I have a fascination with writing advice doled out by famous authors. Like many fiction writers, I want to know the secrets to becoming a published author.
I want to hear from those who have made it.
Being a bit of a connoisseur of famous author quotes, I couldn’t help but notice that they are actually doling out some pretty solid copywriting advice.
My languishing novel aside, the same best practices in novel-writing absolutely apply to copywriting. So if you’re sitting down to write or refresh your website copy, why not try on some tips from some of the greats?
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
I’m admittedly a bit of a geek when it comes to this stage of the writing process (what can I say, I’m an Enneagram 5), but whether you like it or loathe it, you can’t escape the fact that it’s important for writing both fiction and stellar website copy.
For fiction writers, research often equates to reading. By studying the works of other writers, logic assumes, we ourselves learn how to write well.
In copywriting, the rationale is much the same. Before you being writing your website copy, you need to know what other people in your vertical are doing, and you need to understand how YOUR site will be different.
Marketers like to call this your value proposition or brand messaging. In other words, what are you saying, how will you say it, and who are you saying it to?
Pull the headline, messages, and buttons of your top 3-4 competitors’ homepages and compare them. Pull as many brand messaging and tag lines as you can find on their websites and line them up side by side to get a fuller understanding of how they are positioning themselves. How can you do it differently and better?
Dig into the keyword analysis so you know what your industry looks like in the SERPs. You don’t want to build your site around these keywords, mind you, but you do want to be aware of them so you can organically integrate these phrases into your pages as part of your on-page SEO strategy.
Now that you have this useful intel in front you, you can start to brainstorm some of your core messages, headlines, and taglines. And you’ll know they’re good because they’ll be grounded in both keywords and your unique brand messaging.
“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.”
Is there anything better than a novel with a great protagonist? It’s true that if you identify with the main character of a story, you’re more likely to remain hooked throughout.
But let’s imagine for a moment that the journey we’re on here is the customer journey aka the path to purchase. And let’s sub ‘hero’ for ‘customer’ so we can fully appreciate this one.
“First, find out what your CUSTOMER wants, then just follow him.”
I know, right?
The advice to follow our customers may not be your first instinct when you sit down to write your site copy, but it should be, because your website copy is all about your customer. It’s not about you or your mission/wants/desires/ambitions. Those facts are important only if they pique the interest of your customer.
How well do you know your target customer(s) today? At the bare minimum, ask yourself these questions:
What problem does my product solve for my customer?
What pain is my customer experiencing because they haven’t yet learned about my product?
How will my customer learn about my website? What social channel or paid ad are they most likely to engage with?
How will I tell my customer about my product before, during, and after they are learning about my brand to set myself apart?
What information does my customer need to feel invested in my product and brand?
What hurdles or obstacles is my customer likely experiencing that will prevent them from purchasing my product?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
At the end of a great novel and by the time a customer reads through your homepage, about, and product pages, what you ultimately want is connection. You want this new prospect fo feel something.
You want your website to evoke that feeling. That’s the mark of a brand that stays with you well past the introduction and all the way to the last word.
“Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that is all important.”
— George R.R. Martin
In the fiction world, there’s some debate about the extent to which an author should plan her story during the writing process. I’m squarely in the George R.R. Martin camp (How could I not be? #daenerystargaryen).
Some planning is important to keep you on track and to ensure you capture every idea.
While you don’t need to have every page fully mapped out, a rough directional plan will keep you on track and prevent you from getting lost in the weeds.
What does that look like when it comes to writing your website copy? Something like this:
Analog it: Sketch up your site on a sheet of paper using loose design blocks and tackling your major pages (homepage, about page, and a sample product page). In each block, jot down the main idea you need to convey in that section.
Brainstorm it: Write a list of ideas, phrases, and taglines you know you want to use across your website. Try to generate at least 50, and only then, narrow it down to the top 5-10.
Journal it: I know, I know, you aren’t in middle school, but hear me out. This works. Set a timer for 20 minutes and write like crazy about your brand, your mission and story, and the value you’re providing to customers. Don’t worry about form or grammar…just write. When you’ve finished, organize your content by where you want it to live and the headline(s) that best match each section.
Draft it: Finally, use a wire-framing tool like Balsamiq or Draftium and drop in your text into the sections you identified on paper. See how they fit, tighten up each headline and section, and move stuff around until you’re pleased with it.
Remember, this is just a draft. The point isn’t to be perfect (hence why you don’t need to put your designer on speed dial yet).
The point is to generate content that is meaningful and connects with your ideal customer.
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
Or if you prefer a blunter edge:
“The first draft of everything is shit.”
Remember how I said that was just a draft? Now comes the real work. Editing.
No matter how you slice it, the editing process is both painful and necessary. It’s painful because you’ve poured your time and energy into these words and they can be very difficult to part with. It’s necessary because when it comes to copy that converts, every. Word. Matters. Every single one.
You want to get very, very granular now. Remind yourself of your brand goal, your voice, and your customer. Then get to work.
Read through each sentence and pull out every word that is not 100%, absolutely necessary to driving your point home. Have a fancy simile that you’re super proud of but isn’t directly related to your main point? Axe it. It’s gone.
I’m starting to see why Stephen King compared the editing process to murdering children.
But what you’ll be left with is the raw stuff. The good stuff that sells. And that copy is gold.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Ah, the advice that gives all first year MFA students nightmares, show don’t tell may be the most difficult to master as a writer. To show means to describe using sensory details, descriptive imagery, and action to explain, rather than coming right out with it.
Here’s an example from one of my favorite novels, A Handmaid’s Tale. The protagonist is remembering her garden, but the imagery Atwood uses helps us feel her loss, too, and that loss goes much deeper than soil and seeds:
“I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way.”
With the memory of digging in the earth in contrast to her current life, the loss of freedom she experiences in even the simplest of weekend tasks becomes visceral.
There are several places where this approach is useful on your website, but the About page and your product pages are the two that jump to mind.
For example, this is a description of a reusable bag that I noticed on a product page recently:
Our bags are made of natural fabric and Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certified organic cotton.
How could you rewrite this to better show rather than tell?
Our durable reusable bags are sustainably crafted using certified organic cotton and without any harmful dyes or chemicals added to them. All our products meet the Global Standard of Textiles (GOTS) certifying end-to-end human and ecological sustainability. From the farmers to the manufacturers, our bags are safe for humans and the environment.
This helps consumers see that this product meets a high threshold for quality that is in a class above its peers.
“Write your heart out.”
―Joyce Carol Oates
When it comes right down to it, your website is your brand’s most important selling tool. Your masterpiece. Your opus. You have an enormous opportunity to make it your own.
Just as your brand and your product(s) were created by YOU for a purpose, your website is your chance to make your case, to create your origin story, and to emphasize your brand’s uniqueness.
“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”
We consumers love a brand that ‘gets us’. So before you hit publish on your new website, let go of the reins a bit, let your hair down, and just
dance write the shit out of it.
I guarantee that someone out there can’t wait to read it.
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