Copywriting 101

People ask me about the nuts and bolts and “how to” of business copywriting all the time. And while it’s flattering, it’s also a bit tough for me to answer.

The truth is I don’t really subscribe to hard and fast “rules” for copywriting, and I really can’t explain what makes me write like I do.

I’ve been able to write really well as long as I can remember (thank goodness, because other than writing, I was a pretty mediocre English student. I still couldn’t tell you what a preposition is without looking it up.)

This doesn’t look much like me, and I think I last wore a tie in 2006. But this guy does seem happy with his work, as am I. And that’s always a good feeling.

That all said, I have learned a few things about business writing, copywriting, website writing, and similar. Here are a few random thoughts I have on making your business writing better, online and off.

Use the Second Person (“You”) More

Which statement sounds better?

“The Dyrillium Breaker Bar Stabilizes the Chassis, Giving the Vehicle a Much Smoother Ride” 

“The Dyrillium Breaker Bar Stabilizes the Chassis, Giving You a Much Smoother Ride” 

9 times out of 10 the second phrase engages readers far better, because you are directly addressing them and putting them in the vehicle. The only place the first sentence might be better is in a dry, non-sales technical document.

“You” is probably the most important word in copywriting. Especially for sales and marketing.


Write Better Business Letters By Starting Unexpectedly  

Before I became a copywriter I had ton of jobs. This means I got hired a lot. And one reason I got hired is because my cover letter was interesting, so I was put in the “good” pile.

How did I do that? I led it off with this sentence: “I’ve had an interesting work history. Once, I got fired for killing a rat! I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first let me introduce myself…

This cover letter vastly outperformed the dry “This letter is in response to the position you advertised. Please consider this letter and included resume as application for the position…”

Trust me – starting business letters off unexpectedly can make a difference. It’s confident, and readers like confidence.

You need not mention killing a rat (that’s a bit extreme) but beginning with something other than a formal introduction or expected lead-in is definitely more engaging to a reader.

One time I had a client really mess up a big order. They were going to lose the account, which was a $5 million dollar account. I was brought in to write the apology / “we’ll fix it” letter from one CEO to another.

I started it off with “Making a $5 million dollar mistake is pretty low on anyone’s list, but somehow we managed to do it. Apologizing is a given, but more importantly, you need to know exactly how we’re going to fix this, so let me discuss that first.”

Nothing earth-shaking about that. But it was a FAR more interesting intro than a “This letter is to address the recent error in your order.” The friendly-yet-pointed letter got read to the end, a follow-up call was made, and the account was saved. 

Want to read a great book on letter writing (that has zero nuts and bolts about letter writing in it?) Buy Sincerely, Andy Rooney, and see real letters written by one of the most talented writers of our time. Just see how he starts his letters, and how they engage the reader right away. The man was an absolute master. Note: the link is unaffiliated. I just want you to read this great (and funny) book if you want to be a better letter writer.

Website Copywriting: Is Your Website Interesting?

This is not a hard and fast rule, but if your website isn’t at least interesting, then it’s nothing more than a digital brochure. Which, if that’s what you want, is fine.

But people don’t really read digital brochures beyond a minute or two. And Google isn’t that interested in showing digital brochures either.

How do you become more than a digital brochure? Having good copy helps a lot. Having a blog or article page that gets updated is good. Having some “how-to” info about your industry helps. Having an interesting “about us” page is good. Having a breezy FAQ helps. And unless you’re a funeral home, a little light humor sprinkled in somewhere doesn’t hurt.

Websites that people enjoy reading perform better, both in sales and SEO.

More web copywriting – here’s some nuts and bolts:

Two nuts and bolts rules I generally do use on web copywriting: short paragraphs, and short line lengths.

Three to four lines is generally enough for most paragraphs. It’s ok to go over that once in a while (I do), but for the most part, keep them short. It’s much easier to read. The last thing you want is a reader seeing giant blocks of text, which gives a “the teacher just assigned Moby Dick” vibe.

Line length… my goodness do a ton of websites violate this rule. I attribute that to a lot of web designers out there not understanding readability. Here’s the deal: Unless your audience is 100% mobile (and trust me, it’s not), you need to be under 100 characters a line. And preferably between 60 and 80 most places (this includes spaces).

Once you get over 100 characters, the writing becomes harder to read, and it almost doesn’t matter how well it’s written. It’s one reason “the fine print” is IN fine print – this makes it almost painful to read.

If your web designer is unaware of this, then hire another one. Because they aren’t doing you any favors with their 140 character line lengths.

Headlines and Subheadings

So much has been written on the importance of headlines and subheadings that I don’t feel I can add much to conversation except to say USE THEM. Especially online, and especially subheadings.

These break up your writing, and make it scannable. Plus, if your subheadings are interesting, it further helps the page. If you scanned this very page, the subheadings will catch your attention and say “good stuff here”.

You Don’t Need a Sales Message Everywhere.

Most “copywriting” is meant to sell. But that doesn’t mean you need a sales message everywhere.

I know companies who are frustrated by social media. But how many of them actually use it the way it’s intended? Almost none. Most post examples of work or machinery (in other words “here’s what we offer”). This can work if you are a restaurant or you build cool custom stuff, but otherwise, it’s not really welcome in most social media feeds, and gets ignored (honestly, social media is way more a B2C thing than B2B. And even B2C is usually pretty quiet – people don’t really care about business posts.)

Same with articles and blog posts – they don’t need a constant sales message. Nobody is going to read your blog if every post is a pitch. It comes off as desperate.