Page 1 Š Rockable Press 2010 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or redistributed in any form without the prior written permission of the publishers.



What’s Different about The Web


The Difference The Result

11 15

Secrets of Great Web Writing


Page Titles Page Headings Lists Pull-Quotes Hyperlinks Summary

19 22 24 26 27 33

Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy 36 Write to The Reader What Next? Write to Them, Not To Yourself Summary

37 42 43 50

Use a Authentic Voice


Two Examples Advantage of Authentic Voice Summary

53 55 59

Advice for Common Pages


The Main / Home Page The About Page The Services / Hire Me Page The About The Author / Bio Page Summary

62 63 65 66 68

 Persuade with Your Copy


Writing Persuasive Copy Summary

71 79

Writing for Search Engines


Two Things to Consider Summary

82 86



Appendix A


Appendix A – Overview


Appendix B


Appendix B – Further Reading


About The Author




Introduction Website copy is the text that appears on the pages of a website. It can be used to explain, inform, persuade, or entertain – and an experienced web copywriter will use it to do all of these things at some point. What you’ll be using it for depends on your situation. Whether you want to write the copy for your own site, or for somebody else’s, this mini-book will quickly bring you up to speed with some clever strategies that will make you popular with your site’s visitors – or with your clients! As you read this mini-book, you’ll learn: •

How to pass on important information without inducing yawns.

How to grab a reader’s attention and keep it.

How to write web copy that stays true to your branding – or your client’s branding.

How to persuade readers to do what you – or your clients – want them to do.

How to use web copy to sell products and services.

If you’re a designer, you may have had a client ask you to write the copy for the website you just designed. In the past you might have refused – after all, you’re a designer, not a copywriter! But by saying no to these jobs, you miss the chance to earn more money for your work. This mini-book will give you all the know-how you need to comfortably take on these jobs, create more billable hours and impress your clients!


If you’re creating your own website – whether for a company, personal project or a blog – you’ve made a smart choice by purchasing this mini-book. The skills you’ll learn will help you communicate your site’s purpose to its visitors. If you want to persuade visitors to do something – whether it’s buying from you or supporting a cause – then you’ll need to be persuasive. Luckily, we’re about to teach you how to do just that. Let’s get started!

How Web Copy Works The web copy you write will drastically affect the way visitors interact with your – or your client’s – website. You have the power to shape how visitors see the site, how visitors navigate it, how much visitors like it, and how effective the site is at meeting its aims. Great copy can lead to increased traffic, more leads, more subscribers, or more sales. On the other hand, bad copy can prevent a website from ever reaching its full potential. That’s why your role is so important. In your role as a web copywriter, you will probably be using copy in the following ways: •

To inform and build branding. You will mainly be doing this through all types of pages, including an About page, Contact page, Bio page, or Services page. The purpose of these pages is primarily to make sure that the site makes sense to the visitor. They might also have secondary aims, like presenting the right image, or encouraging newsletter sign-ups.

Introduction •

To persuade. Web copy is often used to persuade website visitors to take certain actions, whether that’s buying a product or following someone on Twitter. The best examples of web copy often persuade and inform at the same time.

If you don’t consider yourself a talented writer, you may be a little worried at this point. You shouldn’t be. Web copy isn’t the same as a feature article in a magazine, or a piece of stylish reportage. It doesn’t exist for its own sake. Instead, it’s purpose is only to help the visitor do something else, whether that’s what the visitor wants to do, or what you want them to do. Web copy is the facilitator, not the end product. As a result, great web copy isn’t beautifully written, detailed and complex, or breathtakingly unique. Instead, it’s useful, functional and concise. It’s a means to an end, and because of that, anyone can do it well if they understand the basic principles taught in this mini-book.

What’s Different about The Web The web offers new and interesting ways to reach and communicate with people. In this section, you’ll learn: • How the web is different to other written mediums of communication. • How to write content that is easy to scan online.


What’s Different about The Web

The Difference Most of what you would have learned in school about writing probably didn’t touch on writing for the web. As you’ll learn in this section, writing for the web and writing for print couldn’t be more different! Lets Look at some of the key differences, and why they matter:

Web Writing Is Delivered on Screen Duh! You knew that, didn’t you? But do you know why it’s important? When you read from paper, a light source bounces off the paper and is reflected into your eyes. When you look at a computer screen, the light isn’t reflected – it is direct. The light from paper is diffuse; the light from a computer screen is much harsher. This means it is more tiring to read from the screen. It’s also slower – up to 25% slower than reading from paper. But you probably figured that out already – you can lie in bed and read a novel for hours, but after an hour staring at the screen your eyes are getting tired. This simple difference affects how we write. Because people read more slowly and get tired faster, we need to write in a way that helps them to breeze through our words.

We Do Different Tasks When we read from paper, we literally have the material within arm’s length. We are already holding a book, or report, or newspaper, and don’t need to find it. But when we read online, a large part of


What’s Different about The Web

our time is spent simply looking for the material we want to read. In fact, we often spend more time hunting for information online than we spend consuming it! Here’s another difference. We often dip in and out of web content, seeking a quick answer without ever intending to read all the text on a page. Print is different – we read in a much more linear fashion, usually going through every word from start to finish. The third difference is that we don’t usually sit down at our computers to read a novel, school text or annual report. In situations where we need to read for a long time, we’re more likely to use print. Because of these three differences, to create great web content we need to: •

Put more effort into helping readers find the information they need.

Let people get quick answers if that’s what they need.

Provide ways for readers to consume longer pieces of information when necessary.

Web Writing Is Less Linear Reading printed material is usually a linear process. We start at the beginning and move forward. We may read it word for word, or skip whole chunks, but we do tend to move in one direction. As we move in that direction, we build up knowledge in the order the writer has arranged it. When we read material on the web, there is really no such thing as forward. Content on the web is hooked together by links and we


What’s Different about The Web

can jump from page to page designing our own information flow. We also can’t guarantee that our readers have read information in any particular sequence.

We used to read linearly. We would start at page one and proceed page by page through the content. This was easy for the reader, they knew how to We used to read linearly. do it, even if they didn’t We would start at page read all the words, one and proceed page by they knew the process page through the content. start at the top and work down. This was easy for the reader, they knew how to do it, even if they didn’t read all the words, they knew the process Figure 1.1. We used start at the top and work down. We used to read linearly. We would start at page one and proceed page by page through the content. This was easy for the reader, they knew how to We used to read linearly. do it, even if they didn’t We would start at page read all the words, one and proceed page by they knew the process page through the content. start at the top and work down. This was easy for the reader, they knew how to do it, even if they didn’t read all the words, they knew the process start at the top and work down.

We might jump around the book a little. Perhaps we would get into the middle via an index or just read a small section.

As we read page by page, we build up knowledge.

But this was less We might jump around the common, book a little. Perhaps we we mostly read page by would get into the middle page. via an index or just read a small section. But this was less common, we mostly read page by topage. read linearly, page We might jump around the book a little. Perhaps we would get into the middle via an index or just read a small section. But this was less We might jump around the common, book a little. Perhaps we we mostly read page by would get into the middle page. via an index or just read a small section. But this was less common, we mostly read page by page.


As a writer you could use that to help people learn. You could take them on a journey, and you had As we read page by page, some idea of what they we build up knowledge. knew at a certain point. Not anymore! As a writer you could use that to help people learn. You could take them on a journey, and you had some idea of what they knew at a certain point. Not anymore! page As we read page by page, we build up knowledge. As a writer you could use that to help people learn. You could take them on a journey, and you had As we read page by page, some idea of what they we build up knowledge. knew at a certain point. Not anymore! As a writer you could use that to help people learn. You could take them on a journey, and you had some idea of what they knew at a certain point. Not anymore!

Now with people landing in the middle of your carefully constructed content, you don’t know what they know. They may have missed the Now with people landing beginning and not know in the middle of your where to go next. They carefully constructed may not know the content, you don’t know background and what they know. important bits. They may have missed the beginning and not know where to go next. They may not know the background and important bits. Now with people landing in the middle of your carefully constructed content, you don’t know what they know. They may have missed the Now with people landing beginning and not know in the middle of your where to go next. They carefully constructed may not know the content, you don’t know background and what they know. important bits. They may have missed the beginning and not know where to go next. They may not know the background and important bits.

Figure 1.2. Now we start wherever we like and jump around. We miss whole pages and learn out of order


What’s Different about The Web

We Skim And Scan When we read print material, we usually do it word for word and line by line. We may skip-over some sentences, but we tend to at least glance over each paragraph before moving to the next.


