When I tell people I’m a copywriter, the most common response is some version of “I don’t know how you do it. I’m a terrible writer.” (Another common one starts off “So if I have an idea for an invention…” and, well, I usually have to walk away at that point.)
If you’re in that first group, I have some good news: You’re not nearly as bad a writer as you think you are. Seriously. Over the years, you’ve written tens of thousands of book reports, research papers, emails, love letters, text messages, snarky product reviews and so on. You’ve been writing almost as long as you’ve been alive. Give yourself a little credit.
The bad news is that, along the way, some people taught you some bad habits. Instead of learning to write in a way that sounds simple and natural, you wrote papers that were judged by how long they were and how many big words you used.
It’s not your fault, Will Hunting. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. And… scene.
The truth is (don’t hate me, fellow copywriters of the world): Writing is just as easy as talking. That’s it. That’s the big secret. Whether you’re talking or typing, you’re just having a natural conversation with someone. And that’s something you’ve been able to do since you were practically still in diapers.
So why are so many people convinced they’re so bad at something they’ve been doing for so long? Why do we put pressure on ourselves to write like textbook authors? Why do we treat writing like some magical power that only a chosen few are gifted with? And why did some of you not get my Good Will Hunting reference?
The five tips I’m about to share with you probably aren’t going to make you the world’s greatest copywriter. Writing is an art form and, just like other art forms, there’s a difference between being able to play the guitar and being able to play the guitar. But they will make you a better, more confident writer. And they will help you break some of those habits you learned in school. Guaranteed or your money back.
So, without further ado…
#1 Read it out loud
If you remember one tip, let it be this one. Once you write something, read it out loud. Fine… if you’re in an open office and you don’t want to be the crazy person, at least whisper it to yourself quietly. And then ask: “Self, does that sound like something I’d say out loud?” Or even, “Does this sound like something my brand would say out loud?”
If the answer is no, don’t save it, send it or submit it. Instead, think about how you would say it, and then rewrite it that way. Sure, you might have to delete some curse words every now and then, but it’ll sound a hell heck of a lot more natural than your first draft did.
#2: Know your audience
When you were cranking out all those papers back in school, they all probably sounded about the same. Your writing already had its own style and rhythm, and that didn’t really need to change much from one teacher to the next.
But now, your readers are changing constantly. And you have to be able to adjust your writing based on what you know about your audience. Are they stressed and in a hurry to get something done? Or do they have time to spare for a few jokes along the way?
If you know your audience’s reading grade level (the average American reads at the 7th or 8th grade level), you can use a tool like Hemingway Editor to score your work. Plus, it’ll show you where you can make changes—like shortening long sentences or avoiding passive verbs—to lower the grade level of your work. (If you’re curious, this blog post is at a Grade 4 reading level. So once you finish reading, we get to go outside for recess.)
#3: Be a storyteller
Say it with me: Writing is storytelling. And that means ALL writing. Whether you’re sending an email to your team at work, crafting a project brief, creating copy for a campaign landing page or, well, writing a blog post about writing… if someone is going to read it, it’s your responsibility to tell them a compelling story.
But that doesn’t mean you have to get all “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after.” You just have to ask yourself a few simple questions before you start typing:
- What’s your medium? It could be almost anything: An email, a video script, a banner ad, a tattoo… whatever!
- What’s your point? Think about exactly what you need to say in the simplest, shortest way possible.
- Who’s your audience? We covered this one already. Sweet.
- What do you want them to do? This could be a clear CTA like “Sign Up Now” or, if you’re writing a script, you might just want to make someone laugh or cry.
Once you’ve got your answers, you should be able to fill in the blanks in the following sentence:
“I need to create a about that will get to .”
So that could end up being:
“I need to create an email about nursing degrees that will get high school students to want more information about applying.”
Or it could be:
“I need to create a blog post about writing that will get the very smart, attractive people reading it to laugh and feel more confident in their writing skills.”
#4: Kill your darlings
If you’ve never heard that advice before, it’s not nearly as violent as it sounds. It simply means, as a writer, you have to be willing to delete things that don’t add value to your piece—no matter how hard you worked on them or how entertaining you think they might be. If they’re not helping get <audience> to <actions>, they gotta go!
At my first real copywriting job, I had a boss who was a fantastic writer and taught me just about everything I know about writing.
I was probably 24 years old. I had way more hair than I do now. And our main client was still sending everyone CD-ROMs in the mail for 500 free hours of dial-up internet service. So that shows you how long ago we’re talking. At the time, I was also singing in one of those cover bands you’d see in every bar on Friday and Saturday nights in the early 2000s. We were actually pretty good! We played shows all over the Northeast from New Jersey up into Vermont. I can still probably recite all the words to songs like “Jesse’s Girl” or “Semi-Charmed Life.”
Every time I wrote something, I’d print it out and bring it over to his office.
Our building was one of the coolest places I’ve ever worked. It was this really old green barn in Redding, Connecticut. He would spend a few minutes reading what I wrote, and then he’d say, “It’s great. Cut it in half.” I’d go back to my desk not being able to imagine where there was a single extraneous word in my masterpiece. But begrudgingly, I’d cut it down to size. Without fail, he’d look at round two and say with a smile, “It’s great. Cut it in half again.”
What he was teaching me, in as few words as possible, was to kill my darlings. I listened to him in this section, but I have a feeling I know what he’d say about the rest of this post.
#5: Instead of utilizing uncomplicated terminology, use simple words
Any time you can say something in a shorter, simpler way, do it. There’s just no need to attempt, demonstrate and request when you can try, show and ask instead. Using long words used to be one of those things we did in school to fill space and sound smart. But now it just makes what we write sound unnatural and makes it harder to read.
The only problem with this tip is that once you have your using-long-words-to-sound-smart radar turned on, you can never turn it off. Wield it wisely or it could cost you friendships.
Bonus Tip: Don’t overthink it
If you have a hard time getting what’s in your head down on paper, chances are it’s because you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. The world is not going to end if you end a sentence with “with.” And the sun will still come up tomorrow if you start a sentence with “and.” Heck, I even included a typo in this post because it sounded better to me. Sure, there’s a time and place for perfect grammar. But most of the time, your readers will prefer simple and conversational.
Trust me, even if you only use a couple of these tips, it’s going to make a huge difference in the way your writing sounds—and in the way you feel about writing.
Now, if we could just solve that whole public speaking thing…