Copywriting Blog

Copywriting Tips: The 13 rules I learnt when I first got paid to write

It’s October 2005. I’m sat in one of the country’s most-revered charities, clutching my first ever copywriting brief. Two hours in, it’s Blank Screen 1: Copywriter 0.

I’d been working at Comic Relief for a while when I landed a job as their junior copywriter.  Bingo. But an hour before lunch on day one, it hit me: I had no idea how to write on behalf of an organisation, in a tone of voice that wasn’t my own.

I felt like the Wizard of Oz waiting for someone to pull back the curtain and expose me for the copywriting fraud that I was.

Under the mentorship of my boss – a hugely talented writer – in the months and years that followed, I started to hone my craft. I learnt how to take an idea, a spark of creativity, and bring that to life with words. I learnt how to make millions of people feel like they were being written to personally.  I learnt how to tell inspiring real-life stories that would connect my charity to its audience.

There were things I had to unlearn too. Certain writing ‘truths’, drummed into me over 16 years of full-time education, that had to be abandoned.  In their place came a new set of copywriting rules that I quickly wrote for myself – literally, in the back of a blue Paperchase notepad.

Groundbreaking, they weren’t. But these rules guided me through those early years as a professional copywriter and still direct my writing today.  So, if you’ve also found yourself winging it as a copywriter – either through circumstance or choice – perhaps these rules will help you to feel your way in the (not-so) dark art of copywriting. Here goes…

Writing pad and pen

Rule 1: Simply, write

When staring at a blank screen, there’s only one thing you need to do; write. Don’t be paralysed by the fear that your copy won’t be perfect because, even if those initial words don’t make the final cut, they’ll give you something to work with.  And that’s infinitely preferable to having nothing to work with at all.

Rule 2: Write simply

‘Can you just make this a bit harder for me to read and more difficult to understand’ said no person, ever. I very quickly learnt that the easier something is to read, the harder it is to write and that writing in a way that’s both accessible and engaging is what sets a great writer apart from a good one.  So if you think that writing simply means dumbing down, I’d urge you to think again. (Check out the Plain English Campaign’s free guides for more help and support in how to write accessible copy).

Rule 3: Write with rhythm

Good writing has a flow, a beat, a rhythm.  If a reader stumbles over your words, or has to reread a sentence numerous times, you’ve lost them. An easy way to prevent that from happening is to break long sentences down into shorter ones.  Vary the length of your sentences too.  Wordy sentences, followed by more concise ones, will make your copy more engaging to read. The power of three can help to bring rhythm to your copy too – See Rule 10 below.

Rule 4: Use paragraph breaks for effect

To emphasise a point, use a paragraph break. This technique can be very effective, particularly when you’re trying to stimulate an emotional response from the reader.  A paragraph space on either side of one powerful word, or one strong sentence, induces a natural pause, allowing your words to sink into the reader’s mind. (A heads-up: you might need to point out the significance of these breaks to the designer if they bunch up your copy to save space)

Rule 5: Allow more time for less copy

Writing short copy often takes more skill, thought and time than writing long copy.  The tighter the word count, the harder it is to find the perfect combination of words to convey your message. So give yourself the time you need to write fewer words.

Rule 6: Question all that you’ve been taught

You were probably once taught that a sentence needs to contain more than one word and that a paragraph needs to contain more than one sentence.


You may also have been cautioned by the grammar police for starting a sentence with the words ‘and’ or ‘but’.  Though technically correct, grammar and punctuation is fluid and can adapt to different styles. While a formal letter, legal contract or academic essay may need to stick closely to the rules of the English language, often our job is to connect with an audience on a more personal level and that means writing in a more colloquial style. So stick it to the man and start a sentence with a conjunctive.

Rule 7: Don’t repeat yourself

Unconscious repetition is your foe.  It slips in to your copy without you even noticing but your reader can spot it a mile off and it smacks of sloppy.  Actively look for words or phrases you’ve accidentally used more than once and sift them out. On the flip side, for when repetition is a master stroke, see rule 10.

Rule 8: Delete the unnecessary

Waffle, be gone. For tips on cutting out superfluous words, take a look at my blog post, ‘How The Magic of Tidying will make you a better writer’ or Ben’s post on hoovering up the fluff text from your charity website.