Have a look at these eyetracking videos to get a better idea of how people look at the screen: • com/watch?v=ilq9qey VjT0&e

When we read online, going through • every word linearly is the exception comwatch?v=sVXjM to the rule. I’ve watched people XnU56E use computers while using special hardware that tracks where their eyes move. Their eyes go all over the place – jumping all around the screen, up, down, side to side. Only when they really need to pay attention to detail will they read line by line.


Figure 1.3. We don’t read linearly, but we do scan all over the page


What’s Different about The Web

When we read on screen, we tend to skim pages quickly and focus on parts of the page such as headings, bulleted lists and links, and rarely read every word.

The Result As a result of these differences, good web copy tends to: •

Be clearer and more concise.

Use shorter sentences and paragraphs.

Depend less on linear reading.

Be a lot easier to scan, with more headings, links and bulleted lists.

It should also have the characteristics of good writing (in general). That is, it should: •

Meet the needs of the readers.

Be written for the readers, with them in mind.

Communicate in more than one way – including theory, stories and diagrams.

If the above sounds like a lot to ask for so early, don’t worry – that’s what most of this book is about. In chapter 2 we’ll look at some of the secrets of writing great web copy; in chapters 3 – 5 we’ll discuss how to write interesting and usable content. In chapter 6 we’ll show you how to write persuasively, and in chapter 7 you’ll learn how to write copy that is search engine friendly.


What’s Different about The Web

Follow-Up Reading •

Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them. Donna Maurer, Boxes & Arrows. http://www.

The Paradox of the Active User. John M. Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson. Papers/Paradox.pdf

Eye-tracking videos: o o

How little do users read? Jakob Nielsen. http://www.

Lower-Literacy Users. Jakob Nielsen. http://www.useit. com/alertbox/20050314.html

Writing for the Web. Jakob Nielsen, PJ Schemenaur, and Jonathan Fox. webwriting

Secrets of Great Web Writing As we discussed in the previous chapter, people tend to skim and scan online copy, rather than reading word for word. The best web copy takes advantage of this and lets the reader understand the main ideas without having to read everything on the page. This chapter is about how to write in a way that’s optimized for web reading.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Page Titles The page title (the main heading on the page) is one of the first things people see when a web page loads. A good page title lets the reader know whether the page is what they are looking for and helps them to get an idea of what the page does. A good page title is brief, and briefly describes or alludes to the contents of the page. It contains the most important information at the start of the title, not at the end. It uses short, concise words instead of long ones and is not full of jargon.

Figure 2.1. This article from Freelance Switch has a clearly visible and well-written page title (


Secrets of Great Web Writing

After the title, the next thing a visitor looks at is the first paragraph of the copy. This is where they’ll quickly skim to see if they’re on the right page and if you have anything of value to say. This is where you’ll need to pull the reader into your copy before they get bored and navigate away. A good tip is to write your most important information, or your most appealing point, early in the paragraph. To demonstrate this in action, read the following two paragraphs that appear on a wedding photographer’s “Hire Me” page. Think about which one piques your interest the most and makes you want to read more. Example 1: Sara Green is a thirty-four year old wedding photographer from Brighton, UK. Her favorite camera is the Canon 40D and she takes it with her everywhere. This allows her to take great shots wherever she goes. She has recently started to work as a freelance wedding photographer and is available for hire in the Brighton, UK area. Example 2: I am passionate about capturing the special, hidden moments that will happen on your special day: the smiles, the laughs, the glances and the kisses – moments that would otherwise be lost. I’m an experienced wedding photographer based in Brighton who is dedicated to capturing authentic moments you will treasure for a lifetime. If you’re not planning on getting married anytime soon you might find that both paragraphs are uninteresting – but imagine you lived in Brighton and were on the hunt for a wedding photographer.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Which would interest you the most? I’m betting you would choose the second one. In Example 1, the writer is giving top priority to the information that is most important to them – not to the reader. In the second example, top priority is given to answering the immediate question a new visitor might have: what makes this photographer different to all the others I’ve looked at today? You’ll also notice that one is written from the third-person perspective, while another is written from a first-person point of view. Since this is a “Hire Me” page, the writer wants to persuade the reader to hire someone – either themselves or their client. The first-person voice is a better choice for persuasive copy as it creates a direct connection between reader and writer – one person talking to another. (We cover more on this in chapter 4).

Figure 2.2. On, the first paragraph summarises the page and is presented in a larger font


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Page Headings Headings and subheadings are very important for easier scanning. When people want to check if they’re on the right page, they scroll down (often very quickly), scanning the headings to make sure they’re in the right place, and to see if they can find what they’re looking for. Like page titles, make sure your headings and subheadings are concise and contain good, short words. Write them so readers can get an idea of exactly what the page is about without reading it word for word. With each subheading you write, try to encapsulate the idea behind the text that comes after. That way, even if a person doesn’t read your writing in detail, they will still come away with your key ideas. Use good keywords at the beginning of the subheading, not the end – as people scan down a page they read the beginnings of headings more than the ends. Make sure there’s a visual distinction between different levels of headings. The hierarchy of headings communicates the page structure, and you don’t want people trying to interpret whether something is a sub-section or section when they should simply be absorbing information.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Figure 2.3. This is one of my favourite pages on the web – it has clear, scannable headings. You can read just the headings and get a good idea of what the page is about (


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Page headings are also good for people who aren’t scanning visually. Visitors listening to a page via a screen reader will listen to the headings in the same way sighted people scan them visually.

Lists Lists are another way to make your writing more scannable. I’ve watched many people read lists (and headings) but skip all paragraph content. This is also one reason why “list” format content is currently so popular on the internet! If you have material that suits a list format, use a bulleted or numbered list instead of embedding the list in a paragraph. Like many things, lists are only good in moderation. Don’t go through your content and turn everything into a list. Too many sets of bulleted lists may make a page look longer and more confusing than necessary. Save your lists for things you really want to draw attention to. When using lists: •

Try to write all things in the list with similar grammar and structure.

Use numbered lists for anything with a sequence or hierarchy; bulleted lists for everything else.

Use consistent capitalization and formatting.

Capitalize the first letter of your list item when the item is a sentence, lower case when the list item is not a sentence.


Secrets of Great Web Writing •

Use a period at the end of each list item if they’re sentences; use nothing if they’re not. But be consistent. If your list combines sentences and items, use periods at the end of them all.

Many older writing texts recommend you follow each list item with a semi-colon and put “and” or “or” after the semi-colon on the second last item. This is not considered necessary in online writing (and is becoming less common in print).

Figure 2.4 A section of content from my website, without bulleted lists (http://maadmob.

Figure 2.5 The same section of content, this time with bulleted lists. This is much easier to read and understand.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Pull-Quotes Pull-quotes add visual interest to a page of text, draw the reader’s eye and provide an overview of some of the key points. They are another mechanism that can help people scan the page instead of reading every word. Print magazines have been using them for years to do just this.


“Pull quotes like this one, add visual interest to a page, draw the readers eye, and provide an overview of some of the key points.”


Pull-quotes take a significant or important quote from the text, and highlight it in some way. It may be placed in a sidebar or highlighted within the main block of text.

Figure 2.6 Articles on UX Matters can be quite long – the pull quotes help you see the main points (


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Hyperlinks When people are trying to find a way to the information they need, they’ll probably ignore the text on a page and only look for links. But links are important for more than just scannability. They are the primary way people navigate the web. Because they are so important, we really need to pay attention to how we use links within our web copy.

What to Link to One of the first things you need to decide on is exactly what to link to. Too many links, and your copy becomes hard to read. Too few links, and you may be missing opportunities to impart more information, or to funnel visitors somewhere important on the site. When deciding what to link, view the choice from the perspective of the user. What will they want to do after reading your copy? What would you like them to do? Step 1 – Look for user tasks Firstly, think about what the reader may want to do after reading this content. (See chapter 3 for more about how to do this). Then find (or make) links that let them do that.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

For example: •

On a page of information about a Government grant the obvious next steps are to find out about eligibility or to apply for the grant.

For a description of a product, an obvious next step is to buy the product.

For a broad summary of a topic, the next step may be to read more detail.

Figure 2.7 For this page, the user’s main task will be to download an application form, so most of the hyperlinks are to forms ( shipwrecks/relics.html)

I do lots of government writing, just in case you are wondering why I seem obsessed by it


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Step 2 – Take them where you want them A visitor browsing your website’s “About” page may not be looking for information on the line of screen-printed T-shirts you sell. Instead, they probably just want to find out more about who you are and what the site is about – but this doesn’t mean you can’t use a strategically placed link to take them to a page extolling the virtues of your stylish T-shirts, and hopefully convincing some visitors to buy a few in the process. Though most of the time you will be focused on the reader as you write your web copy, sometimes you should also have your own – or your client’s – best interests at heart!

