Tips for Better Copywriting
What exactly is copywriting? What characterizes good copywriting? And how can we avoid, dare we say it, bad copywriting? Copywriting can be complicated. But it needn't be. We've distilled acres of advice on one of advertising's quiet arts to arm you with three tips you can (and should) apply to your own copywriting today.
Copywriting is usually defined as writing that sells. We like to widen this definition to extend beyond just selling widgets and discounted tickets. We consider copywriting to be writing that persuades the reader to do something. This might be clicking on a call-to-action or tilting perspectives about a brand.
The true north for copywriting is expressing ideas using only as many words as needed, and not a syllable more.
In the words of Paul Graham, a writer and computer scientist, "... write using ordinary words and simple sentences." Graham points out that this kind of writing is easier to read, making it easier for your readers to engage with it deeply. "The less energy they expend on your prose, the more they'll have left for your ideas."
This applies to copywriting, too. If your audience has to spend a few seconds figuring out what your double-page print ad was trying to say, consider that page flipped. You’ve lost the game. So write simply, even when your ideas are big. No, especially when your ideas are big. That's what you want people to focus on.
Without violating our rules too egregiously (if you call me out for using a $5 word there, you're well on your way to improving your copywriting already—nice work), let's dive into the goods.
Write in the Active Voice
We want our copy written in the active voice. If you're racking your brain to remember grade 8 English class, fear not, friends. Active voice means that the subject in your sentence performs the action stated by the verb. In short, subject + verb + object. Clear as mud? Okay, let's use an example:
The skier shredded the slopes.
The skier (subject) + shredded (verb) + the slopes (object).
In the active voice, the subject does the doing; they take action. And this is important because it makes your sentences shorter and easier to follow. Remember what we said about wanting readers to spend their energy on your ideas and not comprehending your writing? Writing in the active voice helps us achieve that.
Avoid the Passive Voice
We want to avoid the passive voice most of the time. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb. The formula here is object + verb + subject. Example time!
The slopes were shredded by the skier.
The slopes (object) + were shredded (verb) + by the skier (subject).
There are a few problems with this sentence. First, it's harder to follow than the active version above. And even if it's only a tiny bit murkier for your readers, they might keep thumbing down their feed instead of engaging with your ad. Second, it bloats your word count. The active sentence had five words, whereas the passive sentence had seven words. We often have tight character counts to hit in copywriting, so we need every word, indeed, every letter, to do a job. Adding 'were' and 'by' to your sentence doesn't help convey a clearer message to your audience, so they're just taking up space. We don't like that.
Now, this isn't to say we should never write in the passive voice. There's a time and a place. There are passive sentences in this very article, in fact. But for copywriting, try to write in the active voice most of the time.
Use Periods, Not Commas
We’ve got nothing against commas. But in copywriting, periods are the punctuation mark of choice. Why? Because periods help us write shorter sentences. And shorter sentences, generally speaking, are what we want. They’re easier to read and easier to understand, which is important when there are so many demands on your audience’s time.
Commas can create long, laborious sentences that continue on and on, seemingly without end, meandering around whatever we’re actually trying to say, but never quite getting there, at least not in a hurry, anyway. Read that last sentence again. Six commas and 34 words to say that commas can create long and confusing sentences—ain’t nobody got time for that.
Shorter sentences can also be a positive forcing function for writers. When we commit to communicating in shorter sentences, we must focus on expressing a single idea per sentence. And that ensures we know exactly what we’re trying to say. The clearer we are as writers, the clearer our writing will be for readers. Winner winner, chicken dinner.
Focus on Benefits and Forget Features
The truth is that no one cares about your product or service's features, at least not in and of themselves. People care about how your product can benefit them.
Don't get us wrong: Your features are important. But they don't answer your audience's most critical question: What can you do for me?
Copywriting should focus on benefits. Benefits are the positive impacts and emotions your customers gain from using your products or services. Consider an example from a fictional ski resort talking about its snow-making capabilities:
Our state-of-the-art Deluxo 9500xyz snow-making infrastructure features an integrated hose system and an enhanced motorized pumping mechanism that increases the optimal flow rate to produce our artificial snow's industry-defining crystalline structure.
We could count the things wrong with what you just read for a storm cycle or four. But chief among them is that even if someone could decipher precisely what our fictional ski resort meant with that buzzword salad, it's unlikely to convince them to buy a lift ticket. Why? Because skiers and riders don't care about the technical features of snow-making, they care about ripping down the slopes. If this sounds self-evident, trust your instincts. So let's put forward an example that focuses on the benefits for snow-sliding aficionados:
Our snow-making system makes sure you're skiing on snow, even when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate.
Our hypothetical ski resort has let its customers know how their snow-making capabilities positively impact their experiences on the slopes. And we can award 10 points to Gryffindor because we trimmed over 150 characters off our original description. If we can say more with fewer words, our copy will be stronger. Morgan Housel, a writer whose book 'The Psychology of Money' has sold over one million copies, once said, "Whoever says the most stuff in the fewest words wins." And not a syllable more. Point taken.
It's time to land this plane. Copywriting can be made complex, but the truth is that it's just arranging words in a way that persuades the reader to take action. That's it. If we want to be effective in doing that, we need to write in the active voice (and avoid writing passively), use periods often, and focus on benefits, not features. Doing just these three things will make your copy easy to read. And copy that's easy to read is easier to engage with. And copy that's easier to engage with… Okay. You get it. Go forth and write simply (in the active voice, of course.)