You’d think I’d want to tell you that you shouldn’t write your own copy. Hire me, right? But the truth is that if you’re an entrepreneur you should write your own copy, at least at first, if just to understand what to expect and know what you want. Who knows? You might enjoy it. Here are some tips for DIY copywriters giving it a shot.
In case you ever wondered whether nerds fight about nerd things, I’m here to assure you that
they we nerds do. Here’s a nerd fight for you: Who cares if you make a little mistake? It’s hardly fair: In writing, and particularly in English, it sometimes feels like there are just about infinity things to get wrong.
There are two corners in this fight, defined by similar questions: One side asks, “does it matter, so long as everybody understands everybody?” They’re really asking, “Do you really have to be a judgy !@#$ !@#$?”
The other side just wants to know, “Is it really that !@#$ hard?”
I’ll tell you: I like doing it right, and sometimes it is kinda’ hard.
No matter whether you think that argument is dumb or you’re planted, gloves up in one corner, there is one hard truth you’re going to have to accept:
If you don’t know where you stand, or you just don’t care, please consider the Covfeve. No matter how you feel about the author/coiner of the term, it would be hard to argue that covfefe did the President any favors anywhere in the world.
Or, consider this:
Everybody makes mistakes, but would you trust a paper if this became normal there (cute as this one is)? Would you hire an editor that put this on the front page? (Somebody answered yes.)
The trouble with being wrong isn’t in being wrong— it’s in the effect. The fact is that if you care enough to publish, you should care enough to make sure what you publish is correct, no matter how much you may hate the idea that some smurf in an ivory tower made a rule you don’t care about. It’s not because you accept the authority of the smurf (or Roman, or Scott…). It’s because you care that your audience sees you as a professional, an equal, and/or an authority.
1) With charity. Degrees in English don’t equal memorization of eleventy billion style guides and the Oxford English dictionary. I Google !@#$ all the time. Give yourself a break (but still check).
2) With professionalism: You wouldn’t meet a client in your gym shorts unless you were meeting to play racquetball. Throwing in a careless there/they’re/their isn’t any better, and it could actually prevent a meeting. It’s unhealthy to assume that your reader doesn’t care. You won’t get a second chance if they do.
3) With a commitment to quality: Rules for rules’ sake is dumb, but the rules do help keep meaning clear so that readers can understand an author’s’ intended meaning. They also demonstrate that you care about what you give your customer. Don’t forfeit the respect quality brings.
You don’t know what you don’t know, as they say. Whomever they are. The fact is that you may not even be sure what to Google. It’s not a bad idea to have a list of items to check for. The notes page linked at the bottom includes a minor list as a start.
I’ve thought of compiling a “good list” here on the site, but currently I’m siding with the idea that you can just check out, steal, or buy one of the following texts as a reference. They’re more comprehensive than anything I’m willing to put up (even compared to that brand & style guide I’m putting off).
BTW: All of the links I use for products sold on Amazon are affiliate links (meaning I make a little money from Amazon if you buy an item there after clicking my link).
My favorite guide, hands down, is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It gives clear answers about common issues. It’s smart, and it’s concise (which is almost, almost redundant. Almost.).
For a broader treatment of just about All The Questions, you end up subscribing to one or another school of thought. Probably the most used is AP Stylebook, though this English teacher still thinks MLA Handbook handles some questions better.
Purpose and Audience are fundamental first considerations for any writing— especially writing for marketing.
Think about the age-old practice of defining your market segments as personas. You decide who you’re marketing to, define them, and sell directly at each persona, often in separate messaging.
For example, If you’re writing your own website copy, personas will underlie your strategy. Say you’re writing to both Millennial dog-sitters and Boomer dog owners. You’re going to talk about the same things, but you may take on an informal voice, which often appeals to both. At the same time, you’ll want to be careful considering which slang terms to use, if any, and be sure to explain their meanings in parentheses so you don’t lose either audience.
If you’re blogging as part of a content marketing strategy, you’re likely to write certain posts for different segments, making sure to vary your approach for each. If, instead, you’re writing a social media ad, you’re going to use different terms, voices, and even media depending on the persona you’re talking “to.” If you’re looking for the AARP crowd, that’s Facebook (no lie). Tweens? Snapchat. Business leaders, young and old? Linkedin, and maybe Twitter.
Finally, your middle school English teacher probably told you that all writing is intended to inform, entertain, and/or persuade. That fits here too. Content marketing is about giving your audience something useful and/or fun without an expectation of getting something right back— thus demonstrating yourself to be helpful, trustworthy, and an expert. Considering which (or which combination) of these you’re writing for will cause you to focus and clarify your message.
By the way— For a great way to think about how to balance your persuasive messages, keep a look out for an upcoming post on using Aristotle to sell.