Figure 2.8. In this blog post, I linked the most relevant items – things I thought people might want to read more about


Secrets of Great Web Writing

3 – Stop before it gets ugly Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many links spoil the paragraph. Save the links for your most important stuff and readers will be much more likely to click them.

Which Words to Link The most important hyperlinking decision you’ll make is choosing which words to link. It can also be challenging to write good link text. Your readers will be using hyperlinks to figure out what to click next, so they have to be titled in a way that clearly describes what they do. A good link has the following attributes: •

It uses terminology familiar to the reader. A reader won’t click on a link they don’t understand.

It describes the destination well. It doesn’t need to exactly match the page title of the destination, but it should be close enough that when someone clicks on it, they know they’re on the right page when they arrive.

Two hyperlinks that link to the same destination should have the same link text. When readers see hyperlinks with different link text, they assume they will link to different pages. Use the same words (or as similar as possible) so people know they link to the same page.

Two hyperlinks with the same link text should link to the same destination. When readers see links that use the same words (or even very similar words) they assume they link to the same page. For example, one


Secrets of Great Web Writing of my client projects had a website with links to both Library and Library Services – readers assumed they both linked to the same page. •

It provides context for search engines. Google pays a lot of attention to the link you use when calculating which results to show and in which order. Think about the best keywords for search engines that are also good for readers. (See chapter 7 for more information about search engines.)

Never use generic link text such as “click here” or “more”. These don’t provide a good indication of what they are linking to. Yes, you can put words before and after the link that provide context, but when people are scanning a page they often don’t see the context. These types of links are particularly bad for people using screen reader software who may be scanning by listening to a list of links. Can you imagine how confusing it would be to hear “click here”, “click here”, “click here”, “click here”? One last thing to consider is that links don’t have to be short. More words provide a better visual target for scanning, include more keywords the reader may associate with, and provide a better description of the content. Jared Spool researched this and found that the links with the highest click-through rates contained 5 – 7 words.

Designing for the scent of information: The Essentials Every Designer Needs to Know About How Users Navigate Through Large Web Sites. Jared M. Spool, Christine Perfetti, and David Brittan.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Compare the following approaches: 1. Donna offers web writing workshops. Click here for more information. 2. Donna offers web writing workshops. Please see for more information. 3. Donna offers web writing workshops. The third option above is by far the best approach for search engines. When someone searches for “web writing workshops”, search engines are more likely to consider Donna’s site as relevant. It also provides readers with the most information, while still being succinct.

Where to Put Them Links inserted between paragraphs can interrupt the reading experience, so it’s always best to interweave links with your text. The exception to this rule is at the end of your copy, where you might want to include links as next steps for readers. The space at the end of a page is also a good place to include links to “by the way” information – links that aren’t important enough to distract from your text, but still have some usefulness.


Secrets of Great Web Writing

Figure 2.9. Wikipedia ( mainly uses hyperlinking within the paragraph

Summary Web content needs to be more scannable than equivalent print content. You can make your content more scannable in the following ways: •

Use a descriptive page title.

Include the most important information in the first paragraph, and keep the language simple.

Include headings and subheadings to signpost your ideas.

Use bulleted or numbered lists instead of lists in paragraph form.


Secrets of Great Web Writing •

Use pull-quotes to highlight key points and add visual interest.

Think carefully about your links and: o Link to next steps the reader is likely to want to take – or next steps you’d like them to take! o Use terminology that makes sense to your readers o Link appropriate words, and never use “click here” or “more” o Include hyperlinks within the paragraph where possible

Follow-Up Reading •

Designing for the scent of information: The Essentials Every Designer Needs to Know About How Users Navigate Through Large Web Sites. Jared M. Spool, Christine Perfetti, and David Brittan. http://www.uie. com/reports/scent_of_information/.

Don’t “click here”: writing meaningful link text. Dey Alexander. publications/clickhere.html.

Ten tips for top web content. Dey Alexander.

The right trigger words. Jared Spool. http://www.uie. com/articles/trigger_words/.

Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy When we write, we do it for a reason. We may want to communicate an idea, help people make informed decisions or to act in the way we would like them to. We want our writing to be easy to understand, persuasive, and to make the reader like and identify with us. In this section, you’ll learn three simple ways to make sure your online writing is as effective as possible.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

Write to The Reader If you really want people to read and understand your copy, then you have to make sure you always keep the reader as the focus of your writing, and put yourself in their shoes. You have to understand who your readers are, what they need, and why they are reading your copy. In most cases, the people reading your copy don’t care about you – or your clients – at all! They only care about themselves. It sounds harsh, but the reality is that they are reading your copy in the hope that it will serve their own ends – whether that’s to be entertained, to find out more information, to make a better decision, or to satisfy curiosity. Before the reader does what you want them to, you’ll need to meet their needs first. In most cases you can do this by answering a crude but fundamental question every reader will have: why should I care? One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced website copywriters make, is to only write from their own perspective. They focus on the information they think is most important, without thinking about why a visitor would be reading their copy in the first place. Readers don’t engage and connect with this type of writing – they ignore or skip it. There’s nothing in it for them. While it may sound like readers are unusually selfish, this isn’t the case. Most people expect to get something in return for their effort. When a person reads your copy, they are giving you precious time they could be spending playing with their kids, studying for a big test, or practicing a fun hobby. It’s not unreasonable that they want to be sure their time is well spent!


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

This is why the best online writing answers the reader’s questions before they even have them, and helps them build up their knowledge without feeling spoken down to, which leaves them feeling better than when they started. This chapter is all about how to flip around your thinking, so that you are writing for your readers, instead of yourself.

Know Your Audience Before you start to write, spend some time thinking about who will be reading your words and what they will want to gain through reading them.

Who Will Read This? Ask yourself, “Who will read this page?” If you can’t answer, you can’t possibly write the page effectively. •

A visitor to an “About” page, wants to learn what the website does, who it’s for and/or who it was made by.

A visitor to a “Product” page, wants to learn more about the product and gather information that will help them make a decision on whether to purchase it.

A new visitor to your site’s main page, may be wondering where they should go next.

If you’re writing web copy for your own site, you probably know the kinds of people you are trying to reach. If you’re working for a client, ask them who they expect will be visiting their site.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

The more you know about your audience, the more effective your copy will be. You can learn more about them by conducting surveys, visiting similar sites, talking to them directly or reading their emails and comments. Clients may also be willing to do this research for you if you explain the benefits. Or, they may have already done it for you – as part of their own research! Here is an example to illustrate why knowing your readers will help you write better copy: You’ve been tasked with writing an “About” page for a store that sells expensive digital cameras and lenses to photographers. Since your audience are experts in the field, you can assume plenty of knowledge and use jargon comfortably. But if you had failed to learn that your target audience was experts, you might feel the need to define any jargon you used, and to assume very little knowledge. You might explain some basic information about cameras, or define jargon terms like “wide-angle lens” or “aperture”. The first version of the page, targeted at experts, would probably go down well. The second version would seem condescending to most experienced photographers, and would quickly see the website’s visitors navigate away to somewhere else that understood them better. By researching your audience you can avoid ever having a problem like this.

Why Would They Read This? When I’m stuck with a piece of writing – hating what I’ve written or just not knowing where to start, one of my favorite tricks is a thing called “the 5 whys”. The idea is that within 5 steps (5 “why” questions) you can dig beneath the surface answers to get at underlying ideas.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

It’s a simple trick. You think about what you’re trying to write, and start with a simple “why?” question. Answer it and then ask another “why?” question. Within a couple of steps you’ll spot some good insights that will help you figure out what to write and thus make a connection with your readers. Let’s continue the digital camera example. Let’s assume that instead of being experts, our intended audience are people who don’t know much about cameras, and that we’ve decided to write a page with some basic information on buying a camera. By asking “why?”, we can begin to understand what is likely to have brought the reader to our page. Let’s try it out: 1. Question: Why would I read this information? Answer: Because I don’t know enough about cameras to start shopping. 2. Question: Why? Answer: Whenever I’ve looked for cameras the information was too hard to understand. 3. Question: Why? Answer: It’s always full of technical words and numbers. 4. Question: Why? Answer: It’s written for people who already know this stuff. I don’t want to have to learn a new language; I just want to buy a camera. 5. Question: Why? Answer: I just want a camera that will take good photos. I want one that fits in my pocket and is easy to whip out and take a photo when I spot something interesting.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

There we go. In five “whys?”, we’ve learned that we should write something that guides the reader, that doesn’t require them to learn jargon, and that gives them enough knowledge to start shopping. Give this a try whenever you’re uncertain about how to approach a piece of copy. It’s a useful thinking technique and helps you to identify the real reasons why a visitor is reading your copy.

