On Writing Good Copy (Or, Why it’s Important to be a Good Writer)

All throughout school I was a pretty good writer, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I won several essay writing contests in elementary school and often had my short stories read in front of the class by my English teacher in high school – an absolutely fabulous way to encourage a self-conscience teenager.

The College Years

College was a better experience. I took Composition II my first semester at UND and was one of just a handful of freshmen in the class. Here, I was exposed to a new concept – peer review of our writing. I was amazed at the poor quality of most of the work. I expected that my upperclassmen would have a decent grasp on the English language, but boy was I wrong. Suddenly, I appreciated my high school English teacher and all of the grammar drills and writing exercises he put us through.

Having the ability to write well made my college writing assignments tolerable, if not downright enjoyable. I saw my writing as a direct reflection on me as a person, so I put a lot of effort into those projects. Looking back, I sometimes think I may have put too much work in sometimes, but at least I know I put in my best effort.

Writing in the Real World

After graduating with my undergraduate degree in Information Systems, I thought my days of writing were over. I expected to be mostly writing in computer languages, not English. I don’t think I could have been more wrong in how things turned out.

My first job at EduTech largely had me training teachers in various applications. This also involved writing a lot of the training material. My second job moved me into the role of web designer/developer, which meant my hands were touching practically every piece of content on our website. Both were really good experiences, and helped me learn how to write better for different audiences and occasions.

My current job has me doing a variety of tasks, several of which are really heavy on writing. I’m the acting “editor-in-chief”, meaning I get to chop and refine all marketing material that goes out to our customers. I’ve quickly learned the power of brevity in writing sales copy, something that goes against my years of school experience where more words were always better, even if they didn’t add to the piece (10 pages, no less!). If you can say something in 5 words instead of 50, why not?

Headlines Matter

I’m also learning about the importance of really good headlines to capture the attention of readers. Until I started paying attention, I didn’t realize how often I scan through a page, looking for something that matters to me. This is especially pronounced when reading items in Google Reader. Keyboard shortcuts make it extremely easy to move from item to item (use the J key to move to the next, K to move to the previous), and unless the headline pops out at me, I move right onto the next item. Research tells us that scanning is something humans do as a means of coping with information. When faced with an info overload, we scan web pages, newspapers, and letters, looking for things that get our attention.

It Doesn’t Have to be Pretty if it Sells

I’m also learning about picking the right words and language to persuade and sell. Often times, this doesn’t mean being clever or unique, but instead means using proven words that get people’s attention and sell products, like free, save, easy, guarantee, how to, quick, sale, etc.

How You Can Become a Better Copy Writer

Here are some quick tips:

  1. Read a lot. The more good writing you’re exposed to, the better yours will become.
  2. Start reading one or more copywriting blogs. I personally like Copyblogger, although there plenty of others.
  3. Read Copyblogger’s articles on his Copywriting 101 page.
  4. Pick up a good copywriting book. Again, Copyblogger has a good list of recommendations on his site.
  5. Finally, write a lot. The more, the better. Writing more means you’ll also write a lot of bad or mediocre stuff, but it also increases the chances of you writing some really good stuff too. It’s a numbers game, really.