Fun with words: Tips for Effective Copywriting

Landing a copywriting job is the real deal – now you have to produce. If you’re lucky, the job is in your niche, which should make things a lot easier. And it does … at first. Exulting in the glories of an HVAC service with outlets in every town on the map requires fresh copy – for every location.

Before you know it, your highly informational, sincere copy has turned into a sleaze-filled pitch worthy of any greasy-haired, plaid-suited used car salesman. Me? No way, creepy marketing prattle is beneath me … I routinely sneer at such dreck.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s face it – the constant need for quality content is part of effective copywriting. Your job is to attract visitors to a website and convert them into leads and customers. Consistently producing powerful, high-quality copy is tough, but not at all impossible. Here are several tips on how to lose the drivel and write honest copy that sells.

Do more research

early copywriting crew

Yes, more. Even if you’ve been a factory-certified Mercedes mechanic for the last 20 years, someone out there may have streamlined a process or invented a new tool. The more information you have, the more ideas you can play with.

Simplify your copywriting

This step needn’t involve ditching pertinent technical jargon and writing to a seventh-grader’s comprehension level – it means getting your message across clearly and concisely – especially when you have a specific audience. Don’t oversell or talk down to an audience already familiar with the product or process.

Don’t be overly clever

Writers play with words – it’s what we do. Sometimes that’s okay when writing copy, although it depends entirely on the brand personality and the type of content you’ve been asked to write. Most of the time, though, being clear and straightforward works better than being a clever wordsmith.

Break those grammar rules

This cannot be stressed enough, although this goes against every grammar rule you ever learned. Some of the best all-around writers know how and when to break the rules of proper grammar, syntax and mechanics. Speak directly to your audience in easily understood language.

Write in the vernacular

No, this is not a continuation of the above tip. Speaking to an audience in a style they recognize helps you connect and build a relationship. They know where you’re coming from – they dig what you’re saying and will be more open to your message. If you’re selling retro furniture to baby boomers, learn the lingo.

Focus on the benefits

Talk about what your product does, not is – and demonstrate this with descriptive copy. Everyone knows what a kitchen blender is, but what does yours do that makes it special? Make every feature you mention into a benefit to anyone who owns the product or uses the service.

Set the instant gratification hook

Give your readers satisfaction from merely reading your copy. When you promise them something valuable right up front, they’ll keep reading because they believe you’ll deliver on your promise. This curiosity factor drives them right through the meat of the copy and into your call to action.

Use the right words

All too often, writers use adverbs or adjectives in order to make an okay word better. Stop doing this. Now. Hunt down the best word you can find in order to convey an image, emotion or your message. It will not only strengthen your copy, it takes you (the writer) out of the picture by letting the words speak for themselves.

Use active voice

Here’s another tip that cannot be stressed enough. Writing in an active voice necessitates using short, strong sentences, which improves your writing right there. It’s fast, firm, on point and to the point. “We are” beats “We have been” every time.

Stand your ground

Don’t take the easy way out by avoiding the use of strong words like “can” and “will” when referring to your client’s services or product(s). It not only makes your copy flat and flavorless, it makes you sound like your client is unable to deliver. Confident writing builds trust and a customer base.

Prove it

Confident writing is one thing – backing up a promise with facts and/or statistics is another. Your credibility grows when you can back up benefits or claims with concrete proof. Facts, numbers, case studies and success stories can win over skeptics while demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about.

Watch your “you” and “we”

Effective copywriting connects with the customer in the first sentence, not the business you’re writing for. That’s why copy that speaks directly to the audience gets more results. When you make sure your copy uses “you” at least twice as often as “we” or the company name, it’s obvious that your focus is aimed at your customer’s needs and desires.

Finally …

Copywriters read other copywriters’ work all the time while doing research, looking for ideas or checking out something of interest. Why not consider building a swipe file containing the best examples of copywriting you come across. In addition to building a collection of great copywriting techniques, tips and references, you can keep better track of your own creative ideas. It’s a great way to keep everything under one roof, as it were.

“Resist the usual.” – Advertising wizard Raymond Rubicam.

Works for me.