What Do They Need and Already Know? Thinking about your reader and asking “why” helps you to start thinking in a “reader-centric” way, but it doesn’t provide the whole picture. The next step is to think about what the reader may want to do or know. Again, the way you do this will depend on what you’re writing and how much you already know about your audience. As with the “who” and “why” steps, you may need to brainstorm a little and think about what people need to know or do. Try to put yourself in your reader’s shoes again and figure out what is important to them. If this doesn’t give you enough to work with, do some user research. Again, talk to your readers, check your website statistics and search logs, and talk to people who are in contact with the readers. These sources will give you a lot of information about what your readers need to know. When doing this step, focus on two questions: 1. What do they need to know? 2. What do they already know? The first question gives you ideas about what to include in the writing – the types of topics you’ll cover and the way you’ll do it.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

Thinking about what they already know tells you where to start and how much background and context to provide. Think about whether readers already understand the topic or whether they need to be brought up to speed before understanding the detail. Some audiences may have a different starting point to others, which may affect how you write. A common mistake in website copy is to leap straight into a topic without the necessary lead-up information. It might be missing an introduction, some background, definitions of jargon words, or important context. This usually occurs because the writer knows the topic so well, that they assume the reader shares the same amount of knowledge. If you’re writing for experts, this may be acceptable, but in most other cases, you should make sure you provide some background or lead-up information.

What Next? The last two things you will need to consider before you start writing are: 1. What the reader is likely to do. 2. What you would like them to do after reading your copy. They may want to read more information, contact you, buy your product, compare it with other products, or fill out an application form. Whichever it may be, it’s up to your copy to persuade them to do it.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

Figure 3.1. On my “Why choose me” page ( maadmob), I have an section specially targeted to the “What next?” question.

Write to Them, Not to Yourself Now you’ve spent some time thinking about your reader, you are ready to write. Remember: when you start writing, keep your intended reader in mind and write to them, not to yourself. Here’s a really simple tip – call them “you”. You’ll notice I’ve been doing this right throughout this book. That’s because I’m writing to you. We’re having a conversation. It may not feel like a conversation – after all, you’re reading my words. But I hope that there’s more happening in your mind – I hope you’re thinking of questions, pondering your work, and thinking of how each point is relevant to you. Much of this is triggered simply because I’m calling you “you”. This is called writing in the first person. All throughout our lives we are conditioned to pay attention when someone addresses us directly. Web copywriters can tap into this conditioning to keep readers paying attention. Next up, you may need some help with starting your copy. After all, writers will tell you that the blank page is an intimidating sight!


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

You can give yourself a structure to follow by starting with questions and answers. Write down the questions your intended reader is likely to have, and then write down the answers. By doing this, you’ll start to develop the skeleton structure of your copy. Next, prioritize the answers based on what is most pressing to the reader, and what is most pressing for you to get across. A good tip is to try to do both at the same time. For example, on a page where you answer the reader’s questions about what your client’s product does, you can describe what it does in practical terms, while also explaining the benefits. This answer’s the reader’s question while also priming them to take the action you want from them.

An Example Let’s work through a more detailed example. A few years ago I had a page on my website that described what type of work I do. It was aimed at helping people understand whether I’d be a good fit for them and whether they’d like to hire me. It looked like this: I am Donna Maurer, a freelance information architect and interaction designer. I have been designing structures and interfaces for websites, intranets, web applications and business tools professionally for more than 6 years, and have been hanging around the internet for much longer than that. I’m an experienced presenter and trainer. I have developed and presented workshops on information architecture, usability testing, web design and interface design. I have spoken at a wide range of conferences, including the Information Architecture Summit and Webstock. 

This was before I changed my surname


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

In the past you may have read copy like this and felt it was generally “bad” or “boring”, but by this point in the mini-book, I hope you can identify exactly why it doesn’t work. It’s completely focused on the writer (me) and not focused on the reader at all. I wanted to tell people what I did and that I had skills and experience. I thought this approach was okay, given that it was my own website. It wasn’t long before I realized the problem and fixed it with the help of the following questions: 1. Who will read it? Who cares enough to bother reading this? Two main groups of readers: a) People who followed a link from a conference website, an article or maybe a blog post that I’ve commented on, and are curious about who I am. b) Someone who is thinking about hiring me for freelance work or to speak at a conference. 2. Why would they read it? Why would someone visit this content on my website? Why would they need to know about me? They want to know whether I can help them with a work-related problem. They may be thinking about hiring someone and want to see if I have the skills to do the work. Or maybe they want to get a feel for my personality to see if I’ll fit in well with their team.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

3. What do they need to know and already know? If you were hiring someone to do some work for you – let’s say you needed someone to help you reorganise your web content – what might you want to know about? Based on discussions I’ve had with people in the past, here’s my brainstormed list: •

Does this person have the skills to do the work?

Has this person done work like mine?

Who is actually going to do the work? Will it be done by the person I’m reading about or are they going to subcontract it out?

Will they listen to my needs, or push their own agenda?

Will they treat me like an equal, or like I’m stupid?

Will we enjoy working with this person?

How good are they with deadlines? Will the work get done on time?

How much is this going to cost me? How will I manage the costs?

What sort of quality will I get? Will it stand up over time, or will I need to have it redone in 6 months?

This brainstormed list gives me some good ideas about how to target the piece of writing. I need to make sure these questions are all answered.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

People will also have a different understanding of the services they may be hiring. They may have worked with someone who called themselves an “information architect” in the past, but who carried out a very different service than what I’m offering. I should make sure I clearly describe what I actually do, without jargon, so there are no misunderstandings. 4. What next? The reader should get a good enough picture from the copy to see that I’m the right person to work with them. If I’m not, that’s okay – they don’t need to do anything. But if I am the right person, the reader will want to contact me so that we can start working together. As you can see, this thinking process gave me some great ideas about making the page much stronger and reader-focused. It’s many times stronger than if I had just sat down to write about myself. A rewrite With this new approach to my readers, I decided to do the following two things: •

Firstly, I rewrote my bio. I removed a bunch of jargon, and made sure that it better represented who I was and what I did.

Secondly, I wrote a new page called: “Why choose me?”.

My bio page is still written so that it’s about me – after all it’s my bio, so it needs to be. However, by following the process above, you can still write about yourself while keeping the focus on the reader.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

Here’s what I came up with:

Why would you choose me over someone else? High quality, appropriate results I have extensive information architecture and interaction design and writing skills; experience with a wide range of projects (intranets, websites, business systems and web applications) and experience with a wide range of industries (government, healthcare, e-commerce, insurance). For you this means: •

You get the right outcome for your project – you can be confident that I do have the right experience to produce a high-quality output

You don’t lose money while I learn how things work

I can learn about your domain quickly, saving you money and project time

You get my experience I actually have all the skills I’m selling. I’m not combining a team’s skills to sell you my services, then offering you a consultant who has none of the skills. You get me, and you get my experience. I play nice with others I get along with almost everyone, work well in teams and get my hands dirty to do what needs to be done.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy I also recognise that you are hiring me as an addition to your skill set. You already have smart people doing great work. I won’t tell them what to do or treat them like they don’t know what they are doing. We’ll work together to produce something great. I’m flexible I don’t have fancy, fixed methodologies and step-bystep approaches that I must follow. I’ll work in a way that suits you – after all, you are buying my skills, not a methodology. Need more? You can find out more about me and the type of work I do: •

My bio: this describes a little more about who I am and what matters to me

Information architecture: organising, structuring and labelling your content, plus designing navigation & page layouts

Interaction design: figuring out the workflow for applications, and designing screens and how they behave

Writing: writing web content from scratch, or improving your existing information

Teaching: my workshops and presentations represent what I do and how I think

And please contact me to find out more.


Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy

Summary When readers visit your content, they’re there for a reason. They may want to get something done, learn more or find answers. If you talk about yourself without explaining why it matters, you’ll lose them. But if you write for and to them, then they’ll be hooked on your words. To write for your readers, think about: •

Who would read your content?

Why they would read it (Note: use the “5 whys” trick)

What do they need to know and already know?