This is relevant for a pair reasons. First, voice behind the brand, you usually take on a persona too. While you may shift this some based on the purpose and audience of a particular piece, you don’t want to be Sybil. Grandma talks to me and my mother differently, but she’s still recognizably Grandma. Likewise, you don’t want to be funny, circular logic Geico on Mondays and dry, features and benefits Geico on Thursdays. You want your brand to be recognizable. Customers don’t recognize brands who don’t know who they are as authorities on anything.
In that vein, be as authentic as you can. Just because acting like a !@#$ !@#$ is getting people clicks on the internet right now doesn’t mean you have to act like something you’re not. Of course, if you are a !@#$ !@#$, rock it.
Secondly, and this irks the rule followers, not all scholars agree on all rules. No, the (correct) usage of their, there, or they’re doesn’t vary, but, for instance, different manuals have different rules for the same problems. That comma at the end of a quote may go inside the quotation marks or outside, or the last item in a list may or may not require ahead of the “and” (that’s !@#$, of course. You should always use the comma. Except for the exceptions). In those cases, just make sure you use the same strategy every time— then, even if the word nerds notice, they won’t bounce off of your website.
Advertisers often refer to the AIDA acronym to talk about what to include in and how to sequence an argument to buy.
If you plant that in problem → call to action terms, you’re starting out getting the reader to think about a problem s/he has, think about how nice it would be to be rid of it, and suggesting they let you solve the problem for them. The best copy creates a whole wash of emotions on the path to the purchase, then makes it easy, easy, easy to press “buy.”
Problem → solution isn’t a formula so much as a description of what a buyer experiences as s/he decides to try something new:
A: Your product or service somehow grabs the attention of a prospect.
I: Customer becomes interested enough to learn more about it and compare it to other solutions.
D: Customer desires what the product can provide.
A: You help the customer take action by making the next step as frictionless as possible.
There are all kinds of blogs out there talking about how to structure your CTA. This isn’t one. Suffice to say you should use a verb (buy, try, get) in your calls to action. That’s a good enough start.
It’s psychology and rhetoric. Call it a scale, the left being the most useful:
Are there exceptions? Sure. Your “about me” web page, solopreneur.
The most basic rule of good writing is, ”say as much as you can with as few words as possible.” Couple that with “only say things worth hearing,” and you’re Hemingway. (Congrats.)
With that in mind, verbs and adverbs are a PRIME place to put this into practice.
You can “walk.” Or you can dance, tip-toe, saunter, or sprint.
Using strong verbs saves you the need to use adverbs to describe how something happens. Adverbs, you may recall, are those ugly, addictive !@#$ words, usually ending in -LY, that explain “how, how much, or to what degree/extent” something is done. Like the Buddha, kill these when you see them on parade. Occasionally, a one off can stand, but it only takes a squad of them to destroy good prose.
A preemptive tangent: Few people are stupid, despite what the Facebook pundits say. Don’t treat them like they are. The term “stupid,” itself, is almost always unnecessary and coarse, so if you find it popping up in your copy, go back and rethink your brand’s voice for a minute. You don’t sell to everybody (if you do, you might not be selling to anybody), but make sure you’re not alienating people for no reason. You’re better off using the F-bomb than certain, more “judgy” terms in front of a lot of audiences.
With that in mind, you should still know that the average newspaper writes copy at about an 8th grade reading level. It’s not because the audience is stupid, but because “news” is necessarily “new,” and you don’t want your audience spending energy on your language while they’re also trying to learn something. It’s a distraction.
What’s more? You can say some brilliant !@#$ with simple words.
This isn’t optional, Padawan! You will catch most mistakes this way, and you’ll see where what looked good to you doesn’t read well.
My lovely first editor inevitably (that’s two adverbs, yes) finds simple mistakes in late drafts of my work. I’m a fair writer, but sometimes you have just been in your own work and brain too long to see what’s there.
Too lonely or too proud? Well, at least put it away a day or two and come back to it before you press “publish.”
Do you like puns? Ellipses, parentheses, swear words and em dashes? Have a style. Revel in it. Just don’t overdo it– style sets you apart until it becomes more obvious than your message.
If you’re doing blog work, you want to name AND link to the origin of any data whenever it’s possible. If you’re hyperlinking for effect by adding some fun context you can get away with just leaving a (clearly formatted) link.
When in doubt, name the source and link to it (if it’s online). Never use someone else’s work and call it your own. Nobody likes a liar or a !@#$.
With that in mind, you should know that I stole #12 from another copywriter and can’t remember which. If you know who, tell me and I’ll fix it.
Well, that’s all of them. I’ll continue to write posts on common issues in writing under the tag “On Correctness,” for those who want to build their own “good lists.” In the meantime, remember that “off color” humor can be funny, but only !@#$s like !@#$s. If you’re going to alienate, make sure you’re alienating the wrong people.
You have some more tips for DIY copywriters? If so, please leave them in the comments below.
Know somebody going it on his or her own? Share a link!
PS. Here’s the notes page and “good list.”