Want to turn okay copy into good copy? Or simply know how to get started? These ten simple tips for writing copy should help…
When I started out as a junior copywriter in my first agency, I was lucky enough to have two deputy creative directors who’d patiently sit with me and plough through what I’d written. The first guy, David, was extremely well versed in the art of writing long copy and where to plump an apostrophe. His successor is as much of a great explainer, words enthusiast and food lover today as he was back then: the late Charles Campion.
I’m writing this blog partly because this subject about simple tips for writing copy came up in an email this week; partly because I get fed up with the same old, same old blogs. You know, those seemingly juicy ones that promise you earth such as ‘How To Write Killer Copy’ or ‘Write Copy And Make Millions’ yet tend to be as fluffy as a marshmallow when you tuck in?
At the end of the day, there are no real secrets. A lot of it comes down to common sense, experience and thinking clearly and creatively. If you aren’t lucky enough to benefit from having a wise old copywriter in your agency, I hope these ten simple tips for writing copy might help.
Copy tip 1: Get stuff on paper
This principle applies to anything, really. Essays. Presentations. Thank you letters.
Just start by getting a load of words down. Ramble away. Look up stuff online for inspiration then write in your own voice – you need to be a copywriter who writes but doesn’t copy. Having words on paper is so much better than having a horribly virginal blank sheet.
When I’m starting a project, I call the document ‘Dump’ and shove everything into it, no matter how rough, plus useful links to sites I’ve seen. (I sometimes getting emails from people offering to do my research but always decline. It would be like cheating! If you’re not looking up your own bits and pieces, how can you find the really good nuggets that someone less discerning would miss? How can you stumble across sites and images in a happy-accident kind of way?)
Copy tip 2: Prune, prune and prune
Be really, really hard on yourself. There’s no point using 50 words of copy when 25 will do. Readers are time-poor and get bored easily. This brings me back to the email I mentioned. I received an enquiry from a wannabee copywriter. It was very polite, very detailed – and very long. He asked if I ever needed an extra pair of hands.
I don’t outsource because it could be more trouble than it’s worth. (A few months ago, a blog writer contacted me for work. She listed one of my competitors as a client. Hmmm, that’s one of the risks you run by not doing everything yourself.)
He also asked for advice: I suggested he cut the word count in his email by about 50%, which would also make it more upbeat and positive.
For instance, instead of: I feel that working under a more seasoned copywriter such as yourself could be just the boost I need; a chance to gain more experience while learning from someone who has succeeded in attaining the career I hope to one day have. Conversely, you would have the option to outsource smaller jobs (those which are less imperative but more time-consuming, for instance) to a green-but-capable junior writer.
I suggested you only need: Working and learning from you would be a fantastic boost, and let you offload some small but time-consuming jobs onto a slightly-green-but-highly-capable writer.
Copy tip 3: Use short sentences
Short sentences are brilliant for making clear and simple points. But sometimes people overuse them to sound, well, trendy….which is painful to read – especially in a blog. And especially when there’s a short sentence on every line. Your blog is your voice. Personally, I like to write my blogs in a conversational way and just let the words pour out.
But emails….well, people need to read emails in an instant. Your beautifully crafted pearls are more likely to be read by someone glued to their iPhone on the train.
Copy tip 4: Ask questions
I have to confess that this is one of my favourite simple tips for writing copy. It’s a really punchy, direct way to start copy, draw people in and get them to think.
Copy tip 5: Think of your copy like a sandwich
You need a good beginning, a good ending and a filling in the middle. I’m not going into headlines here; that’s a blog for another day. Body copy needs to start with a promise (especially if it’s direct mail) or a benefit, or the absolute, key, essential, this-is-really-different point. Then, end on a line that’s as good as or better than the headline.
Copy tip 6: Work out the copy order before you write
You need to prioritise the messaging. I often create a copy platform to share with clients before writing the copy. It helps me work out a structure and helps them see if anything has been left out or the info isn’t quite right. It saves a lot of time later on, especially if the brief was a bit woolly. It focusses their thinking and yours, and prevents you from writing a first draft with huge chunks that you end up having to re-do. Several times.
Copy tip 7: Write for someone you know
The copy brief may state A/B housewives with teenage children. That’s too generic. Think of someone you know like that, or make someone up. That way, your copy will be more human and more one-to-one.
Copy tip 8: Enjoy what you’re writing
Would you read a good book? Yes. Would you read a washing machine instruction manual? No. If you don’t enjoy writing it, no-one will enjoy reading it.
Copy tip 9: Write like you speak
The wannabee copywriter who’d contacted me used words such as ‘pursuing’, ‘conversely’ and ‘imperative’. I said they were clunky, old-fashioned and not needed.
Use words you’d use in conversation with a friend. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle the copy with word shortenings. A client recently asked me not to, so I showed him how this: You’re here to do something you couldn’t do last week. Next week you’ll do something you couldn’t do this week. If we don’t challenge ourselves, how can we expect you to?
Contrasted with this: You are here to do something you could not do last week. Next week you will do something you could not do this week. If we do not challenge ourselves, how can we expect you to?
We agreed to compromise and were both happy.
Copy tip 10: Finally, read your words back to yourself
David Abbott suggested listening to the sound of your words in a phoney American accent as one of his simple tips for writing copy. Just reading aloud is fine as it helps you hear any nasty bits, like feeling snags in tights.
Nobody reads body copy, anyway. Do they?
Written by Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter, whose mum likes reading her copy which is proof alone that these ten simple tips for writing copy work.
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