Rule 9: Write like you’re chatting to someone you like, but not someone you love

In most instances, you’ll want your copy to be warm, sincere and sometimes humorous, but rarely over-familiar. So less of a chat with your best mate and more of a chat with your best mate’s mum.

One way to do this is to use abbreviations, such as ‘we’ll’, ‘you’ll’ and ‘I’d’ which will make your copy less formal.  You should also talk directly to the reader in an active voice, rather than about the reader in a passive voice.  For example ‘Donations can be made online by the public ’ is not a patch on ‘You can donate online.’

Rule 10: Three is a magic number

I was about to write a whole spiel about the power of three in writing (e.g using three adjectives in a row, listing three points in succession, consciously repeating your copy three times) but then I came across an article entitled How to Invoke the ‘Magic of 3’ in Serious Business Writing which more than does the job. It’s a bit sales focused for us charity copywriters, but the principles are just as relevant.

Exclamation ma

Rule 11: Exclamation marks suck

When it comes to professional copy, exclamation marks are the try-hards of punctuation. Not only are they unnecessary, they are detrimental to the quality of your copy and undermine your authenticity. Harsh?  Maybe.  But your words should be powerful enough to evoke a feeling like excitement, humour or astonishment without forcing it on your reader through the use of an exclamation mark. That is, of course, unless you’re Donald Trump.

Rule 12: You can’t proofread your own work, but you can try

It’s never a good idea to proofread your own work – your eyes will read what you meant to write and prevent you from seeing your mistakes. Sneaky buggers.

If, however, you really can’t find anyone who’s willing or able to proof your work, the following tips might trick your brain into spotting typos and errors.

  1. Print out your draft and read it aloud.
  2. Give it some time, preferably overnight, before assessing what you’ve written.
  3. Email the copy to yourself and read it in the body of an email.
  4. Read your work on a different device, e.g your mobile if you’ve written it on a full-sized screen.
  5. Read your writing from the bottom up. (Yes, really.)


Rule 13: Back away from the brief

Lastly, if writer’s block strikes, forget about your brief altogether.  Scroll through Facebook, watch TV or, best of all, sleep on it. While you’re busy distracting yourself or catching some Zzzs, your subconscious will be working overtime.  That might be all you need to get cracking.

As simplistic as the above rules may appear to be, more than a decade since my Wizard of Oz freak out, they still form the basis of every piece of writing I produce. And no-one’s pulled back the curtain, as yet.

Blog Tips & Advice

How the ‘magic of tidying’ will make you a better writer.

I’m now fifty-three pages into the worldwide bestseller ‘The Life-changing Magic of Tidying’ by Marie Kondo.  And I’m hooked (not least by her instructions on how to fold socks).

How a subject so mundane can be so captivating is a bit of a mystery, especially given that what I’ve read so far boils down to just one word:


Just to be clear, Kondo is not calling for a half-hearted clear out. She’s advocating ridding your home of every item which doesn’t ‘bring you joy’. She instructs, ‘Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard the rest.’

Why? Because this initial step in creating a clear physical space can, she claims, ultimately change your entire life.

I know little about the benefits of a mass removal of your worldly possessions, but I do know that, when it comes to copywriting, the act of sifting through what you’ve written with the sole purpose of scaling it back is hugely beneficial.  

As a ‘wordy’ one, I should know.  I use five words when two will suffice.  And, for someone who earns their crust through writing, this isn’t good.

So, what’s the problem?

When it comes to the art of writing, less is often more. Clients want copy that creates cut through.  They’re paying you to communicate a message clearly to achieve an end result.  So if the message is buried in an excess of words, that message is lost.  And the client’s money is wasted.

Of course your copy also needs to depict a brand’s tone of voice and captivate an audience from the off. This requires skill and it requires words.  Just not too many.

Writing for websites and social media also requires writers to keep their copy short.  With the exception of Blogs, articles and ebooks, digital audiences don’t ‘read’ web pages word-for-word from the top down.  Rather, they scan the text in search of specific information. So keeping web copy succinct enables a user to find what they’re looking for quickly before they give up and click merrily on their way.

