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 copywriting for beginners

“I can’t write.”

It’s the resignation declaration of the self-defeated. It’s also a fat slice of baloney.

You won’t write? You don’t want to write? I’m willing to buy these statements. But “can’t?” Sorry friend, you can.

You’ve been writing your whole life. You write now. You write emails, greeting cards, shopping lists, meeting notes, etc. In your school years, you wrote every day. When you graduated you wrote a resume.

But now, a blank screen transforms you into an anxious, insecure mess.

It’s time to face the fear.

Look, the starter (or restarter) lesson I’m about to give you won’t magically transform you into a legendary writer. However, I believe if you take my advice and apply yourself a bit you can make meaningful copywriting contributions to your company’s inbound marketing efforts.

Start with an attitude check. Write something for me. Jot down a positive thought about busting through your renewed dedication to writing. You can do it.

Belief is the first thing you’ll need. Your lack of it traces to an unwarranted inferiority complex. You believe in order to call yourself a writer your work needs to measure up to the legends of language. It doesn’t. Remind yourself, every journey begins with the first step.

Slop something down.

I’m going to give you a ground rule now. Editing is out. Editing as you go is counterproductive. If you keep second guessing yourself and hitting the backspace key, the page could remain blank for a mighty long time.

I often ask my gridlocked writing patients, “What is it you want to say?” Note: I didn’t ask how, just what. Perhaps you want to say “We’re hosting an event and would like you to attend,” or maybe, “We have added a series of features to our product.” These are perfectly good starting points. Type one.

Now put the details down. Tell your reader why this stuff matters. Then, tell them what they should do.

This isn’t so hard now, is it?

Maybe you don’t love what you wrote. Doesn’t matter. You haven’t published anything yet. You’ll edit later. To be prolific, or even productive, give yourself permission to write messy first drafts. The pros do. I promise.

Talk to me.

Does public speaking freak you out? You’ve probably heard the tip speaking phobes often get. Fix on one person in the audience. Find a friendly face and talk to him or her.

The same concept applies to writing. A large part of the fright factor comes from worrying about addressing a large audience. Try a different approach. Imagine you’re writing to just one person, a good friend.

Now, converse. Want to ask a question? Go for it. Want to prove you’ve been listening? Let the reader know you know why she’s there. Want to ignore the writing rules you learned in school? Do it. This ain’t school.

Write as if you’re talking. If you can’t get that ball rolling, then don’t write. Get out a recorder and talk. Play it back and transcribe it.

My hope is you’re gathering the crux of my lesson thus far. Writing’s only hard if you make it hard.

Now for some tips and tricks of the trade.

Understand the reader.

Whether you’re performing the role of copywriter, in the classic sense, or creating content such as a blog post, your challenge is to persuade your reader. However, you don’t need to be a master of psychology to write persuasively

You need to understand you’re addressing an emotional being with wants and desires. Identify one (or more) and speak to it. Push an emotional button. People buy (or take action) to increase their pleasure or avoid pain.

When you approach your writing this way you’ll be far more effective focusing on benefits instead of features. Features mostly have a rationale appeal. Your job is translate features into benefits that invoke an emotion.

A teacher of mine once demonstrated this idea like so:

Feature: McDonald’s has drive-up windows.

Benefit: You can get a tasty, hot breakfast fast, on the way to work—without getting out of your car.

See how the feature was void of any emotion, while the benefit tapped into desires? Maybe the reader doesn’t want to make breakfast. Or maybe the time-saving element hit a hot button. It might have been the “tasty hot” part that appealed to the desire for comfort.

Now this is not to say you don’t need to understand your product. You do. The process of selling requires overcoming objections, so your benefit statement will need support. As a copywriter, you’ll hold the aces when you know your product and customer and find where the two meet in the form of a human need.

Strive for clarity.

Your goal with every sentence you write is to get your reader to read the next one. A number of factors threaten to sabotage your efforts, first and foremost, confusion. You can confuse readers a number of ways.

A number of professionals in the online copywriting business will tell you to write at a fifth grade level, or eighth, or whatever. I reject this advice. I would only agree to write at a fifth grade level if you’re writing to fifth graders.

A better rule of thumb is to simply assume your reader doesn’t know what you know. This is where the oft-cited and dangerous “curse of knowledge” comes into play. Writers make the mistake of skipping or glossing over explanations because they assume the reader has the same level of knowledge. Big mistake. Err on the side of caution taking care to explain your ideas.

Avoid jargon. Back buttons tend to get clicked when you babble on with industry speak, buzzwords and technical terms. If you have no choice but to get into bits per second and gigabytes, inform the reader what you’re talking about is time and space. Simple terms.

Stress action.

Hit verbs hard. Notice my word choice? Hit. It’s action-oriented and dramatic. Focus on putting your ideas in motion and energizing your copy with verbs.