What should happen next?

Then write to them. Call them “you” and answer their questions, while also encouraging them to take the actions you want.

Follow-Up Reading •

Better Beginnings: how to start a presentation, book, article. Kathy Sierra. creating_passionate_users/2006/10/better_beginnin.html.

Who Needs Headlines? Shaun Crowley. http://www.

Why—who cares—so what. Donna Maurer. http://www.

Use An Authentic Voice When someone speaks to you directly, you do three things: Stop, pay attention and listen. This is a very common human attribute – we listen to each other when we speak. We can use this fact in our writing to help our readers pay attention to us. Writing that sounds like it was written by a real person, is referred to as “authentic voice” – one that is true and genuine. When we write with an authentic voice, our writing sounds like an edited version of the way we would speak in conversation. And when your writing sounds like a person is talking, then readers will listen.


Use An Authentic Voice

Two Examples Let’s start with my two favorite examples of copy that uses an authentic voice. Put yourself in this situation – you’ve just ordered something online, finished the checkout process and you get a confirmation email in your inbox. If you’re anything like me, you glance at it, and then promptly file it away, never to be looked at again. But imagine my surprise when I found myself actually reading an entire confirmation email one day. Here’s what it said:

Figure 4.1. The confirmation message from MOO ( is friendly and straightforward


Use An Authentic Voice

The funny thing about this is that the message clearly states it was sent by a piece of software, but it sounded so much like a person talking to me that I read the whole thing – I actually read a confirmation email – which most of us would never normally do! Here’s another example. Most mornings my inbox is full of things that people would like to sell me – usually coming from newsletters I’ve subscribed to. Most days I delete these without even reading them. But again, imagine my surprise when I discovered I was halfway through this email:

Figure 4.2. This email newsletter from Kitchenware Direct ( au) had me hooked


Use An Authentic Voice

Not only did I go on to read the whole thing, but I went ahead and bought the product. Usually I would have doubted a product like this would work. I did hesitate for a minute, but the story gave me such a good picture of the product that I felt sure it would work and that I wanted one. Why was the copy so successful? It isn’t an amazing piece of writing, but just like the example from MOO, it was written in an authentic voice. I felt like I was listening to someone talk to me. I couldn’t stop reading.

Advantage of Authentic Voice I mentioned above that writing in an authentic voice can make people pay attention to your writing. When you talk to people in a straightforward way, they listen. The other advantage is that people can understand what you mean a lot more easily. Because authentic voice is written in a similar way to how we speak, it is usually made up of simple words, strong verbs and nouns, and short sentences. Authentic voice helps you get to the point. Here’s an example that shows how an authentic voice can be much easier to understand. I was looking for a car last year and was reading reviews for the one I wanted. Here’s a paragraph I found: “The driver’s seat has sufficient travel; more reach adjustment for the wheel is necessary for tall drivers, who have to use the farthest seat position to gain adequate leg room, and are left with a locked arm driving position that is not conducive to good control” 

I’ve edited this a bit to protect the innocent, but believe me, the original was like this


Use An Authentic Voice

Do you think people really talk like this? In a conversation, do most people ever really say: “not conducive to good control”? Can you even figure out what the writer is trying to say? I figured it out eventually – it means that the seat slides back far enough for people with long legs, but they have to stretch out their arms to reach the wheel properly. That’s not a good position for driving. Here’s a similar passage from the Top Gear website. This sounds much more like someone is talking to you: “While headroom is adequate, legroom in the rear is poor and it’s almost impossible to squeeze three in side by side. The boot is also quite small for this class.” — Can you see that this second example gives you a much better picture? Do you get a feeling for how squashy that back seat must be? It works because it’s written like someone you know is speaking directly to you. Does your writing sound like the way you speak? If not, you may need to go back over it again and loosen it up.

Voice and Writing Tone It is important to note that authentic voice doesn’t have to be cute, chatty or informal. It just needs to sound like a human. Many organizations have a particular tone for their communications. Some want to sound professional, some need to convey credibility and others want to sound friendly. You can write with an authentic voice and still meet the guidelines for tone, since tone is made up of the message you are communicating, the words you choose and how you put them together.


Use An Authentic Voice

Here are some examples that demonstrate different tones, but are still written with an authentic voice. (Note: the first example is what not to do; and I made all of these up). •

What Not To Do: A new world requires a new form of publishing, one that allows consumers to get a rapid response to their information needs. At Rockable Press, we recognise the importance of providing credible, accurate resources, resulting in our commitment to engaging specialists in a topic to author long and shortform publications.

Credible and Solid: Rockable Press is a new publishing company with a new model. We publish in e-book format to get resources to you quickly and at a reasonable price. We work with authors who are seen as leaders in their fields and have a team of writers around the world.

Friendly and Approachable: At Rockable Press, we produce simple, straight forward how-to guides and resources for web and creative professionals. We are a small web publishing outfit operated by Envato with authors based around the world.

No matter what tone you are writing in, you’ll need to be consistent. There is nothing more disconcerting than reading something that jumps from one voice to another. Can you see the different voices in the following passage? Company X has been looking after American citizens for more than 75 years. We provide health insurance to nearly five million members and are committed to helping them lead healthier lives. No wonder we are America’s number one privately owned and managed health insurer.


Use An Authentic Voice In support of our core health business and broadening our appeal to our members, Company X has diversified into lifestyle management and financial services.

“One project, one voice” – this is the golden rule here. Pick a voice that suits your aims, and make sure your voice is consistent across multiple pages of copy.

How to Do It When you start writing a piece, just write. Write from top to bottom, exactly as you would if you were talking to someone. If it helps, actually talk to someone or say your key points out loud to yourself before writing. This is a particularly useful exercise if you find yourself slipping into writing that is too formal or corporate. I mentioned in the previous chapter that you should write to your readers, and call them “you”. When you write your first draft as if you are talking to them, this will happen naturally. Imagine you’re having a conversation. In conversation, people will respond – nodding, agreeing and asking questions. Think about what someone might ask you as you are writing, and answer their questions (don’t write the questions in, just answer them). That will make the writing flow and sound like a conversation. When you write your first draft, don’t worry about your grammar, spelling or sentence construction. You can fix those things later. Concentrate on getting your ideas down as if you’re talking to someone. The best way to learn how to write with voice is to practice by writing more often. Start a blog, send more emails, or keep a journal if you’re determined to improve.


Use An Authentic Voice

Summary When you write in an authentic voice, it sounds like a human is speaking. And guess what: people listen when someone talks to them! To write in an authentic voice: •

Write your first draft as if you were talking to someone.

Call the reader “you”.

Anticipate questions and include them in the flow.

Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or correct language. Just write (for now).

Write more and your voice will become stronger.

Follow-Up Reading •

Better Beginnings: how to start a presentation, book, article. Kathy Sierra. creating_passionate_users/2006/10/better_beginnin.html.

Conversational writing kicks formal writing’s ass. Kathy Sierra. passionate_users/2005/09/conversational_.html.

Advice for Common Pages Almost any web copywriting job will involve a main page, or “Home” page, and an “About Us” or “About” page. Other common pages are also “Services” or “Hire Me” pages, and an “About the Author” or “Bio” page. (Of course there’s also the “Contact” page, but this generally requires very little copy.) Since most projects will involve one or more of these pages, I’ve included some useful tips for each.


Advice for Common Pages

The Main / Home Page In general, the copy on a website’s main page will be read more often than copy anywhere else on the site. It’s also read at the point where new visitors are the least patient – they’ve just arrived on a site and have no idea whether it is worth their time or not. As quickly as possible, the main page copy you write needs to: (a) convince the visitor to stick around, and (b) get them to take the next step you want them to take.

Show Them That The Website Is What They’re Looking for Never assume that a new visitor has heard of you before. Because of this, you need to immediately explain what the website does, and why it matters. Depending on the nature of your site, this can be done in either a short paragraph, or even a single sentence. Just make sure that you are clear and get to the point.

Suggest Next Steps Even if you can show a visitor that your site has something to offer, patience is still in short supply. Who’s to say there’s not another site that can do the same thing, but better? If visitors are confused about what they should do next, they’ll wander off somewhere else. Because of this, it’s important that your main page copy clearly outlines the steps a new visitor will most likely want to take. This is why so many sites now offer a “Take the Tour” option on the main page – it offers a simple way to handhold new visitors on a journey through the site. It helps guarantee that visitors will see key information in the right sequence.


Advice for Common Pages

Simplicity Is Key The last thing you want to do is overwhelm a new visitor with information and possibilities. A great main page is elegantly simple, and aims to funnel visitors to relevant sections of the site, rather than have them wandering around lost and confused.