Although, in theory, writing less should be easier than writing more, for many (like me) the opposite is true. We can get strangely attached to the sentences and paragraphs we compose. We get a buzz from weaving in a funny quip here or clever pun there.  And then it’s hard to cut these phrases out.

But that is our achilles heel. It stops us being objective about our work.  And it prevents us from meeting a brief to the best of our ability.

This is particularly true for charity copywriters, in my view, because few charities can afford to risk missing out on donations or fundraising income due to wordy copy that isn’t clear. Of course charity copy needs to be inspirational, motivational and ‘on brand’.  But not at the expense of clarity.  It’s a balancing act that every budding copywriter needs to master.

To do this, you must step back, be objective and go in for the cull. (Tips on how to do this are below.)

With that in mind, I’ll edit this lengthy blog about writing succinctly just as soon as I’ve folded my socks.

A few tips on how to reduce your word count:

Give yourself a goal.

Once you’ve finished writing, set yourself a target to reduce the word count by 20%.  By having a specific figure to aim for, you’ll be forced to consider the merit of every single word.  

Get rid of the amazingly, obviously, unnecessary words.

Begin by removing superfluous words; those stray add-ons which don’t enhance a sentence but clutter it instead.  The waffle is often strikingly obvious once you go looking for it.

Look for repetition. Check to see if you’ve said the same thing twice.

When you spot it, delete it.

Take two

Consider whether you can reconstruct any sentences to convey the same message in fewer words. This is where the emotional ties need to be cut. There have been countless times when I’ve liked the phrasing of a sentence but, objectively, I can see that the message could be presented more succinctly.  So I ignore my original copy, open a new page and give it another bash. Nine times out of ten, I prefer the second version because of it’s simplicity.


Read your copy aloud.  By doing so you will hear whether your text is long-winded.  

Step away from the page

Take a break (preferably over night) and come back to your copy having done, or thought about, something else. You’ll probably stumble over a sentence or two which seemed to flow perfectly before.  This is prime fodder for a cull. Strip out some words and break up the sentence until it’s simpler to read.

And if you go too far…

If you’ve hit ‘delete’ too many times, your copy may feel bland.  It will need a shot of tonality pumped back in it’s veins. Start at the top and add a splash of colour as you work your way down.  This time, your superlatives, adjectives, quips or puns will be consciously placed and will enhance what you’re trying to convey without blocking it from view.


Blog Tips & Advice

How to brief a copywriter – Six simple steps and a free template

When it comes to getting some compelling copy written for your website or marketing materials, you’ll often find that writing the brief takes longer than it would for you to just write the copy yourself.

But if you don’t take a little bit of time to brief your copywriter properly, they’ll send you back a string of words which might be easy to read, but probably won’t speak to your audience.

What comes next is endless too-ing and fro-ing and a lot of time wasted as you end up briefing your copywriter in reverse, after they’ve already spent hours (and you’ve already spent money) on their first attempt.

So if saving time, cash and a lot of aggravation appeals to you, just use this short guide to effectively brief your copywriter.

And to make life even easier, you can download the briefing template below so that you can simply fill it in and send it to your copywriter.

Job done.

1 Introduce yourself

The first part of your brief should provide the following basic info:

  • Your organisation’s name
  • The date you are submitting the brief
  • Your name and contact details
  • Your (pre-agreed) deadline for receiving the first draft of copy
  • Your final copy deadline
  • If your writer is new to your organisation, it is helpful to write a few sentences to outline who you are, what you do and how you help your clients or service users.

2 Introduce the project

It will help your copywriter enormously if they understand what you’re expecting from them. So don’t forget to provide:

  • A very brief description of the project that their copy will be a part of.
  • In what format the copy will appear (e.g. copy for a printed four page flyer, an A5 postcard, an entire website, a PDF annual review etc.)
  • What you want the piece of communication to achieve (e.g. inspire people to donate, to inform them about an issue, to become a new supporter etc.)

3 Introduce the audience

A good copywriter will want to provide copy that strikes a chord with your audience even more than they’ll want to strike a chord with you. And that’s exactly why you’re paying them! So, tell your writer:

Who do you want to talk to?

