What works to sharpen your web copy: 5 easy-to-implement tips

We've all read copy that's bland, blah, or so 'professional' that all personality has been carefully squeezed out of it - or copy that's gone the other route, where it's trying so hard to show personality that it sets your teeth on edge. The way we're trained into writing at school or in corporate environments (formal, impersonal, purely logical, emotion-free) is pretty much the opposite of what you're aiming for in good web copy.

"If you care about your product, you should care just as much about how you describe it. In nearly all cases, a company makes its first impression on would-be customers or partners with words -- whether they're on a website, in sales materials, or in e-mails or letters. A snappy design might catch their attention, but it's the words that make the real connection. Your company's story, product descriptions, history, personality -- these are the things that go to battle for you every day. Your words are your frontline. Are they strong enough?" - Jason Fried "Why Is Business Writing So Awful?"

So, how do you make your words strong enough? Before I start talking about my five tips, there's one overarching thing to remember when you're writing anything.

It's a cliché to say that you must be yourself, but the more you can express your real self through your copy, the better it will be.

I had a client who is an expert in meditation and Chi energy and has spent many years travelling in China with her Chi Master, developing her expertise. When I met her, she had a website which was wildly at odds with her quiet, intuitive energy. The strapline was 'mindfulness is fun!' and the branding was bright and zingy. It was a complete mismatch.

Her site now is a beautiful, calming reflection of the strength she draws from being in nature and attuned to her creativity. It is so much more her and the copy reflects that - with a simple new strapline of art-energy-intuition.

As a brand storyteller, I think there's a lot more to writing GREAT web copy (understanding your core message and what differentiates you from your competitors; really writing in your unique brand voice; getting familiar with your dream clients' turns of phrase, such that they feel like you've got inside their heads, etc.) but in this article, we're keeping it simple with web copy 101.

I’m going to use this article as my main example to illustrate five things you can do to sharpen up your web copy. None of these tips are complicated or require you to have phenomenal writing skills – in fact, the simpler you can keep things, the better.

There are five main tips I keep finding myself giving to clients about writing better web copy. These are relevant for pretty much all online writing, whether it's a sales page, a blog post, a how-to article or your about page.

1. Stories - if you do nothing else, please for the love of all that's holy, include stories in your copy.

They don't have to be long (you can paint a picture in three sentences) but they'll do so much of the heavy-lifting for you. Your copy will be fresher, more memorable, more distinctive (stories thrive on concrete details), more emotional, more relatable... the benefits go on and on.

When I wrote the first draft of this post, I went straight into discussing my five tips, but in the second draft I included the little story about my Chi expert client in the introduction, because without it what you have is a dry list of points and nothing specific for you to relate to.

Our brains are wired for story, it's how we process the world, understand other people and make connections, so it's too powerful a tool not to use.

2. Relevance/credibility/value - this neat little trick (h/t Tad Hargrave of Marketing for Hippies) is a good way of thinking about how to structure any copy, but particularly sales pages.

Basically, if you don't start by calling out what makes your piece relevant to your reader, you've lost them already, so that's why you always need to start by establishing relevance. Name the issue that's been bugging them - or start at the other end and name the solution they hardly dare dream of. Either way, catch their attention by making it clear that you're talking to them, specifically, and that you have the key to their problem.

In this post, I opened by talking about the kind of bland copy you’d probably like to avoid writing, because nobody wants to sound generic, dull or like every other life coach or designer out there and yet many people find it hard to pull off sounding professional and personal.

Only once you've done that, is there any point in establishing your credibility (nobody cares how credible you are if they're not interested in your topic in the first place). You can establish credibility in a few ways - case studies and testimonials are the obvious route (more stories!) but you can also demonstrate a strong point of view to create credibility. And of course, you can talk about your experience and qualifications (which, you guessed it, will be more effectively done through stories than lists).

In this post, since it’s an article rather than a sales page, there’s no need for me to demonstrate my credentials, just to express credibility by laying out a coherent point of view.

Finally, now that your reader believes you are addressing her problem and that you have the chops to take it on properly, she's become interested in the value you're providing. Here's where you can lay out what your solution is, how it works, what's included, what's not.

Again, since this is an article rather than a sales page, the value is in the information provided – if it’s useful to you, then it’s valuable.

It's a super simple structure - but it works. Take a look at your own sales pages and see if there’s anything you’d like to move around to ensure that you start with relevance, move into establishing credibility and then offer value.

3. Make It Conversational - write how you talk, keep it informal (not unprofessional, just write in the same tone in which you would chat with a client), use contractions (write can't, rather than cannot).

One of the easiest ways to work out whether your copy is conversational is to read it aloud. Does it sound natural? Do you sound like you're reading out a formal document or do you sound like you're talking?

This is one of the quickest and easiest to implement tips out there, and yet few people actually take advantage of it. It’s free! It takes five minutes – do it!

4. Feel/know/do - this tip is from the always-readable Alexandra Franzen

Her point is that for each piece of writing you should have a clear intention for how you want your reader to feel when they're reading your piece; what you want them to know as a result of having read it; and what you want them to do after they've read it.

So, in the case of this article, I’d like you to feel that you’re in capable hands as you read this; to come away knowing some new tips to make your web copy more effective; and what I’d like you to do is to implement some of them next time you write (and hopefully also to form an opinion that I’d be a helpful resource for you if, say, you wanted to rewrite your website).

If you’re struggling with a blog post, it may be because you haven’t started by setting clear intentions around what you want your reader to feel/know/do – once you know that, you know what you want to write and what tone you want to strike.

Like the relevance/credibility/value tip above, this strategy is super simple but effective.

5. Edit - re-read it, cut as much as you can (shorter is almost always better) and make it scannable.

As a rule of thumb, most pieces of writing will be stronger if you leave them for at least a day, come back with fresh eyes to re-read and then aim to cut at least 10% of the word count.

Making it scannable by pulling out sub-headings, possibly highlighting one or two quotes and bolding for emphasis. Split long paragraphs (anything over four sentences) into two and make sure you don't have any monster sentences in there either. Numbered lists or bullet points help people to navigate as they scan.

Check for typos and, if spelling and grammar are weak points for you, ask a friend to give the piece a quick check.

This article started out as a numbered list – so far, so scannable - but the first draft had over-long paragraphs that made it harder to follow the ideas. Waiting, re-reading and then shortening sentences, breaking up paragraphs and taking out any little tangents you may have gone off on all help to make what you write more readable.

This isn't about dumbing down. Your ideas can be complex, but their expression should be easy for a busy reader to assimilate.