The About Page This is one of the first pages a new visitor will check when coming to a new website, since they will most likely want to know what the website is about and who is responsible for it. This is why the “About” page plays such an important role, and it can be the sole factor in determining whether a new visitor stays to learn more, or navigates away. As a result, having a great “About” page can help visitors find out what they need to know, and persuade them to stick around. Here are a number of ways you can do this:

Begin Your About Page with A Brief Summary of What The Site Offers Try and keep in mind that you are selling the site to someone who is still deciding whether to stay or leave. As a first sentence, “ is the place to learn how to shred guitar licks at blisteringly fast speeds,” is a much more compelling opening line than “Dan Smeltz founded in 2003 with long-time friend Paul Lee.” The first focuses on the benefits and what a new visitor will be missing out on if they leave, while the second is only of interest to those who already care for the site and perhaps already have a connection with its founders.


Advice for Common Pages

Avoid Diving Straight into Biographical Information about The Site’s Creator As mentioned in the previous point, this is only of interest to someone who already cares about the creator of the site – but a new visitor doesn’t necessarily have this connection yet. Instead, they simply want to know what they’re getting into.

Make It Work – Even If They Only Read The First Paragraph Your “About” page can be as long as you want, as long as it would still do its job if the visitor only ever read the first paragraph. Most will only ever read this far, anyway – especially if you’ve done your job well and made the site sound great. They’ll be too eager to experience what it has to offer and won’t be patient enough to stick around! If you cram your first paragraph with reasons to keep exploring the site, your “About” page will be doing its job.

An About Page Is Not A Contact Page Many people are tempted to put their contact form on their “About” page. Think about this, though – if you wanted to get someone’s contact details, would you ask them to tell you about themselves? Probably not. You would ask them for the specific piece of contact information you wanted. That’s why having a dedicated “Contact” or “Contact Us” page is so important. You don’t want to miss a single opportunity because someone couldn’t work out how to contact you.


Advice for Common Pages

The Services / Hire Me Page Favored by freelancers and service-based businesses, these types of pages are tricky to do well. Not only do you have to inform the reader about what you offer, you also need to persuade them to buy the service you are describing. Too often these pages are all information and no persuasion, or vice versa. A great “Hire Me” page will present a clever balance of both.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in Technical Detail In most cases, clients are looking to hire an expert because they themselves are not. Yet so many “Hire Me” pages are written from the perspective of one expert talking to another. What impresses your industry peers is unlikely to make sense to the uninitiated. Translate your skills into a language they understand.

Focus on The Benefits for The Prospect of the Outcome A service is always a means to an end. A web design is an investment aimed to bring more traffic or generate more sales. Seeing an accountant is an investment in a better – or less stressful – financial situation. If you understand the real benefits your service provides to your clients, you’ll be able to write great copy. It’s not about how good you make yourself sound – it’s about how good you make the reader feel about what life will be like after they hire you!

Get Testimonials If you’ve ever seen infomercials on television, you will have seen testimonials: ordinary people telling you why they love a product. While testimonials in infomercials are usually cheesy and poorly


Advice for Common Pages

acted, they are based on decades of marketing savvy and do actually work. We respond very well to endorsements from people we perceive as unbiased. Get some testimonials from past clients and add them to your “Hire Me” page, or to another page branching off from your “Hire Me” page – it will definitely help!

Publish a Client List A lot of people look to others for guidance on how to act. By demonstrating a list of reputable clients you’ve worked with before, you show your visitors that by hiring you (or your clients), they are following in the footsteps of others.

The About The Author / Bio Page As with an “About” page explaining the website itself, an “Author Bio” should be written with the new visitor in mind. While solidifying the loyalty of your best visitors is important, there are many other places where you can do this. But there is no better place to convert a first time visitor into a loyal reader, than when they’re reading your web copy. One of the first things a new visitor wants to know when they arrive at your site is – “Can I trust the information here?” This is a very reasonable question to have. You wouldn’t take a painting class from someone who could only draw stick figures. You wouldn’t trust a restaurant review written by the owner of the competing restaurant next door! Without proof of credibility and lack of bias, you can never completely trust the contents of a website. Without trust you won’t have loyalty, or leads, or sales.


Advice for Common Pages

Your Author Bio Page is the Perfect Place to Establish Credibility Start by talking about your experience, achievements, and if it’s significant, how long you have been involved in the industry. These things will make you seem like an expert and lend a sense of credibility to the site.

We Trust People We Like We tend to like the people who seem down to earth and who we can relate to – people with everyday interests and everyday concerns, so don’t shy away from adding something personal about yourself, but of course don’t overdo it either.

Visitors Want to Hear an Authentic Voice If you’ve ever met someone for the first time and felt like they were putting on a front that wasn’t genuine, you’ll know how hard it is to develop a lasting connection in those circumstances. By addressing visitors in a chatty, down-to-earth way, they’ll feel like they’ve had an authentic interaction with you. So once again, make sure you use an “authentic voice”.


Advice for Common Pages

Summary As a web copywriter, you will spend a lot of time writing different versions of the same type of page, i.e. “About” pages or “Hire Me” pages. There are some tried and tested techniques you can use to make sure each of these pages you produce is top-notch. •

Write for the benefit of the first-time visitor.

Focus on persuading a new visitor to stick around.

Establish credibility and remove fear of bias.

Always outline the benefits of your site, your product or your service.

Persuade with Your Copy Every website aims to have their visitors take some sort of action while they are on the site; whether it’s reading the content, downloading a file, buying a product, clicking on a link, or hiring a service. Without persuasive web copy, a website owner would have to rely on luck alone. Each visitor would be just as likely to take a completely different – possibly undesirable action, rather than the one you want them to take. With the help of good copy, luck is less necessary. We can write words that persuade visitors to take the actions we want. Good web copy is powerful – it can shape the actions taken by the thousands, or millions of people who read it.


Persuade with Your Copy

Writing Persuasive Copy Writing persuasive copy doesn’t mean that you had to have been an expert debater in high-school, or that you spend a lot of time trying to argue your opinions. The skills involved in writing persuasive copy are different. You aren’t trying to convince someone that you are right, or that your argument is the most logical – instead, you’re trying to persuade visitors that it is in their best interest to take the action you want them to take. Sometimes persuasion will be relatively easy – like convincing a visitor who has visited your “About” page to keep reading the rest of your site. Other times it will be much more challenging – like convincing a visitor to buy the $97 eBook you’re selling, or to commission a $2,000 web design from you. The tips and tactics you’ll learn in this section will help you regardless of the assignment you’ve been given.

1. Understand – Clearly – What You Want Visitors to Do If you want your visitors to do something, every word in your copy should be geared towards getting them to do that thing. Because of this, you shouldn’t type a thing until you know – clearly – what you want visitors to do as a result of reading your copy. Do you want them to sign-up for your newsletter, or should they buy your product straight away? Should they head-off to read your blog posts, or should they read other pages first? Copy is too-often weakened by the author’s lack of certainty on what they’d like the reader to do. Even when you would be happy for the user to take one of several possible actions after reading your copy (such as linking to you, or following you on Twitter) your


Persuade with Your Copy

copy should give precedence to the one thing you would most like them to do. Confusion is the enemy of action, so you want to give visitors a single next step after reading each page or section of your copy.

2. Open with The Benefits I’ve talked about benefits before in this book. That’s because they are a cornerstone of great copy. In most cases where a piece of copy isn’t doing its job properly and failing to persuade visitors to take the right action, you’ll find it is usually the result of neglecting to explain the benefits. Take the example of a web design service. So often, web designers talk about their rock-solid code, design experience, the languages they can work in and the many other features of their service. Features are important – they describe what the service is – but they overlook the real reason why a client looks to hire a web designer. A sleek, pretty site is nice, but probably not worth thousands of dollars on its own. What gets the client really excited are the benefits they believe the web design will bring – the extra traffic, the extra sales, the prestige, buzz and word-of-mouth that surrounds a great redesign. Yet I’ve still never seen a web designer refer to these things in their web copy – even though they are a prospective client’s main priorities. If web designers spent less time talking about pixels, code and browser compatibility, and more time talking about traffic, sales, buzz, word-of-mouth and branding, we’d have a lot more web designers getting hired (and that’s a free tip to any web designers reading this). But it also illustrates something that can be applied to any piece of copy, whether its stated aim is to sell an expensive service, or whether it’s just aimed at getting someone to drop you an email


Persuade with Your Copy

and say “Hi.”. You must communicate the real benefits of the action you want your visitors to take. For example: The real benefits of reading a free eBook on making money by selling stock digital files on a marketplace are: making money, doing something you love, earning money while you sleep, and having the freedom to choose how much time you spend on your projects. The real benefits of a course on making money blogging two hours a day isn’t the money itself, but the kind of lifestyle you’d be able to lead while working so little, though still earning a full time income. The real benefits of reading a blog on running marathons is that you will learn tips to help you run further, with less pain, and with more enjoyment – as a result, the time you spend on your hobby will be more rewarding. As you can see, no matter what action you want your visitors to take, you should always be able to isolate – and communicate – the real benefits they’ll receive by taking the action you want from them.


