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The Elements of (Email) Style: Timeless tips for crafting compelling copy

We often have the opportunity on this blog to discuss topics like live content, personalization and contextual user experiences—all of which are important components of successful email campaigns. But even the most sophisticated, high-tech email marketing requires a foundation of good writing.

If you were an English major, you are no doubt familiar with the “The Elements of Style”—the classic, thin volume of writing dos and don’ts that was originally published by Cornell English professor William Strunk, Jr. in 1919, and famously revised by author E.B. White and republished in 1959. “The Elements of Style” is a work of enduring usefulness and popularity.

We can be certain that William Strunk, Jr. never sent an email (he died in 1946), but it’s possible that E.B. White did (he lived until 1985). We got to wondering if any of the tips they shared in the “The Elements of Style” have applicability for email marketers who want to craft engaging copy. So we took a look. And it turns out that there are more than a few pertinent ideas from the classic writing guide. Below are just a few of them.

Omit needless words

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Put statements in positive form

Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.

Choose a suitable design and hold to it

A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing…in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing.

Use the active voice

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.

“I shall always remember my first trip to Boston.” This is much better than: “My first trip to Boston will always be remembered by me.”

Use exclamation marks sparingly

The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.

Revise and rewrite

Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.

There’s a lot more where those came from. If the notion of keeping a style guide next to your computer is a little too old-school for you, here’s good news: “The Elements of Style” is available as an app.