I’m Writing to You like I’m Talking to You

Using a casual or conversational voice is a must when copywriting gets your message across in a friendly tone  and gets that message to stick. After all, who is your audience more likely to listen to – a tight-laced lecturer or someone telling a story?

It can be hard to find your voice when first starting to relax your writing – especially if you come from a structured background in journalism, academia or – yes – certain suffocating, creativity-killing content writing mills. If you learned to write in a formal or limited style, it’s a tough habit to break without coming off as trite, juvenile or even silly.

While developing an informal style of business writing might be a grammatical nightmare at first, it’s a great way to hit that common ground with your audience, build some trust and attract more customers for your client. Here are a few tips on how to loosen up that tight-assed writing.

Make it personal

Talk directly to your audience by using the word “you”. It lends a personal touch to your message by engaging the reader one on one. Using the more formal “those who” or “one” relays a sense of detachment by teetering on the lecturing fence.

Contractions are your friends

We naturally use contractions when speaking – it helps get the words out faster and it’s a more relaxed way to talk – so don’t be afraid to use them when writing. There’s nothing as irritating as reading, “Do not worry. You will be the envy of the neighborhood.” Instead of the more natural, “Don’t worry, you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood.”

Shorten your sentences

  • While this writing style is usually beaten into the heads of journalists, it’s often neglected or even discouraged in other writing genres. Let’s face it – shorter sentences make articles easier to read.
  •  You always come up for air when you speak, so try it when you write. Break up long sentences into two pieces by the clever (and simple) use of punctuation. Ellipses, commas, em dashes and semicolons are wonderful things … when used correctly.
  • If your run-on sentence contains two thoughts or messages, use a period. Period. And start that second sentence with “and” or “but”. While this may cause the specter of your high school English teacher to loom into view, shake it off and do it. We do it all the time when we talk; besides, it’s a catchy way to carry over the point of the previous sentence.

End with prepositions

Serious grammar Nazis aside, ending a sentence with a common preposition such as “of,” “in” or “on” will not cause fits in the majority of readers or editors. It’s actually a great way to write in the active voice while being conversational.

Many (if not all) of us have been taught that “You will be proud of the kitchen cabinets we build.” is correct, while “We’ll build kitchen cabinets you can be proud of.” is a punishable offense. Live dangerously.

Keep it simple

Conversational writing doesn’t mean choking every paragraph with jargon, bad jokes or overly technical terms. Keep it simple, just as you would in a regular conversation. Leave out the $10 words unless you’re targeting an audience that uses and understands them.

Adjectives are wonderful – great and faithful pals in the copywriting world, but only if used sparingly and creatively. Gushing is a no-no, so leave the purple prose to the Bronte sisters. Would you really want to read, much less submit, this sentence when writing for a florist shop: “Our carefully tended flora is so glorious that every wedding bouquet blazes with resplendency.” After laughing yourself silly … no.

Use slang where it works

Don’t overdo the slang or use mild profanity unless you’re certain that your audience uses it as a matter of course in daily conversation. While the occasional use of “hell” or “damn” is acceptable when writing for a motorcycle site, it might not sit as well with the owner of a kids’ consignment shop.

Everyone uses slang – but again, consider your target audience. Kids and younger adults use slang that many parents and older folks don’t get and vice-versa – so don’t use slang that is so dated that many potential customers wouldn’t recognize it.

For example, “keen” and “swell” would barely be recognized as words, much less as once popular slang terms, while the slightly less dated “cool” and “awesome” are still commonly used.

Don’t get ridiculous

Conversational writing is not at all like talking to a friend – so it should mimic a casual conversation, not reproduce it exactly. Don’t get too relaxed or informal when writing for a client (no cheesy jokes) and never wander off on unrelated tangents. Never pad the piece with useless “trendy” terms and empty filler words:

  • Very long
  • Really difficult
  • In the field of
  • At the end of the day
  • For all intents and purposes
  • One of the most
  • In light of the fact that

Okay, that’s enough of that.

