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…
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.
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.
- Print out your draft and read it aloud.
- Give it some time, preferably overnight, before assessing what you’ve written.
- Email the copy to yourself and read it in the body of an email.
- Read your work on a different device, e.g your mobile if you’ve written it on a full-sized screen.
- 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.