Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Questions Every Piece of Writing Must Answer

I know this won't be a complete list.

There's no possible way it could be. But any such list has value. Especially to writers strapped for time and in a mental fog (face it, we all get them).

I'm talking about questions your finished copy must answer. Not what you had to answer before you started writing, but what answers the reader is looking for in the text. The other half to their own self-justifications.

Your market may think these questions. They may ask them aloud. They may not even be aware of what presumptions they're operating under. But they want their answers. Provide them in a manner beneficial to both you and the reader, and you win. Fail to provide answers, or give the reader self-aggrandizing text, and they'll answer "No."

(For brevity's sake, let's assume I'm talking about a service you're promoting.)

--Is this something I can use?
If they're reading, they have a need. The answer's yes, and all you have to explain is why. However, this question leads to a rarely-voiced sidekick: "What if they don't do such-and-such?" This is usually some quirk of their business operations. Typically commonplace, even though they think they're the only ones doing it. CCing a dummy email account for records purposes, for a mild example.

There's no way to cover all those in one piece of copy - but you can make an effort with multiple pieces. Use case studies. Let them read how you worked with other companies in their industry. Odds are they'll see their "quirk" and relax.

--Is this something I need now?
You should have already answered this before you contacted your prospect. You DID study your market to find the best time to approach, and conducted A/B testing, right?

--Uh huh, so what?
Can pop up anywhere. "So what"s come when you get away from your main message. Answer this by avoiding it. If your copy stalls at some point, go back to the beginning of the previous paragraph and rework it from there. (Only way I've found to maintain flow.)

--How do they compare to everyone else?
In this case, 'everyone else' is not usually a specific competitor. It's instead an opportunity for you to step clear out of the pack. They want to know why your company should be their #1. Shine your value in the reader's face (respectfully!) with something like, "Notepads Inc. has eight #1 rankings out of eight regional tech surveys."

--Would we pay too much/Are they going to overbill us/Do they pad reports?
This is the question you don't answer at all. Sadly, with so many businesses popping up, many industries are reduced to price-warring at the outset. Even copywriters do this (way too often). But if you even try to speak to price before service, you've lost. The answer's no.

Instead, do what Barry Morris, a well-spoken colleague of mine does - ignore price entirely and focus on the value you're giving to the customer. (Subscribe to his ezine; good stuff. Mine too, while you're at it.) End result. Time saved, solution implemented, happy employees, the frantic joy of additional business.

You can answer these questions directly, by putting their answers into the text. But the more effective strategy I've found is to embed the answers, so the reader thinks of them himself.

How will you do that? I'll leave that up to you. But you could start by thinking in terms of two puzzle pieces. Join them like this:
1. Write out what you want your customer to think at a certain spot. Be explicit. "This would get X in Accounting to stop complaining about equipment costs."
2. Write what you'd need to say to provoke this exact phrase. "Yes, costs are rising. Even enterprises feel the pinch. Our demand's gone through the roof because of it, but we're happy to meet our customers' supply needs."
3. Cross out the copy from Step 1.
4. Repeat as needed.

I'll probably think of more questions your copy must answer later. You're of course welcome to comment and add to the list.



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