A Short Guide to Writing Good Copy

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The term “style” is thrown around a lot by writers, but it’s a misnomer for copywriters because “style” doesn’t work in the extremely short attention economy of the internet.

Good copy isn’t necessarily “stylish.”

But copy that establishes trust, authority, builds relationships, and gets people talking, sharing, and buying is in high demand.

A lack of style is what makes it work, so writers who master this “style” are sought after and revered.

Legendary ad man David Ogilvy was one of those writers, and he said, “A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but it holds up under pressure, and I’ll explain why great content marketing is built on that exact premise.

Clear communication is the key to effective copy

Your best copy needs to be “display window clear,” and you need to be out there every morning with your Windex, to make sure it doesn’t distract from the product or service you provide for your clients and customers.

Every writer eventually reaches for a style guide to help them craft clear copy, and there are countless helpful rulebooks and list posts that offer writers advice about proper usage and consistent language.

Copyblogger actually has its own internal style guide, and members of the editorial crew often squabble about usage over (virtual) martinis.

I am also a big fan of the classic English guidebook, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. The aged copy I keep handy is dog-eared and yellowing.

In it, William Strunk advises writers,

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

This is very solid advice for online publishers … from 1918!

A copywriter comes to the rescue

It was actually famed writer E. B. White who updated professor Strunk’s “little” 43 page English rulebook in 1959.

He revived it from scholastic obscurity to become what Time magazine has called “one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.”

E. B. White was more than a revered journalist (contributor to the New Yorker for 60 years), and award-winning children’s author (Charlotte’s Web).

He honed his writing style as a copywriter in the 1920s, and contributed what he learned to The Elements of Style re-issue in chapter V, “An Approach to Style.”

It’s no secret why this revered text is so short, and so effective.

Mr. White edited the style guide with some reluctance, and was quoted years later as saying,

My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke — just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar.

Make every word tell

White’s lack of grammatical knowledge did not prevent the guide from becoming a bestseller for the better part of the last 50 years.

In interviews, White wanted to remind writers that rules are meant to be broken, and that every writer has their own unique point of view and voice.

Style results more from what a person is than from what he knows.

In other words, every writer can memorize rules, but how you get people’s attention requires some creativity.

Don’t get too hung up on the rules, or your copy might end up sucking, and that would break the first rule of Copyblogger.

In honor of E. B. White I have updated Dean Rieck’s post The Ultimate Blogger Writing Guide.

This list is only a sampling of the vast amount of knowledge available to online publishers and content marketers, but they are a few things that have helped me most along the way.

What I present to you is an annotated guide to effective online copywriting “style” …

1. Headline Writing 101

Every writer who wants to make an impact online must take this clinic.

There is only one reason your client or prospect will read a single word of the copy you’ve written: your headline. This is where you should spend 70% of your time.

Start with the 4 U’s:

  • Useful
  • Urgent
  • Unique
  • Ultra-Specific

2. Use common spelling

Flourishes and variations of common words distract your readers and pull them out of the story you’re telling (unless your demographic is girls aged 7-13).

Avoid:

  • pleez for please
  • thru for through
  • nite for night
  • 2moro for tomorrow
  • @ for at

Tweets and text messages require some brevity, slang, and LOL acronyms, but connecting with your audience in longer copy requires fewer distractions.

3. Avoid hyperbole and fancy words

One of the first lessons I learned as a writer at Copyblogger was to tone down my language.

Good copy cuts like a knife. When it’s action you’re after, avoid big words that make you sound like you’re trying too hard to sound smart or important.

E. B. White said it best,

Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word, when there is a ten-center handy …

4. Put the reader first

It is our job as copywriters to tap into the hopes, dreams, and fears of our audience. This requires research, and the magic of the word “you.”

Proven to be one of the English language’s most powerful words, you can’t lose.

5. Write in a natural way

This is an indispensable tip for all bloggers and copywriters.

You must speak the language of your audience, and do it in a way that conveys you are a real person, with genuine interest in offering your help and expertise.

How else are your prospects going to get to know, like, and trust you?

How else are search engines going to recognize that you have the answers to people’s questions?

Research, research, research. Know your audience inside and out.

6. Work from an outline

Outlines work! Even if you don’t have the energy or time to sketch out a simple AIDA outline, give yourself some idea of the goals you’d like to accomplish.

Even something as simple as a post-it-note with a few bullet points works. Successful writers use outlines. They don’t stifle creativity … but they’re helpful in reminding you to stick to the point.

7. Write with nouns and verbs

This is Copywriting 101 — Precise language convinces; flowery language distracts.

Concise and specific copy moves the prospect along, but adjectives and adverbs are just filler.

The more descriptors you throw in there, the higher the chances are that someone with the attention span of a hummingbird will click away (unless you are describing the features of something technical).

8. Revise and rewrite

Ogilvy is quoted as saying,

I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor.

He would edit his first draft four or five times before showing it to a client, who would inevitably change it again.

