Ask any stand-up comedian. He (or she) will tell you that the real power of any joke is in the timing of the delivery. And that means inserting a pause at just the right moment.
Now, granted, we don’t really know any comedians. But if we did . . .
See? It’s the pause that refreshes!
We constantly insert pauses into our copy. For dramatic effect. For emphasis. Or simply to grab the immediate attention of the reader. A well-placed pause in the copy can be short—using, for example, a comma—or long, through the use of a full stop, question mark, or exclamation point. Either way, it can serve as an effective and strategic tool of persuasion in your arsenal of copywriting tricks.
Here, then, is a quick review of how you can use pauses in your copy:
Let’s start with the most basic break in the action: the comma. Read any copy aloud and you’ll see that a comma literally forces you to pause, however briefly. Sure, there are grammatical guidelines as to how commas should be used.
Even so, the English language offers a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to including a comma. It all boils down to whether you want the reader to pause—for that extra little bit of oomph.
For example, “Together, we can make a difference. Together we can . . .” Subtle, but effective. Ditto for “So please, help us save the world. Please send a gift . . .”
The em dash
The em dash—which is used to set copy off from the rest of the sentence—functions much like a comma. In fact, in many instances, the em dash and comma can be grammatically interchangeable. But the em dash visually makes the isolated copy stand out for added effect. Consider it somewhat of a longer pause than a comma. (Just be careful about its overuse!)
Similarly, an ellipsis can be used to make the reader pause . . . just a little bit longer than a comma. Its primary purpose, like the em dash, is to spice up the copy with an element of drama.
We sometimes end a paragraph with an ellipsis . . . and then add another ellipsis to the beginning of the next paragraph (with the first word lower-cased). This technique really serves to bring attention to the message of the second paragraph—especially if it’s a short one-liner.
Another way we like to use an ellipsis is at the very end of a letter (or in the P.S.). It’s a nice way to finish off the copy with a flourish. As in: “Please do your part to preserve our natural heritage . . . today and for generations to come!” Take out the ellipsis—to read “Please do your part to preserve our natural heritage today and for generations to come!”—and it lacks that little element of punch.
Of course, reducing the length of a sentence is the ultimate in dramatic pauses. By definition, a full stop forces the reader to stop. Fully. And then the copy continues.
And, yes. We’re big fans of the one-word sentence. Really. We are.
Here’s something else to note: Short sentences such as these tend to keep the reader more alert—which translates into greater involvement and engagement in the copy.
The question mark
Asking a question is a surefire way to stop the flow of the copy, which is why it’s a standard way to make a transition from one train of thought to another. Or, once again, to keep the reader on her toes.
The exclamation point
Exclamatory statements also act as stop signs in your copy, adding an element of emphasis, outrage, or excitement. That’s why we’re partial to including an exclamation point somewhere close to the letter’s beginning—if not in the lead paragraph—and in the close (and/or the P.S.). However, we generally try to stick to one or, at the most, two exclamations a page.
So, we hope this discussion, while esoteric, has been helpful to you. Perhaps it shines a light on how professional copywriters not only craft the words that are read, but also try to dictate how they’re read.
Now, have you heard the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the imam . . .