Copywriting is in some ways a unique form of written communication. Even if you are an experienced author, you may need to unlearn many of your assumptions about what makes strong writing in order to create powerful copy.
The copywriter chooses every word carefully – each one should have a role to play and be critical to the message. If you can remove a word without changing the meaning of what you have written, then it should not be there.
The starting point for all copywriting is the reader, everything else comes after. The checklist below will help you to identify and define your reader and plan your writing so that it addresses the reader’s needs as effectively as possible.
- Who are you writing for?
- How much do they already know about your product or service?
- How interested are they in your product or service?
- What is their reading level? (Writing for an academic audience, for example, will require a different style and reading level to writing for a general readership.)
- What do the want to know?
- How much detail do they need?
- What need, fear or worry does your product or service address?
- Why would they choose your product or service rather than that offered by a competitor?
- What is your reader’s frame of mind?
- Where are they when they read your message (at home, in the office, commuting)?
- What is the key point you need to convey?
- What other points do you want to cover?
- In what form will your writing appear (article, banner ad, tweet, facebook entry, direct mail)?
- At what stage in the marketing process will you reader encounter your message?
- Do you have all of the background information you need (About the product or service and about the potential customer)? If not, how can you find it?
- What is the goal of the piece (for instance, to put across key pieces of information, or to persuade the reader to take a particular action)?
Getting Started Checklist
- Start with a clear brief – be clear who you are writing for and what you are writing.
- Decide on a timetable – Don’t leave it to the last minute. Allow time to carry out any research required, plan out the document in detail, if necessary, and revise the document once it is finished.
- Begin with one grain of sand – Before you start to write any document, identify the single idea you’re trying to get across. Jot it down in one sentence on a notepad next to your typewriter or computer keyboard. If you were writing a news story, this would be the headline.
- As you write, reread your one-line reminder. It will keep you focused and on target. Know what you want to achieve before you begin to write, and the writing will come more easily.
- Give the who, what, when, where, and why – Be a reporter. There is basic information all people want to know – no matter the subject. Train yourself to answer all of the questions your reader might ask. Everything you write may not have a who, what, when, where, and why, but at least ask yourself if it does. In good writing, you leave out information deliberately because it isn’t required, not by mistake.
- Think about your readers’ questions before you write. This helps you organise your writing and make it more engaging and effective.
- Adopt a plain writing style – It takes longer to read and comprehend a press release written in a wordy, cluttered style than one written in a plain style. Cluttered writing buries meaning beneath run-on sentences, big words, and long paragraphs. On the other hand, plain writing:
~ states the purpose clearly
~ lists major points
~ includes headings and lists
~ uses simple sentences and paragraphs
~ seeks to express, not impress
~ avoids jargon.
- Give the reader a map – If you want your readers to navigate the road of your writing and reach the proper destination, make it easy for them. Use regular paragraph breaks, bullets and lists where relevant, and sub-headings as signposts to guide your reader through the piece.
- Give your writing the conversation test – After you have finished writing your press release, report or letter, read it aloud. Ask yourself if you would say to your reader what you are writing. Trust your ear.
- Make it personal. Speak directly to the reader, human to human. Remember people don’t do business with businesses; they do business with people.
One speculates, one criticises, and the third tries to correlate. It usually turns out to be a fight but out of it comes the strongest possible piece of writing.
- Ask questions. Does this work? What was I hope to achieve here? Have I explained the key points clearly?
- Be courageous. If it seems on revising that massive changes are needed, then do not be afraid to make them.
- Check how well you are communicating. Most drafts are underwritten, overwritten, or a mixture of the two. If your first draft feels underwritten – sketchy and lacking in detail – ask yourself if you have fully considered the target audience. If you know your subject very well you may have omitted a lot of detail that the reader would find useful. You may have failed to communicate effectively. At other times you may feel that your draft is overwritten – Lawrence Durrell said that this often occurs when one is uncertain of one’s target, and perhaps trying too hard. Or perhaps trying to meet the needs of too many different readers. Again, you have failed to communicate effectively.
- Be meticulous. Revision is the time to check up on factual details, grammatical and spelling errors. Spellcheckers are useful but they don’t pick up errors such as using their instead of there or it’s instead of its. Also look out for errors in style of the sort we have discussed in this module. A manuscript containing many errors can seem careless and unprofessional.
- If in doubt, leave it out. Be decisive and cut out any sentence, word or phrase that doesn’t seem to be working. If you think you might want to use it in future write it down for later reference.
- Know when to finish. Some copywriters revise their work until there is nothing left. Be aware that this is a risk and keep a tight control of any perfectionist tendencies. If you have corrected the errors and shaped the piece as seems fit, it is time to leave your writing be.