Scrub Up Your Copy: A Guide To Writing Email Messages

With attention spans averaging eight seconds, email copywriters can ill afford to load their copy up with excess words.

How do they avoid this? By applying the Flesch-Kincaid test, a sort of algebraic formula that counts words and syllables and assigns a score.

That’s the view of Trisha Randolph, director of marketing at PostUp. She sets a good example in a recent MarketingProfs piece, moving her copy right along, although she throws in useless terms like “accordingly” and “more than ever.”   

Still, Randolph is right. The old newspaper copyeditors knew something. Randolph advises email writers to:

  • Break up convoluted sentences.
  • Remove filler words
  • Avoid complex words when simpler ones will work
  • Avoid strings of smaller words when a single, stronger word does the job.

There’s no argument there, although we’re skeptical about the Flesch-Kincaid test. Many writers are weak in math — that’s why they end up writing copy instead of software.



If we’re reading it correctly, a high score means your copy is wordy. But who needs a formula to tell you that? Perhaps non-writers trying to write bylined articles.

Professional email copywriters should know better. They don’t need the Hemingway editor app, a tool recommended by writer Mike Templeman. Hemingway himself broke some of the rules he established.

But back to Randolph. She advises email writers to:

  • Divide long walls of text into smaller, easily digestible sections.
  • Organize information into bulleted lists.
  • Call attention to your most important points with headings.

But we’d repeat the Kurtzman Rule. Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Mad magazine, said: “I don’t write, I do movement.”

His point? Our job as writers is to move the reader along.

Here are a few phrases that get in the way of doing that:

  • At the end of the day — The day is over, already.
  • Who knew? — The better question is: Who cares? This was a clever phrase when first used 15 years ago. No more.
  • The Takeaway — How many podcasts have to use this name before you realize it’s overused?
  • More than ever — People are using this more than ever. Just drop it.

With that done, here are a couple of lessons from the great direct mail copywriters of old.

Bill Jayme said you have to reward readers for their viewing time. He inserted little facts that he called “peanuts,” which may not have had anything to do with the sales pitch. But they did entertain.

His teacher at Time Inc., Frank Johnson, agreed. “You tell funny stories, you put in funny pictures, you do any damned thing you can to keep them reading.”

And graphics? "Get a cute little girl and a cute puppy, and figure out how to run them both, and you've got a winner there," Johnson added. 


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