Benefits are the cornerstone of great copy, so make sure you identify and communicate to your readers the real benefits they will receive by taking the action you want them to take when visiting your site.


3. When You Really Need to Persuade, Use Problems You may not realize it, but any action you want your visitors to take could be the solution to a problem for them.


Persuade with Your Copy

If they buy your product on how to earn six figures a year as a freelance web designer, it’s because they have a problem: they don’t feel they are earning enough money yet. If they join your newsletter, it’s because they have a problem: they would be missing out on important content otherwise. If they hire you to write some web copy for them, it’s because they have a problem: their current web copy isn’t doing its job properly, and opportunities are being lost as a result. By highlighting the problem your visitors face, you prime them to be excited about a solution. This is why so many product sales pages begin by describing how bad it is to be in the reader’s current state – how bad it is to be poor, or dateless, or to sleep badly at night. Then, they introduce a solution – the product or service that will solve the problem. This tactic is effective, but it’s important that you only use it in moderation. For example, trying to use this tactic in copy aimed at encouraging people to follow you on Twitter will probably seem melodramatic! Few people are likely to feel pain about not following you on Twitter yet – unless of course the quality of your tweets are famous worldwide. On the other hand, when trying to convince someone to hire your logo design services, this tactic can dramatically boost the persuasiveness of your copy. Take a look at the example below: Are you unhappy with your logo – or don’t have one at all? Potential customers make snap-judgements about your business based on your branding. If your logo is lacklustre, they may see your entire business as secondrate. It’s a shame to repeatedly lose sales because of a bad first impression. There’s no reason why you should continue suffering because of a bad logo. We can help!


Persuade with Your Copy

While restating what the visitor may already be feeling is a powerful tactic, think about the visitor who may never have been aware there was a problem. They may have been aware their logo wasn’t the best, but didn’t understand that this could hurt their business. By describing aspects of the problem they might not have considered, you can turn an idle browser into an eager buyer. Remember: by using this tactic only on the most important actions you want a visitor to take – like buying a product, or hiring a service – you’ll make sure it’s as effective as it can possibly be, and that visitors don’t get stressed out.

4. Don’t Write an Essay – Copy is Different Most of us have been taught that if we want to persuade someone in writing, we do it in essay format. We lay out an overview of our argument, then proceed to go through and add detail to each point in sequence. Once we’ve done that, we write a powerful conclusion – landing a devastating blow on our reader’s few remaining resistances. Unfortunately, this process reads like a “what not to do” of writing great web copy. A wall of dense text means your copy is unlikely to even to be read, let alone be persuasive. The length of your copy depends on how challenging it will be to convince your reader to take action. Persuading a visitor to leave feedback on your portfolio items is not a big deal, so you don’t need to write a thousand words persuading the reader to do it. The potential gains are not high enough for them to bother reading something that long. On the other hand, you won’t convince a visitor to do something significant in just a few paragraphs. They won’t buy a $10,000 search engine optimization package from you without some


Persuade with Your Copy

considerable persuasion – and that takes time. Since the prospect is making a big decision in deciding for instance, whether to hire you or not, they’ll be willing to read more copy in order to make their decision. In this case, you would want to write something quite long, as this will be necessary in order to remove every possible objection. Another reason to avoid the essay format is that visitors who get bored will turn into visitors who go elsewhere. Your copy should be laid out in a way that is visually interesting. You can use formatting like bolding, italics, headings, block-quotes and colors to do this. Images also work well to keep things stimulating for the reader. As mentioned in Chapter 2, on a long page of copy, a reader will probably not read every word. They’ll dip in and out of the parts that interest them. If I’m considering buying a subscription to a premium membership area on a site, but my main concern is how much content I’ll get for my payment, I may skip a lot of information while seeking out the answer to my most pressing concern. Because of this, it’s important to signpost the different parts of your copy with headings that encapsulate your points. Your headings should contain your entire argument in brief - meaning even scanning readers can still be persuaded by it.

5. You’ve Got to Use “You” In section 4 we talked about how people respond best when someone speaks to them directly. When a person is addressing us, they use the word “you” a lot. It’s a word that piques our interest and a word we pay attention to. This is why it’s hard to find a piece of good web copy that doesn’t refer to the reader as “you”. If you don’t use this tool, you’ll be talking about a fictional customer or reader, and visitors will feel distanced from what you write. If


Persuade with Your Copy

you use the word “You” instead, it creates a powerful conditioned response in your readers. That response is to pay attention. This is essential when you’re trying to persuade someone.

6. Finish the Job by Removing All Objections It’s amazing how often people cling to objections. They might read a wonderful article, but decide that it has no value overall because they disagreed with a single one of the author’s many points – even though they agreed with all the rest! If your copy leaves your reader with even one remaining objection, this can be enough to render it powerless. An excellent way to structure your persuasive copy is to write down a list of all the possible objections a reader might have to taking the action that you want from them. Then write reasons why the objection isn’t valid. Let’s use the example of a page aimed at getting readers to buy a $19 eBook about making your home more energy efficient. Here are the objections a reader might have, and the answers the copy will offer (in brief form). •

Objection: $19 is too much for this kind of eBook. Answer: is it really, when the tips inside will save you hundreds of dollars a year in energy bills?

Objection: The book might involve changes to my home that are too complicated, time-consuming or expensive for me. Answer: every suggested method is extremely simple and costs little to set up.

Objection: If I don’t like the book, I will have wasted my money.


Persuade with Your Copy

Answer: the book comes with a lifetime 100% guarantee.

Objection: I don’t know if the author has the credentials to teach on this topic. Answer: the author has been featured in Green Living magazine and has been consulting businesses on sustainability for over ten years.

Objection: I could find the information for free, elsewhere. Answer: what you won’t find is the one secret tip the author uses to save over $1,000 in energy bills each year…

The final list is likely to be even longer, but you can see that by pre-empting every possible objection, and meeting it with a good answer to remove that objection, you can whittle-down the reader’s barriers to action. Aside from making your copy much more effective, an outline of this can give your copy good, sequential structure. Remember that persuading a user to make a big decision – like buying an expensive product – will result in a lot of objections. This is why your copy will need to be longer in these cases. Not because longer is automatically more effective, but instead, because you will need more words in order to cover the larger amount of objections that spring up when a reader faces a big decision.


Persuade with Your Copy

Summary Writing persuasive copy is a powerful skill that can take your website to the next level. It’s something your visitors will love too. •

Understand – clearly – what you want visitors to do after they read your copy.

Focus on benefits for the reader.

When you really need to persuade, highlight problems.

Don’t lay out your copy like an essay.

Refer to the reader as “You”, to get and hold their attention.

Remove objections one-by-one until there are none left.



Writing for Search Engines Throughout this book we’ve focused on writing for your readers – real human beings who need to get something done or want to learn something. Now it’s time to discuss a very important class of “reader” who is not actually human at all – search engines! The value a search engine gives to your site will strongly affect the amount of traffic you get from search. It’s worth taking the time to learn how to optimize your copy for search engines as well as real people. The way you write actually has a direct impact on how well you rank in the search engines. You need to write in a way that helps the search engine “understand” what your content is about and how relevant it is to the reader’s query. So this chapter discusses some of the key principles of search engine optimization (SEO). If you are writing web copy as a freelancer, you’ll be amazed at how much clients love this. In many cases, offering search engine optimized copy will allow you to price your services in a whole new price bracket, since these services are in high demand.


Writing for Search Engines

Two Things to Consider 1. The user has to be able to find your information via the search engine. 2. They will most likely be arriving somewhere in the middle of your website, and not at the home page. The main purpose of search engine optimization is to place your site higher in search results for more desirable searches. If you sell pink blankets, showing up as the fifth result in a search for “buy pink blankets” is clearly better than being the hundredth result. By using web copy to convince search engines that your site is relevant and important, you can increase both traffic and sales. While it’s easy to assume that everyone who visits your site will hit the main page first, this simply isn’t the case. Any page on your site can show up in search engines, so most search visitors will be arriving right in the thick of your site’s content. It’s important to think of ways you can help these visitors find their way around.

