Writing web copy 101

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.

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, in academia 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.

It's a cliche to say that you have to be yourself, but the more you can let your real self shine through your copy, the better it will be.

I had a lovely 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 voice strategist, 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 really 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.

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 specific (stories thrive on concrete details), more emotional, more relatable... the benefits go on and on.

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.

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 number of 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).

Finally, now that your reader believes you are addressing her problem and that you have the chops to take it on properly, she's actually 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.

It's a super simple structure - but it works.

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?

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.

Like the relevance/credibility/value tip above, this strategy is super simple but also really 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. Check for typos and, if spelling and grammar are weak points for you, ask a friend to give the piece a quick check.

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