9. Do not overwrite

Without clarity your copy is shot. Overwriting is a symptom of under thinking. Good copy is damn hard to write.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
~ Albert Einstein

10. Do not overstate

Superlatives have the power to wreck your copy.

When you overstate or exaggerate your claims (with things like trumped-up testimonials), you risk losing the trust of your audience.

An understated promise often does a better job of capturing reader attention than screaming hype does.

11. Be clear

Shine that display glass.

Do some editing. Then put it down and do something else. Then, come back and edit again.

I’ve found that printing something out on paper helps lessen distractions of a computer screen.

12. Don’t mix metaphors

If a product sings when used correctly, but sinks if used improperly, then it is guilty of being both a songstress and an anchor, and this is very distracting.

Stick to one metaphor or the other, but not both in one sentence.

13. Simplify your language:

Make every word tell.

Delete the words that are just window dressing.

Copy is haiku,
simple yet evocative.
Don’t mess it up, please.

I am a copywriter

As an added bonus I’d like to share Tom Albrighton’s graphic I am a copywriter (thanks to Copyblogger’s VP of Operations Jessica Commins for finding it) …


It sums it up rather nicely.

Funny how such simple blocks of text can communicate so much.

I especially dig the phrase “Give me just a mo and I’ll give you le mot juste,” which is a French term for “just the right word.”

Does it do the job it’s meant to? Drop your reactions into the comments.

PS. Let me reiterate that rules are meant to be broken, and I am as guilty as anyone. Cheers, see you out there.

About the author

Kelton Reid


Kelton Reid is Director of Multimedia Production for Copyblogger Media, and an independent screenwriter and novelist. Get more from Kelton on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. Great post. It was much better than the infographic, which is visually weird to me. I guess people like text infographics, like the Holstee manifesto, but I’m just not a fan.

    • Thank you Ed. Mr. Albrighton probably had a look at the Holstee Manifesto. He’s done some other cool copywriting infographics at abccopywriting.com.

  2. As always, useful and actionable. The social web needs more people like you, and more than just copyblogger.
    Thank you!

  3. Really informative. I think number 13 – simplify the language is a big one.

  4. So well said… K.I.S.S. is always best. Keep it simple and let the story do the work.

    • To be honest Clara, I almost threw in K.I.S.S. as a reminder to myself.

      “Let the story do the work” could be its own bullet. Thanks for adding it.

  5. “I’ve found that printing something out on paper helps lessen distractions of a computer screen. ”

    I like to read things out loud to myself. It forces me to slow down so I don’t read what I think is there as opposed to what is actually there. You catch a lot of mistakes that way.

    • “… so I don’t read what I think is there…” That is such an important truth, Nick. I’ll be using your suggestion to overcome a truly irritating habit. I thought it was just my own problem… Thanks!

    • Pawel Piejko :

      @Nick Stamoulis

      Good point Nick, I always read things loud to myself whenever I can. It’s the best way to polish my copy and to identify a whole bunch of mistakes that initially seemed right. My colleagues aren’t very happy when I do it though ;) cheers

  6. I think most copywriters coming from an academic background quickly learn the lesson of simplifying. The language that’s right for philosophical texts and analyzing great literature (in papers meant to be read by professors) isn’t what’s best for writing a business blog or informative article for an online audience.

    Nonetheless, it’s a crucial skill that can help make you a better communicator all around. Someone who drops words others don’t know in conversation is less likely to impress friends than frustrate and confuse them – sounding good matters less than communicating effectively.

  7. Copywriting is not literature, that’s for sure. But a satisfying word that suits the curious hunger of a reader is what makes both literature and copywriting work. The right word creates an explosion (a big one or a little one) inside the reader, and that’s what causes them to act. Sometimes we need a match, sometimes a torch. Knowing the difference is always a challenge.

  8. John Switzer :

    To add from our friend Mr. Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

  9. This is ever the challenge for writers who are both selling soap and selling themselves. Ten years of selling products on live TV taught me a lot about the power of words. But every product requires a slightly different language. When I shared an aspirational jewelry line, my choice of words differed from when I sold novelties and toys. I think a sense of humor is key. Make people feel like you’re entertaining them and never selling them. Your job is to connect with your audience and more than that, to inspire them. Love this blog, so glad I found it!

  10. Very useful and practical rules that anyone writing copy for the Internet should follow. I’m a big fan of writing an outline and the KISS principle “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”

    I will often write a piece then (if I have the luxury) I won’t go back to it for two or three days before I edit it as I find my subconscious has been working on a rewrite during that time which makes the editing process go a whole lot easier.

    • I’m a huge fan of using a gestation period before writing or rewriting. You’re right, it makes things much easier because your brain is actually working on the problem while you do other things. Like just taking a walk, for instance.

    • Me too! I always plan to have the draft finished at least the day before I send it in, so I can do my editing and proofreading with some distance from the writing. It’s also a good way to keep from missing deadlines, even when something unexpected comes up.

  11. Ironically given the emphasis on using fewer words, I think this piece would have been stronger had everything before the numbered list been dropped. It seemed to take a long time to get to the point!

