How to write effective copy

When you ask a writer what good copy is, you’re likely to get a blank stare. Or, you may end up in a long-winded discussion you never planned on having – and certainly don’t want to repeat. Writers are often too close to the question to be able to answer it. You might as well ask a mechanic what makes a good car. There’s so many ways to write, where do you start?
Most of us need to write well – our jobs and our customers depend on it. For many marketers, working with a copywriter comes with the territory. That’s why recognising good copy and fixing things when they start to go wrong is so important. Training, experience and hard work give a writer an engaging and credible voice. But everyone who makes writing part of their job can find ways to improve their skills and approach.

The good news

Here are a few tips you can put into practice when you’re faced with the next writing project:

  • Collect inspiration. Find brochures, manuals, websites and adverts, both digital and print, that you like. Look at the writing carefully. What makes it so good? Or, on second thoughts, is it as clear and meaningful as it could be. What traits do your materials have in common? How are they different? A good writing style should be easy to follow and convey ideas as cleanly and quickly as possible. But concise text shouldn’t cut out much needed personality. It should support the tone-of-voice of the wider organisation.
  • Start with a plan. What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to reach? Where will they be when they read your copy? What do you want them to do? Take some time to profile your audience and understand their expectations and motivations. If you’re writing a web page, decide how many words each section should have and stick to your own rules. Writing isn’t all about inspiration; it’s about setting out to reach a well-defined goal.
  • Think like a reader. Writers write for readers, not other writers. Your audience is your only target. Make sure you offer them signposts that make your copy easy to manage. This could be a web heading, or even using terms like ‘first’, ‘then’ and ‘finally’. Readers need to be able to get what’s important out of the text quickly. If there’s an important theme or idea you need to introduce, do it quickly. Don’t hold back.

Top 10 tips for better copy

If you have a plan and a well-defined audience, writing is easier. If you run into trouble, all you need to do is refer back to your goal. Is the direction you’re taking in line with it? Will what your saying resonate with your audience? If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then you’re heading in the right direction. But there are still some aspects of style you’ll want to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t use two words when one will do. We all break this one sometimes. And most of us would be better writers if we didn’t. Read every sentenced carefully. Is it overdressed? Personality is a good thing – but too much is, well, annoying. For example, I’ve read the phrase ‘new innovation’ more than once. Surely one word or the other would suffice. And there are plenty of other examples. Look carefully at sentences that are rich in prepositions like ‘to’, ‘for’, ‘by’ and ‘with’. They often try to do too much and need pruning.
  2. Use nouns and verbs. Sounds simple I know. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to fill sentence after lovingly crafted sentence with gracefully lilting adjectives and stunning albeit wholly accurate adverbs. The temptation to fall in love with words and leave them where they’re scattered is huge. So be tough and use a very sharp pen. If you think you’ve described too much, you probably have. Be brave. Delete the offending words.
  3. Use the active voice ‘The dog was bitten by the boy’ is obtuse. So much better to write ‘the boy bit the dog’. This is an overused example but the point is a valid one. The active voice conveys more and does it so much more elegantly.
  4. Keep related words together ‘I noticed in the middle of the rug a large stain that was brown and right in the centre.’ You can see how easy it is to loose all meaning when adjectives are separated from the nouns they modify. The result is too many words and no clear ideas.
  5. Use the same tense. Switching back and forth causes chaos and can make readers feel uncertain. Stick to past, present or future.
  6. Use the same person. Address your audience as ‘you’, or stick with ‘they’. But don’t try to use ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘you’, ‘they’ and ‘I’ in the same piece of writing. It’s fine to use ‘you’ when you’re writing directly to clients or potential clients. It’s not fine to change your mind and start using ‘they’.
  7. Stick to the positive form. It’s easier and usually makes sense to avoid the negative. For example, ‘she usually came late’ is clearer than ‘she was not often on time’. And, it uses fewer words, too.
  8. Avoid fancy words. The cute, coy and pretentious have no home in good writing. Jargon should also be eliminated. Some words and phrases try to do too much and end up victims of their own overwhelming pomposity. Just like that last phrase. Try not to rely on too much technical terminology either – unless you audience expects it. Then by all means, feel free to use it.
  9. Get to grips with tone-of-voice. When we speak, our emotions, attitudes and approach are all conveyed through our tone. The same is true when we write. For example, if your organisation has innovation as a value, your writing should reflect the same energy and commitment. The right tone-of-voice helps people recognise brands. Consistency is essential.
  10. Avoid over-using exclamation marks. If there is one way to make a professional piece of writing look unprofessional, it’s the over-use of this particular piece of punctuation. If a sentence is genuinely funny or is an amusing quote from an excited customer, then by all means use the exclamation mark to show this. But avoid adding them just to try and make the copy look more exciting or informal; it ruins the whole tone of the message.

Last words

Practice, people always say, makes perfect. And that’s true of good copywriting. Draft and redraft your work until you’re sure it’s as clear and accurate as you can make it. Then give it to a colleague who you think knows a thing or two about communications. Don’t be distressed by negative feedback – writers get it all the time and it doesn’t stop them scribbling on scratch paper or pounding on keyboards. Don’t let it stop you. By the time you’ve finished with corrections, you’re ready to show it to a client or to your boss. Good luck!

For copywriting advice from the professionals, get in touch with Marketing Zone. We can help.