Beginning copywriters overindulge with adjectives. The writing gets flowery. Slow. Abstract. I’m not saying don’t use adjectives. Use adjectives where they add color and intrigue. Avoid them when they simply take up space and mean little.

An important part of your editing process will be to find and strike blasé words and phrases such as “mission critical” or “extremely.” When you nix the fluffy stuff you’ll find what remains is more on point.

Your nemesis will always be boredom. You can’t bore people into buying your products or ideas. Inject all the action you can into your prose to keep your reader engaged start to finish.

Offer evidence.

An important principle of persuasion is something called “social proof.” The concept speaks to the consumer’s need for assurance. Think of how you respond emotionally when you peer in the window of a restaurant with nothing but empty tables. Contrast that to the cram-packed restaurant with a waiting list. Which eatery do you want to feed you?

Social proof comes in many forms: testimonials, statistics, accolades, endorsements, customers lists or examples, reviews and so forth.

Weave social proof into your copy to build credibility. It need not be heavy handed or forced. Just play a card that works for your company and, of course, is true. It might be something like… “twenty of the Fortune 100 companies rely on…” or something less lofty such as… “… is enjoying at 20% annual growth rate.” Both approaches help overcome the reader’s fear of betting on an unknown commodity.

Can you be specific?

You can be and you should be. Look back at the previous paragraph where I chose to cite facts including a specific number of companies and a specific percentage.” If I simply wrote about having Fortune 100 clients or experiencing growth, my copy would have been less credible.

Specifics are more believable, easier to relate to, and more interesting.

I could tell you I have kids. It’s true, but not all that conversational. Now, when I tell you I have twelve and fifteen year old daughters that both love to sing and dance, I suspect you’ll respond to that with a question or comment. That’s engagement, a good thing, and the result of me offering specific details.

Write with rhythm.

Readers are bound to get more engaged when your writing has a nice rhythm to it. You accomplish this mixing up the length of your sentences and paragraphs. Try to avoid long sentences. Or, when you write one, follow up with a short one.

Short passages are more inviting. Short paragraphs are less taxing to read. Use punchy staccato phrases. Zingers.

Tell your readers where to go.

Are you familiar with the term “call to action?” It’s the written version of asking for the sale, a must in almost any form of marketing copy you’ll compose. The object is to get your reader to take action. Your success rate will increase when you tell the reader exactly what to do next, where to go, how to order, and when to act (which tends to be NOW!).

I’ll offer some tips for your call to action. You won’t always be able to play these cards, but consider them when appropriate.

  • Include urgency—Limited time frames, deadlines, reasons to be prompt.
  • Make an offer—Discount, bonus, free information.
  • Highlight value—Get your informative report, join our exclusive community.
  • Overcome objections—Eliminate or reduce risks with free trials or money back guarantees.

Write irresistible headlines.

Shouldn’t this have been first? Obviously, your headline will be read first. And undoubtedly, it’s the most important line you’ll write because it’s the one you know will get read. Of course, it’s also the one that will (or won’t) inspire the reader to keep reading.

I didn’t address the headline first because I didn’t want to spook you. This is a low-pressure lesson. The take-away I’m aiming for is to get you started, to give copywriting a go.

Sure, if you have a headline idea that inspires the rest of your copy, go for it. Put it down. I almost always do. However, you could just as easily write it last, after your piece takes shape. Your thesis, so to speak, might be clearer when you’re nearing completion. Many writers handle headlines this way.

I confessed I start with the headline. I love writing headlines. But I’ll add another admission. I usually go back and change them.

Writing headlines is a challenge you’ll want to take seriously. Your early attempts might not be perfect, but you’ll improve steadily with practice.

I was once taught a handy little trick. Fill in the blank:

How to _____________________ .

There’s a headline. It might work great. Or you might try to improve it. Write variations. Before you call your headline done, ask yourself, would I read this?

What might get you—and your reader—to answer “yes?” The list is long. A great study on headline writing is to look at the headline “teasers” on the covers of popular magazines. They are penned by expert writers editors and almost always have strong pulling power.

A few great headline tactics include:

  • The useful headline—Often a “how to.”
  • A curiosity builder—This tactic has a teaser element that capitalizes on suspense and mystery. (Read “How Do You Write the Powerful Headlines?”)
  • The urgent headline—Why? Why not? Why now?
  • The list headline—Proven winners such as (X) secrets, tips, ways, shortcuts, etc.
  • The news hack—Attach your piece to something topical or someone famous.
  • The contrarian—Mistakes, dangers, lies. I find negatives positively irresistible.

Here’s some additional tips for great blog titles.

Write now.

The way to become a writer is simply to write. Yes, it’s work. Yes, you’ll need to practice.

You’ll want to try to find the flaws. Read your work aloud. Run it by someone for an opinion. Share it with an accomplished writer.

But remember, if you think you can’t write, you’re wrong.

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[Want a collection of ideas for writing compelling content? Download “Strike a Chord: Lessons for Making Your Web Content Resonate.”]