  12. Hmm. I like most of your tips, but do not like you’re opening two paragraphs. I vote for style, not over substance, but as the thing that says “You deserve my time today. Read me.” I read your piece Kelton, and you sir, have style.

  13. Tom Albrighton :

    Thanks for featuring my graphic!

  14. All good points that can’t be stressed too frequently. Although for sales copy I’d look to break Rule 7 and Rule 10.

    • Try testing it. We’ve often found that a more “reasonable” promise gets a better response than a big hypey one. And the specificity of *strong* nouns and verbs can go a long way to making your copy more persuasive. Adjectives tell, nouns & verbs show.

      But play around with it in your own sales copy and see … rules of thumb are just starting points.

      • The post has made me wonder if I tend to overuse adjectives in my copy. I’ll have to make a special note to keep that in mind in writing and editing my next few pieces, hopefully it’ll become habit soon thereafter.

  15. Really informative. The quote “A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.” really struck a chord with me. I sit somewhere in the middle on this one. I love subtlety but I also love creativity which sometimes attracts a lot of attention and then does sell the product so not sure whether I agree or disagree. But then I am a Libra so I find it hard to make decisions anyway!!

    Beth :)

  16. A good refresher course in writing effective copy. Thanks!!

  17. “The Elements of Style is still one of my favourites. I picked up a copy my first year in undergrad, and I go back and read it back to front every now and then. Another good one I recently discovered is “The Subversive Copy Editor” by Carol Fisher Saller. It’s great for copy editors and copywriters alike.

  18. Well written! headline to any post is what motivates anyone to decide to read a post or not.

  19. Back to basics in a world on change steroids! One of the hardest things for me to figure out on my blog is the VOICE. Who am I? Who am I writing to? Originally I was trying to be some authority that I’m not. (I am the authority on my subject, but I’m not an authoritarian kind of guy!) Less is more, honest is persuasive.

  20. Thanks for a great article Kelton. I struggle with not using adjectives. Because I write for my business in nature tourism it sometimes feels like adjectives are the essential element that’s going to transform a name into a magical place that my audience must visit. I do get sick of sticking adjectives in front of place names though! I will try testing whether my words stand up without them.

  21. This is full of great reminders on keeping copy crisp and clean. I edit, write and translate from French and Spanish into English, so have an additional barrier to overcome when getting messages across. For me the key is to understand what I’m writing in order to cut through the surplus or unclear copy, so I repeatedly have to go back to the original premise and figure out just what the message is. It’s great for mental gymnastics! And results in a real feeling of satisfaction when the final copy jumps of the page.

  22. Love the Ogilvy quotation. You also make great points about the writing being almost invisible, with its topic at the fore.

  23. You make a lot of great points. I definitely agree that writers should not try too hard to impress and write in a unique, conversational style so they can actually connect with their readers. I don’t want to be reading a research paper, I want to understand the writer’s content easily.

  24. HI, great article. my biggest problem is no. 13. Simplify your language:. I do lots and lots of window dressing without realizing it.

  25. Awesome post! Writing really is becoming a lost art. I really have to work on writing shorter sentences and removing words that are unnecessary.

    One good way to do this is by allowing only so many words within your article. When you’ve gone over the limit, you have to rewrite and get your point across with fewer words.

    Love your website btw!

  26. This brings to mind my favourite Hemmingway quote which is very close to Ogilvy’s thinking, “Most writers slough of the most important part of their trade – editing their stuff, honing and honing it until it gets an edge like a bullfighter’s killing sword”.

    I really enjoyed this post, thank you.

    Joe

  27. Writing good copy is definitely an art, as I have found out the hard way! I read the books, and tried writing the stuff myself, but it took awhile to figure out what really is effective. I’m still not that great at it, but doing ok. Your tips are right on the mark, especially the Einstein quote!

  28. Clear, concise and catchy work quite nicely with your own writing style. If everything we read was EXACTLY the same the world of the written word would be a pretty boring place AND nothing would manage to make a reader perk up and take notice.

  29. Great post! Learnt a (fair – adjective??) few things there which I will (definitely – adverb) implement in my (own – unnecessary) writing.

    Thanks for the help (:-))

    Lauren

  30. Excellent post Kelton. I agree in the most lines you describe, but I think that in the mixture, we have to add a touch of personal style, balance it against you excellent indeed, guidelines for clear writing. Personal style, not mannerism, that can prove to be a little boring, after a while, can function, if properly injected in the mixture, the glue that would integrate a straight cut post to a brilliant value added resource. So, I think that a balance should be achieved, between clear communication and personal style. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  31. “In other words, every writer can memorize rules, but how you get people’s attention requires some creativity.” Yes. Good (and effective) writers tend to naturally live the rules, but that’s not why they are good writers. And … less-than-good writers can memorize every rule in the book, and still be less-than-good writers.

  32. Lauren Bilderback :

    It’s interesting that you shouldn’t use flowery words because in English writing teachers tell you to use flowery words to make your story more interesting. I like simple and to the point much better.