Ask questions

Asking one or two hypothetical questions will add to the conversational tone of your copy, but don’t go berserk and toss one into every paragraph. The judicious use of such questions, followed by the answer, helps readers feel more engaged. After all, you’re speaking to each one of them personally, right? (see what I did there? 😉 )

Read, edit and read again

  • Read your article out loud – either to yourself or to an audience – and take note of any copy that sounds forced or awkward. Fix it.
  • Pay attention to where you are in the copy when you stop to take a breath and then shorten either the sentence or the words.

Finally, take the time to “get to know” your target audience by visiting the client’s website and reading a few articles or blog posts. And don’t panic if your first few attempts come back to you covered in red ink – it takes practice to hit the right tone. Track your progress by checking your submission against the published piece or asking your editor for feedback.

How to Piss Off an Editor

Most experienced writers have dealt with an editor(s) who are so pinched, humorless and bitter that he or she most assuredly chewed broken glass for nourishment, dumped offal on the heads of innocent passersby from the garret window for fun and used the shredded dreams of writers as toilet paper.

Piss offNot all editors are like that, but all of them will – at one time or another – get you pissed off by not appreciating the effort it took you to produce 800 words on the fine points of buying canned vs. frozen corn. You will come to the conclusion that all editors draw their strength from reducing your carefully crafted – and knee-slappingly witty – work of word art into something unrecognizable.

Good writers take criticism on the chin and use it to make their work better, while others presume their writing has achieved such a level of excellence that they get insulted when editing or rewriting is required. How you deal with such inevitable requests is, of course, up to you – but getting pissed off at an editor because your ego is bruised ain’t the way to do it. Here are a few things that turn otherwise even-tempered editors into glass chewers.

Just keep typing

Get to the point. Run-on sentences are usually not created on purpose and everyone has written more than a few of them. When you do come up for air, do not leave them as is because you believe that – despite their length, they make perfect sense.

The truth is that reading them is exhausting and often confusing. You’re supposed to be a professional – figure out a way to break them up. There are many online entries (and claims to fame) for the “world’s longest” run-on sentence. Don’t add to the list.

Do the bare minimum

Whether you’re familiar with a topic or not, make the time to do some research instead of relying on your possibly sketchy and dated first-hand knowledge. When you do finish writing a piece, read the thing from stem to stern. You’d be surprised at how often you may have unknowingly repeated yourself a few paragraphs lower in the article.

If you’re asked for a revision or rewrite, don’t juggle a couple of sentences around and send it on back to the editor… you’ll just piss him/her off. Despite your enormous sense of justifiable indignation at the editor’s idiocy for not recognizing your genius, get the rewrite in on time and pout later. We all know you have far better things to do and far larger worlds to conquer, but hey – you wanted this fucking job, right?

Do your own thing

No matter how trivial the house (or editor’s) guidelines may seem, do what is required or don’t freelance for them. Editors have their reasons (speeding up the process) for asking you to follow specific formatting styles. Choke off that creative urge to “jazz” up your article with superfluous (and usually lame) jokes, bulleted lists and bolded or underlined bits of highly important text. Now.

Bitch on social media

Yes – you will be receiving unwanted, but hopefully constructive, criticism. What you do not want to do is publicly piss and moan about it every time you get called on bad grammar or punctuation. Giving your editor the proverbial double middle finger in public for less than stellar feedback is not only unprofessional – it could be a job killer. This is an insular business. Your shitty remarks will get around and no editor will want to deal with you.

Half-ass it

Most editors are also writers – they can smell bullshit a mile away. When you phone in a piece you’ve had plenty of time to work on, any semi-conscious editor will spot that crap almost instantly – and so would the client and most of your audience. When an editor is forced to: a) Send the mess back for a complete rewrite or b) Fix the dreck you cranked out the morning of your deadline – you’ve made a major mistake.

From that point on, all of your stuff – good, bad or indifferent – is under the microscope. The very sight of your by-line will crank up an editor’s radar. You’re doing your professional self (and reputation) no good by submitting un-researched, hastily-written and easily checked garbage.

When it’s all said and done, pissed off editors and butt-hurt writers don’t make much of a team – and certainly don’t accomplish much. If writing is what you want to do, then do it to the best of your ability. If you need help, ask for it. And above all, don’t try to bullshit an editor … we’ve been there and done that.

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit, I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”                 – Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934.