(e.g. mums in the UK aged between 30 and 50 who have children in school, run busy households and have very little spare time. Or young professionals with lots of disposable income who love to socialise with their friends). Provide as much RELEVANT detail as you can.

4 Introduce the content

Your job is to tell the copywriter what you want to say. Their job is to tell you how best to say it. So this part of the brief is crucial. Make sure you include:

  • Your key messages

Keep these to a minimum – concise bullet points are often best so that you’re not tempted to waffle. But whatever you do, remember to provide specific detail – assume your writer knows nothing at all about the subject that you’re asking them to write about. And try not to copywrite the key messages yourself (which can be easier said than done).

For example, if you want your writer to provide copy for an event flyer, you might note the following as your key messages:

The date: Friday 8th June
The time: 10am – 5pm
The venue: The Valley Community Hall
The purpose: To bring the local community together to have a day of fun and improve community relations.
The activities: John Jones MP will be speaking about how the community is working to improve the local area, there’ll be activities for all the family including football, face painting and music from local bands and lots of games for small children.
Include the strapline ‘Working together for a better community’.

All too often, the brief just states: ‘Please provide, the date, time and information about the event.’

But without the specific details, how will the copywriter know what to write? You’ll end up with copy that has a lot of holes and that won’t be very engaging.

This is also the place to include any straplines or words and phrases that you specifically want the copywriter to use. If you already have draft text which you want edited by the copywriter, that can be even better. Simply include it here.

  • Your call to action (CTA)

What is it that you want your audience to do after receiving or interacting with this piece of communication? Is it to buy tickets for an event? Is it to visit a website to get more information? Is it to make a text donation? Is it to sign up for email newsletters?

Whatever it is, state it clearly, giving the specific details of where the copywriter need to direct the audience.

  • Ideal word counts and word limits.

It’s really important to give your copywriter a steer on how many words you’d like each section to include. If it’s an 800 word article, tell them so. If it’s a web page and each part of the page has a different amount of words that the design can accommodate, tell them how many words they’ve got to play with for each part.

  • State the single most important point that the copy must communicate.

OK, now this is where a lot of brief writers get stuck. They want their postcard, website or flyer to communicate lots of messages so how do they pick the most important one?

However hard this may seem, it’s really important that you take a step back and think about this. If your audience were to remember one thing after reading your piece of communication, what would you want it to be?

Now write it down in a very short sentence (the chances are that if you use the word ‘and’ or insert a comma, you’re including more than one key message here!)

When you try to communicate lots of key messages, not only will your audience forget most of them – they’ll probably forget ALL of them. If you focus on getting one main point across, they’ll remember it and will be far more likely to take the action that you want them to take.

  • State whether or not you want the copy to be written to accompany specific images.

If so, provide links to the images and state how you want the images and copy to marry up. It may be that you simply want 20 word captions to accompany each image, or you may want the copy to reference the imagery directly. Perhaps you simply want the copy and imagery to incorporate the same theme. Whatever the case, tell your copywriter here.

5 Introduce your tone of voice

Every organisation should have a tone of voice and it’s important that your copywriter gets a sense of yours so that they provide copy which sounds like it’s come from your brand. If they are editing copy that has already been drafted, they should work hard to give it your brand’s unique voice.

So tell your writer what you are and what you’re not.

For example: ‘Our style is warm and friendly but not over familiar’. Or, ‘we have a formal tone but we are not stuffy or unapproachable’. Or, ‘we like to inject humour in an irreverent way, but we’re never silly’.

6 Introduce your dos and don’ts

There’ll be some basic things in the way your organisation communicates which your copywriter will need to know, but probably won’t. So tell them here. For example:

We refer to ourselves in the singular, e.g. ‘Comic Relief is’ not Comic Relief are’.

We always talk about ‘we’ not ‘I’ e.g. ‘We would like to take this opportunity to thank you’, not ‘I would like to take this opportunity to thank you.’

You may only have a few of these rules, or you may have many, but the important thing is that you set out your house rules from the start (and there’ll be a lot less to edit later).

And viola. You now have a brilliant copywriting brief in the bag.

Download your free copywriting brief template (MS Word)