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How to learn about copywriting from dead Modernist writers
As all the great Modernist writers knew, expressing ideas and emotions is best done using evocative but simple language.
Ezra Pound’s contribution to literature was immense, not least because he taught writers to keep it simple. Before Ezra, poems and novels were often ponderous and lyrical. After Ezra took a red pen to T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts, the accepted writerly language was more succinct, mimicking the cadences of the spoken word. In short, he was the Marie Kondo of literature!
So, here is one professional writer's editing tips to perfect your own writing style, a la Ezra:
We’re still following Ezra’s writing rules today – perhaps even more so. I believe everyone (and every brand) has a personal writing style lurking within them. Finding that unique voice is as much to do with what you take out (or edit) as what you leave in.
Think carefully about your intended audience.
The best writing speaks directly to its audience, using their language to convey meaning. If you imagine your audience before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) it can help nail your message every time.
Choose your words carefully.
Excessively long sentences can put your reader off before your message even begins. Before sending your words out into the world, read through your work aloud. Cut any that don’t contribute to the message you want to convey. Common overused words you can take a red pen include:
- It seems
- In my opinion
- I think
- Of the
Today’s attention spans are short. Long-winded prose can throw them off course. Nobody wants to work that hard. Try keeping sentences to a maximum 15-25 words. Break down your ideas. Shorter phrases captivate more attention (see what I did there?)
Similarly, paragraphs should comprise one or two sentences only – especially if you’re writing for business or the web. Large text blocks only encourage readers to skim. A great way to check if you’re over-writing your sentences is to use Hemingway – an online tool dedicated to slashing the meaningless from your work. Just like Ezra did for the actual Hemingway.
Find your voice.
There are two kinds of writing voices: active or passive. My tip? Go for active every time. It’s stronger, surer and more direct. It keeps them message you want to get across simple, and that’s more likely to remain embedded in your reader’s mind. Ezra Pound loved it. Consider his injunctions – “Make it new!” “Keep it clear!” They’re so effective because they’re simpler to understand and remember.
Your writing’s format is defined by the white spaces in between paragraphs. Fiction writers use this white space to give their readers time to breathe and think about what they’ve read
When writing for business, white space works to break up your message into digestible chunks for readers who have little time to spare and want information fast. Generate more white space and allow the reader’s eye to move freely down the page by breaking up your text with
- Bullet points
- Bold text
- Numbered lists
Correct grammar and spelling are vital to great writing. Grammar justifies the structure and form of your sentences (morphology) and how you arrange your words in a sentence (syntax). It allows others to understand your ideas more easily.
On the other hand, don’t get too caught up in grammatical correctness. The great Modernist writers famously played with the rules because – hey – once you’ve mastered grammar, tone of voice and style, you’re free to mix it up a little. As Pound exhorted: “A genius has a right to any mode of expression.”
Consider one of the most iconic paragraphs in all of Modernist literature from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Don’t try this at home unless you’re a bona fide master!
As you can see from the above excerpt, punctuation, especially commas, can change a sentence’s meaning.
Removing all commas, like Joyce has, allows the reader to determine their own meaning from the text. I think this excerpt is a perfect example of Ezra’s description of great writing: “Man (sic.) reading should be intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.”
Pound’s editorial role for the Modernist greats definitely helped them achieve this goal. Joyce, Eliot, Conrad, Woolf, Beckett, Kafka and Stein are nothing if not incendiary. Their work blazed a trail across Literature that still burns today.
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