The ‘Sweet Leaf’ Edit

One of the first songs I learned to play most of the way through on guitar was “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath.

I worked on it for about a week with a friend of mine who was also just starting to learn guitar as well. We practiced together, gave each other feedback, and we started to feel pretty good about our playing.

After I got home from one of our practice sessions, I decided to show my mom what I had been working on. She’s a classic rock fan, and I knew she would be impressed, just like my friend and I were. 

I plugged my guitar into the amp and played as much of the song as I could while my mom listened. When I was done, I looked up, expecting her to be as impressed as I was.

“That sounded cool,” she said with some hesitation in her voice.

“…Didn’t you recognize it?” I asked.

“Uhh…no.”

Even though she assured me it sounded good, I wasn’t satisfied with her answer. Hours of practicing, tons of encouragement from my friend, and when it really mattered, that was the response I got. I unplugged my guitar and probably played video games for the rest of the day instead. 

That incident stuck in my head, even years later when I was a more competent musician (as in, people could recognize the song I was playing) and had a regular gig playing bass.

During that time, a much more experienced musician told me that being a pro wasn’t about impressing other musicians. 

Unless you’re playing prog metal, the vast majority of your audience won’t be other musicians. They’ll be people with little to no technical knowledge of music. They just want to dance, sing along, and experience the emotion that the music is trying to convey. 

For the most part, you’re successful as a gigging musician to the degree you understand this. What the audience thinks is the most important. They’re the ones that keep you employed.

Finally, what happened years earlier with my mom made sense. I might have thought I was hot shit playing Sweet Leaf, but the fact was that my mom, who had no musical training at all, was better positioned to know that in reality, my guitar playing still sucked at that time. 

It didn’t matter what I thought. The audience had spoken. If I wanted to get to the next level, I couldn’t just impress my friends. I had to impress people who had no reason to care about what I was doing.

I don’t really play music very much anymore, but this lesson stuck with me into my professional career. I learned it again recently when working on some copy for a landing page as part of an upcoming launch for MarketMuse.

One of the subheadings on the page was a playful, if direct, dig at some of our competitors who had done some extensive “borrowing” of our messaging and features in the past. The basic idea was to convey our value as a leader in the field, and our quality over some of the alternatives out there. 

This single sentence led to an extensive internal discussion on its value. A few of us loved the subheading, thinking it was attention-grabbing and a great way to cement that we’re a top solution in our space. Others on our team weren’t so sure that such an on-the-nose approach was the right one. 

As we discussed this internally, I decided step back and ask my fiancee what she thought. She’s a talented marketer and someone who would fit into the audience we want to reach. She’s also not nearly as emotionally attached to the work of honing messaging for MarketMuse as we are. I thought she would be a great neutral tiebreaker.

I set my laptop down in front of her and showed her the subheading in question. She stared at it for about 10 seconds and said, “I don’t get it.”

I explained that it was a real zinger that targeted some of our competitors. 

She thought a bit more and said, “I still don’t get it.”

Instead of pouting and playing video games, I remembered the lesson I’d learned so often before: You play for the audience, not the other musicians.

As copywriters, sometimes we get the urge to write clever copy that impresses other copywriters. Or content marketers focused on created content that impresses other content marketers. Or design that impresses other designers. 

A clever jab at our competitors might have made some waves in our industry. It might have gotten a few laughs from people in the know. 

But when I saw the puzzled look on my fiancee’s face, I realized that the vast majority of our audience probably doesn’t care about the petty squabbles between content marketing software solutions. 

Rather, if they’re reading our copy, they’re trying to evaluate us as a solution to solve their problems. They’re trying to see if we’re credible. If we understand their pain points and have ways to make them less painful. 

As copywriters, we need to play for the audience. Every single word we write should be:

  • Building a case for a sale
  • Answering questions and overcoming common objections
  • Clarifying the offering
  • Creating curiosity or provoking an emotional response
  • Displaying credibility 

What we shouldn’t be doing:

  • Writing to make ourselves and our colleagues laugh
  • Trying to impress other writers
  • Stroking our own egos

We ultimately scrapped the subheading in question. It didn’t accomplish anything other than getting a few laughs at an inside joke. It wouldn’t help our audience decide to purchase anything from us. 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently bad about using humor or jokes in your copy. But they have to serve the goal of getting readers to take action. 

As I get more reps writing copy, one thing I’ve tried to do is what I call a “Sweet Leaf” edit.

A “Sweet Leaf” edit means reading through your copy and asking, “Is anything in the copy there just to be clever, funny, or impressive only to me? Would someone who just wants to find the right solution for them get what they need, or am I just writing for my own satisfaction?”

This will help you weed out (get it?) useless sentences that exist only to impress other copywriters or marketers. Keep the focus solely on what your prospects need to read to make a decision.