Most marketers have to do copywriting as part of their jobs. But how do you become truly great at it? Here are six key considerations to help you get to the top.
1. Read widely – including poetry
You might think the poetry bit is a bit odd. But poetry plays with language using great flexibility. It’s like professional footballers stretching their muscles, tendons and ligaments during warm ups to help them increase their performance. The best copywriters don’t write in poetry – just as a sportsperson isn’t doing stretching exercises on the pitch – but they are able to use vivid, poetic language in their prose. They deploy techniques commonly used in poetry at the right moments, such as alliteration, and think about the rhythm of a sentence.
You can accelerate your learning here with The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. But there is no way to be a great copywriter without being a prodigious reader. As the doyen of direct-response copywriters, Drayton Bird, put it: “Good writing starts with good reading – and the more the better. What great writers have you read? … When I am not doing anything else I must, I read. What do you do?”
2. Study grammar and English usage
It goes without saying that a professional writer needs to understand the grammar and usage of the language, and at a level that is not typically taught at school. I’m not talking about fake rules such as avoiding putting “and” at the beginning of a sentence or ending one with a preposition. Newspaper style guides and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage are useful at upgrading your use of English. I have also found that The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a pretty good introduction to writing well.
3. Learn phrases that sell and persuade
This is the bit that generally excites rookie copywriters. For example, what do you say if you think customers are being put off because they fear your service will be too expensive? If you can’t publish the pricing, a phrase such as “it costs less that you might think” doesn’t have the negative connotation of suggesting you’re cheap but can encourage people to enquire.
Phrases can be learned. You can offer to “fast track” a customer’s enquiry, emphasise scarcity by saying “while stocks last”, and shove “Introducing” at the beginning of a headline to add news value. Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples is a classic in the genre, teaching, for example, headlines that have historically been successful.
Good, tested phrases are worth storing at the back of your head but copy also needs to have integrity. Phrases should feel that they are in character with the whole article, and not worn out. Phrases that feel over-used are less effective as readers gloss over them.
Sometimes people try to shoe-horn in calls to action inappropriately, but they should feel to the reader that they are in the right place because the text before them has led to them.
4. Understand user experience (UX)
In years past, copywriters were interested in how readers would scan copy. One of the counterintuitive findings was that readers were quite happy with long copy – direct mail letters that went on for pages, or adverts of many hundreds of words – if the layout made it easy for people to find what might interest them. That’s why so much direct mail contains subheadings, bulleted lists, indented quotations etc.
In the internet era, you do sometimes hear people erroneously say that web copy should be short because people have short attention spans online. In fact, best practice is to use long copy, because Google favours it, and because people value being informed, especially if they are going to commit cash to a purchase. Bulleted lists as in print, plus design features such as “accordions” help readers navigate pages. Books such as Don’t Make Me Think and You Should Test That! can help.
5. Develop an effective style
Some people starting off in copywriting pick up advice on the internet that encourages a contrived, hard-sell style. If it works for get-rich-quick schemes, surely it should be good for selling generally?
I can’t think of a single product or service that I’d be willing to market where a more relaxed style wouldn’t be better than a hard sell. Whatever price point your product, conveying a sense of quality pays off.
6. Study SEO but write for humans
We should be mindful of the latest thinking about SEO, and incorporate it in our planning and the editing and publishing of articles. But writing for benefit of humans should always be the priority. Otherwise we end up producing “content” that ultimately doesn’t work.
Being too obsessed with SEO is why the internet acts as an echo chamber discussing, for example, the supposed debate between the roles of copywriters and content writers – one sells, the other fills, apparently. The myth is caused by people searching for “copywriter vs content writer” and then sites trying to do good SEO by exaggerating the difference. There are good writers and bad writers, and there are plenty of times when a good copywriter will write informational copy that doesn’t try to sell. We need to bring traffic to sites but also say things that are accurate and help readers value what they see.
I know full well that this article would perform more strongly on Google if I changed the headline from “Six ways to be more effective at copywriting” to “Six ways to be an effective digital copywriter”. But my main target is in-house marketers wanting a complete marketing skillset, and the headline that increases visibility on Google might play less well on my homepage. The effective use of SEO is not just about getting readers, but getting the right ones.