Concise, Keyword-Rich Content Search engines figure out what a page is about by reading its content – not just the words that you see on the page – but also things you don’t see that are in the code, like the alternate text for images, the page title and the meta description tag. To make sure the search engines know what your page is about and how relevant it is to a reader’s search you should:


Writing for Search Engines •

Be concise. It is easier to figure out what a page is about if your writing is concise, and you haven’t waffled (this is true for humans as well). Irrelevant information that isn’t consistent with the point of your page will cause search engines to see your site as less relevant in searches.

Include keywords that accurately describe the subject matter. All things being equal, a page that contains lots of relevant keywords will rank better than one that is full of irrelevant filler-copy. Think of what your information is really about, what type of traffic you are hoping to attract and make sure you include those words in your page. For example, I have information on my website about my workshops. I checked my content one day and realised that I hadn’t included the word “workshop” in the content – I had it in the navigation, and a human could tell by looking at the page that you were looking at the workshop section, but I hadn’t used it in the main text. If I had used the word “workshop” a few times, search engines would have viewed the page as much more relevant for that term.

Match your readers’ terminology. Your content must use the same terminology that your readers will be using to search. If your words and theirs don’t match, they’ll never make it to your pages. If I use the word “workshop” but my intended readers are all searching for “class” or “seminar” they’ll never make it to my website.


Writing for Search Engines

Titles and Headings Title Tag This is the text that appears at the top of your browser. The keywords in your title tag (<title> tag) are the most important way of telling search engines what your page is about. The title tag is also particularly important from a readers’ perspective. It’s what Google and other search engines display as the title on the search results page. The better your title, the more people will click on it. Make sure it is descriptive, accurate and contains good keywords. Description The Description tag (<meta name=”Description” >) is an important part of your website’s code that readers may not see, but search engines will. Some search engines will use it (or part of it) for the description of your listing in their results. Although it doesn’t really impact your rankings, like the Title tag, it’s critical to the number of people who click through to your website. Try to use your main keywords in the description, as close to the start as possible. Headings I suggested in chapter 2 that you should use headings so human readers can scan the page and find out what it’s about. The same holds-true for search engines. Use headings, again with good descriptive content, to help the search engines better understand your page.


Writing for Search Engines

Good Stuff at The Top In chapter 2, I mentioned that you should include the most important content, and even a good summary paragraph, right at the top of the page. This is useful for search engines as well – they assume that the content at the top of the page is more indicative of your page’s subject matter than the content at the bottom. This is another reason to make sure the first few paragraphs of your content summarise and contain the main idea of the page and the key points, using lots of relevant keywords.

Incoming Hyperlinks Another way that search engines, particularly Google, determine what your content is about is by looking at the wording of the links that come into your page (from other pages on your site, and from other websites altogether). This isn’t something you can always control, but, when you do control it, you should pay very close attention to how you do it. You can’t control how other people link to you, but when interlinking pages on your own site, you should try to use keywords and phrases you would like to appear high in the search results.

Update Regularly Search engines rank websites higher if they are updated and modified regularly, so this is a good reason to keep your copy fresh and up-to-date.


Writing for Search Engines

Summary All your copy should be search engine optimized to double its effectiveness. If you’re writing copy for clients, SEO copywriters can charge the highest rates in the industry. •

Use keywords in your content in a way that sounds natural.

Use titles and headings to tell search engines what your copy is about.

Interlink your pages with anchor text containing keywords.

Put your most important information early on in the copy.

Keep your copy fresh and regularly updated.

Follow-Up Reading •

Tip Number Seven – Writing Better Web Page Titles. D Keith Robertson. seven.php.

Writing usable titles for web pages. Dey Alexander.

SEO Secrets (e-book). Glenn Murray. http://www.

Conclusion With the help of a few key principles – ideas you’ve hopefully picked up through reading this book – and a little bit of practice, you can write great web copy. If you’re a designer, your clients will love – and gladly pay extra for the “all-in-one” service you offer. For many, having to find yet another freelancer to handle web copy after the design work has finished up is an inconvenience many clients will gladly pay big bucks to avoid. The skills you’ve picked up here will also do great things for your own websites, online portfolios or blogs. Any time you want your visitors to do something, the great web copy you write will push them in that direction.

Appendix A


Appendix A – Overview

Appendix A – Overview To finish up, let’s go over some key tips for writing exceptional web copy: •

Web copy should look good on the screen and be easy to scan without losing key ideas.

Know your intended audience and what they want.

Know what you want people to do as a result of reading your copy.

Describe the benefits of taking the action you want – don’t get stuck on features.

Write about what matters to the reader, not what matters to you.

Write in your natural voice so you can build a stronger connection with readers.

Include search keywords in your copy for extra traffic.

You are providing a professional service, so use professional-level spelling, grammar and presentation.

These tips will help you on your way, but web copywriting is a challenging skill – one you’ll only improve at with practice. If you’re not yet confident enough to write your own copy or take on client work, here are some exercises you can do to work on your web copywriting chops!


Appendix A – Overview 1. Write down a list of benefits provided by a product, aimed at its target audience (for example, an iPhone, a new web design). 2. Rewrite a page of copy from a famous website, then show the original and your version to a friend who hasn’t seen the site before, and ask them to pick which version they believe is the original. This exercise will tell you how good you’re getting! 3. Write the copy for a fictional website – or better yet, actually make the website and fool your friends into thinking it’s the real deal!

Remember, though, that while practicing is worthwhile, freelancers often maintain that it’s best to learn on the job. You’ll be motivated to do good work, will be getting paid for your time, and will learn plenty of skills you can’t properly recreate without a client, like working to a deadline, communicating about the work and dealing with feedback and revisions. Now you’ve finished reading Copywriting for the Web, get out there and start writing!

Appendix B


Appendix B – Further Reading

Appendix B – Further Reading If you feel like you’ve discovered a new love – or at least a skill you’d like to develop further – here’s a list of great books and resources on copywriting.

Copywriting Resources Books Bayan, Richard, (2006). Words That Sell, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Thesaurus to Help You Promote Your Products, Services and Ideas. McGraw-Hill. Bly, Robert (2006). The Copywriter’s Handbook, Third Edition: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Copy That Sells. Holt Paperbacks. Eisenberg, Bryan; Eisenberg , Jeffrey and Davis , Lisa T. (2002). Persuasive Online Copywriting: How to Take Your Words to the Bank. Wizard Academy Press. Kranz, Jonathan (2004). Writing Copy for Dummies. For Dummies. Redish, Janice (2008). Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. Morgan Kaufmann. Veloso, Maria (2004). Web Copy That Sells: The Revolutionary Formula For Creating Killer Copy Every Time. AMACOM. Wuebben, Jon (2008). Content Rich: Writing Your Way to Wealth on the Web. Encore Publishing.


Appendix B – Further Reading

Websites And Blogs Copyblogger – Men With Pens – Divine Write –

SEO Copywriting Resources Books Jones, Kristopher B. (2008). Search Engine Optimization: Your Visual Blueprint for Effective Internet Marketing. Visual. Kent, Peter (2008). Search Engine Optimization for Dummies. For Dummies. Moran, Mike and Hunt, Bill (2008). Search Engine Marketing, Inc.: Driving Traffic to Your Company’s Web Site (2nd Edition). IBM Press. Murray, Glenn (2009). SEO Secrets (e-book). http://www. Websites And Blogs SEOBook – Search Engine Land – SEOmoz Blog –


Appendix B â&#x20AC;&#x201C; Further Reading

General Writing Resources Books Strunk, William Jr, White E.B. (1979). The Elements of Style (4th ed). Longman Publishers. Tredinnick, Mark (2006). The Little Red Writing Book. UNSW Press. Truss, Lynne (2005). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Profile Books. Snooks & Co (revised by) (2002). Style manual for authors, editors and printers. Sixth edition 2002. Wiley. Zinsser, William (1976). On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Quill.

About The Author Author Donna Spencer is a freelance writer, information architect and interaction designer from Australia. The majority of her work relates to large government websites, and sheâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s served on various boards including the Information Architecture Institute (international). She runs a variety of workshops and speaks at both local and international conferences on a regular basis. Donna has also written a book called Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories, and she runs an annual conference on user experience called UX Australia ( You can find out more about Donna Spencer at:



Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you