13 months ago I became a full-time copywriter. So, I thought I’d share my 13 tips for becoming a successful writer – that’s one tip for each month.
13 essential habits of a good copywriter
1. Have a plan
Although a blank sheet of paper is a good place to start, never just start writing down random thoughts…unless you’re brainstorming of course. You need to have a plan. Before you start putting words onto the page, always spend some time thinking about the structure of your content. What needs to go in the introduction? What are the key messages for the body copy? What is the final thought and call to action for the conclusion?
Writing in this way will help you structure your thoughts and focus your writing. It saves a lot of rework later and avoids writing too many drafts.
2. You win or lose with a headline
Headlines are critical to the success of any content. Be it a newsletter article, email subject or web page, a reader will decide whether they want to read any further based on how they feel after seeing the headline. Is it intriguing? Does it promise to help them learn something? Does it make them laugh?
If the answer to any of these is no, then it’s likely the reader won’t go any further and they’ll keep looking for something else to read. All your hard work will be wasted if you can’t get the reader past the headline, so make sure you dedicate enough time to producing a compelling and striking headline.
3. Write, rewrite and rewrite again
It’s ok to admit you won’t get it right first time. In fact, that’s the secret to good writing. For the first draft, simply focus on getting words onto the page. You’ll probably have too many, but don’t let the word count distract you at this stage because you’ll need to rewrite and edit before it’s anywhere close to ready for the client to see.
As you edit your draft, you’ll inevitably find sentences that are clunky and too long, word or phrase repetition, some jargon that’s crept in and no doubt a couple of typos. You’ll probably read and rewrite your first draft several times to refine all these things, and bring it in line with the word count, before you’re comfortable enough to send it to the client.
4. Never delete a first draft
I always keep every draft I write. No matter how much the final version seems to differ from what you started with, you just never know when that one sentence you deleted early on might be useful. Clients are notoriously unpredictable and something that was cut from an early draft might eventually find its way back into the final version.
5. Good grammar is the key to good structure
You’ve written a captivatingly gripping headline, the most creative content you’ve ever drafted, and the client is singing your praises…so don’t allow poor grammar to let you down. After all, you’re the expert, so don’t expect the client to necessarily pick up grammatical errors. Simple punctuation mistakes or awkward sentence structure will impact how well the reader absorbs your message and whether they choose to take action as a result.
6. Find your voice
When you’re writing on behalf of someone else, be it a company or individual, you need to understand how that person or company sees themselves, and how they want to be seen.
- How do they speak?
- Are they serious or funny?
- Do they want to inspire or educate others?
You need to get into character and make sure their personality comes through in every interaction they have with their customers. Your job as a copywriter is to create content that exudes an authenticity and genuineness that their customers will believe. It’s not the time for you to impart your own feelings or judgements. (Create yourself a blog if you want to do that!)
7. Be active
Where possible write in the active voice. Be present. Engage the reader and make communications more personal.
The passive voice makes content lengthy and old fashioned, and also suggests a lack of commitment and ownership. Compare the following examples.
- When we receive your application, we’ll send you an email to confirm your details.
- Once your application is received by us, an email will be sent to confirm your details.
8. Know your audience
If you don’t know who your audience is then how can you write content that’s going to resonate with them? You would write very differently for a group of University students than you would for some retirees. Not only would you choose different words, but you would include examples relevant to the audience’s age and/or experience, and consider how they might be reading the content – in a printed magazine versus on a mobile app.
9. Think about how the content will be read…or spoken
As mentioned above, the way your audience will receive your content is an important part of how you write it. There are so many mediums now available to publish content and each has their own unique qualities.
- Print – while this media is in decline, there is still a lot of printed content produced, including magazines and newspapers, customer letters and correspondence, and brochures or flyers. People generally read this content more slowly and carefully, and word counts are usually longer to reflect the additional time to take it all in.
- Online – more and more content is now generated for online media. And this isn’t just websites and apps. Even articles for magazines and newspapers are now published online so you need to factor this into the way you write. When reading something on a computer or phone people tend to scan rather than read word for word. So, structure and the use of features like sub headings and bullet points help to break up text and make content more digestible.
- Spoken – writing a speech for someone is one of the most difficult things to do. Not only do you need a deep understanding of the speaker’s personality and style, but you also have to change the style of writing to fit a verbal delivery. The way we speak and the way we write are very different. Speech needs shorter sentences, more pauses, and should contain words that the individual speaker would actually use if it is to appear genuine and unscripted.
10. Take a break
Once you’re happy with your first draft, walk away from it. Never send it straight to the client even if you think it’s finished. Always give it time.
Depending on your deadline, you may only have time to make a cup of coffee before you come back to it. But if time allows, leave it overnight and revisit it the next day. With a fresh pair of eyes, you’ll spot any typos and you’ll also find sentences that can be written differently. If you have to re-read a sentence more than once, then there’s no doubt your audience will too.
11. Don’t force things
We all have those days when the words just aren’t flowing. Don’t punish yourself and force yourself to be creative. It won’t end well.
Find a distraction but keep yourself honest. Promise yourself that when you’ve had a walk or finished the shopping for example, that you’ll come back and try again, even if you only build your content structure or start the first paragraph.
12. Embrace deadlines
Deadlines are a double-edged sword. They ensure we don’t drift off and keep rewriting endless drafts because there’s always something else you can add or change. But at the same time a looming time can put additional pressure on you and bring on the dreaded writer’s block.
At some point you’ll come across a ridiculous deadline from a client, but it’s how you deal with it that defines how successful the job is. If you really don’t think you have time to deliver something, then just say No. Being honest and saying No is better than giving the client something that’s poor quality and doesn’t reflect your ability as a copywriter.
On the positive side, you can use deadlines to help schedule your day and focus your efforts where they’re needed.
13. Read subheadings carefully
My last tip is actually more to do with proofreading than writing but all writers need to proofread their own work before they send it to a client.
Very early in my marketing career I sent something to print with a glaring typo in a subheading. I had read the document so many times I could recite it in my sleep and in my haste I didn’t read the subheadings as carefully as I did the body copy. It’s something that has stuck with me for over 20 years, and I’m now as conscious, if not more so, about reading and checking headings as I am the rest of the content.
Learning from others
Hopefully a few of these tips are new to you or they trigger thoughts about how you can be a better copywriter.
Why not share your best tip for being a successful copywriter?