giants who lived and wrote long before the digital age actually knew a great deal about great copywriting for the web.

From Aristotle to Baudelaire, we’ve curated 25 amazing quotations which serve as copywriting tips for today:

1. “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” ― Jack Kerouac 

Powerful copywriting isn’t always flowery or complex. In fact, some of the best-known marketing is incredibly basic; like Nike’s “Just Do It,” or IBM’s “We Make It Happen.” Choose words which are exactly complex enough to convey your greater message.

2. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Fiction writers have long struggled with the concept of “show” versus “tell,” the art of conveying as much as possible through descriptions and dialogue. Apply the same great copywriting tip to your own writing by using stories, case studies, and statistics when possible.

3. “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

While this quotation is humorous, Twain has a point. Adjectives and superlatives can detract from a message. Use facts, figures, and images to convey the power of your product or service instead.

4. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” – Henry David Thoreau

Is it possible to produce great copywriting on a topic you know nothing about? Probably, but your chances of success and recognition are much higher if you’re able to draw from expertise and experience.

5. “Always be a poet, even in prose.” – Charles Baudelaire

The internet may have changed the rules of commerce, but it didn’t change the rules of compelling writing. Taking a descriptive, creative, and imaginative approach will never go out of style.

6. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

Taking the time to find the right words can mean the difference between mediocre and great copywriting. Real-time publication is critical to a successful inbound marketing strategy, but so is relevant language.

7. “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath

Where would we be without the creativity of leading marketers and technologists? Most likely, still relying on newspapers to find new products. Don’t be afraid to use of the greatest copywriting tips and try something new with your content marketing strategy.

8. “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck

Every content marketer has days and weeks where creativity and ideas simply don’t flow. It’s natural and normal, and nothing to worry about.  Be prepared for moments of brilliance, and transcribe each flood of great ideas into your content calendar.

9. “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Words and punctuation can both lose their power when used too often or frivolously. There is a time and place for exclamation points in great copywriting, but it isn’t in every paragraph.

10. “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

Perhaps one of the best-known quotes on writing, Nin identifies the root of truly great copywriting: empathy. Understand your reader, their pain points, and what they’re trying to achieve, and articulate solutions.

11. “A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.” – Friederich Nietzsche

Great copywriting doesn’t exist in a silo. Your challenge as a content marketer is to capture the spirit of your boss, coworkers, and company. Determine the factors that make you different and superior, and distill this energy into articles and eBooks. It isn’t easy, but it’s critical.

12. “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Every truly memorable blog article, white paper, novel, and editorial you’ve read probably wasn’t written in a single sitting. It may have passed through a half-dozen pairs of highly-qualified hands before making it to your screen. Put as much effort into great copywriting as your budget, schedule, and resources allow.

13. Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” – Aldous Huxley

People simply don’t share and comment on content that doesn’t leave an impression. Strive for great copywriting that’s life-changing instead of the mediocre.

14. “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

Voltaire may have lived long before the internet, but he seems to have a good handle on bloggers who aren’t interested in building a community. Content marketing isn’t very effective without listening. Ask your community questions, engage with others, and you’ll become far more interesting to other professionals in your niche.

15. “The best stories don’t come from “good vs. bad” but “good vs. good.” – Leo Tolstoy

At the center of every story is a conflict, and Tolstoy knew that complex problems often make for the richest narratives. The hardest piece of content marketing you ever write could be a product comparison tip sheet between your company and a competitor. You’ve got to be honest, but subtle enough to reveal the key differences.

16. “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” – Mark Twain

While not every writer is verbose and finds it easy to write at length, heavy-handed revisions could be the difference between an article that fizzles and great copywriting. Review your results carefully for structure, flow, and consistency.

17. “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was a master of simple writing, and his ability to tell stories in short, powerful sentences is still the stuff of wonder. While it takes years of practice to be pithy, constantly strive to remove extraneous sentences and words which may only distract from your great copywriting.

18. “Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.” J.D. Salinger

While language has changed significantly since The Catcher in the Rye was penned, the fact that certain words are simply used too often hasn’t. Avoid anything that’s so common it’s lost meaning, and eschew jargon in favor of effective explanations.

19. “There are two typos of people in this world: those who can edit and those who can’t.” – Jarod Kintz

Poorly-edited content can detract from your message, and cast your company in an unprofessional and sloppy light. Leverage the help of your coworkers whenever possible to produce great copywriting that contains sound grammar and spelling.

20. “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.” – Aristotle

Despite the fact he lived centuries before the idea of a buyer persona, Aristotle was really on to something. Write in language that resonates with your ideal customer, but use your content marketing as a platform to provide significant value.

21. “Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty.” – Muriel Barbery

While Faulkner and Hemingway may have taken chances with the structure of their writing, few brands can get away with the same liberties. Use this great copywriting tip to write correctly, or you stand to lose the attention of readers who know the difference.

22. “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.” – William Faulkner

Whether you’re covering a new topic, or penning a blog post for an authoritative blog, don’t let feelings of “I can’t” get in the way of productivity. No one ever needs to see your initial efforts; that’s why it’s called a first draft.

23. “The desire to write grows with writing.” – Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

Great copywriting gets easier with time. It truly does. The process of researching, writing, revising, repeating will become more efficient, and your focus will improve. Don’t give up in the meantime.

24. “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.” – Samuel Johnson

The best-known content marketers and thought leaders are always learning, and using this knowledge to create content where there are gaps. Whether you’re new to your field or a seasoned expert, continue reading news, articles, and research reports.

25. “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” – Edgar Allan Poe

Blogs have a great deal in common with short stories. With rare exceptions, you should avoid trying to accomplish too much in a single article. Positive SEO and readers both favor in-depth approaches to a single topic, rather than a scattered overview of many.

Do you have any favorite quotations on the creative process? Which famous literary masters have inspired you to great copywriting?