The Definitive Guide to Copywriting by Neil Patel & Joseph Putnam

The Definitive Guide to Copywriting

Chapter Five

Why Your Copy Shouldn't Be about You and Six Other Proven Tips for Better Writing

If you can’t turn yourself into a consumer, you probably shouldn’t be in the advertising business at all.
David Ogilvy

In this chapter we’re going to dive deeper into the writing aspect of copywriting. We’ve mainly covered research and persuasion techniques up to this point. Now, we’d like to look at the writing side more closely by answering this question: How good do your writing skills need in order to write persuasive copy?

The good news is that you don’t need to be the world’s foremost grammarian. Perfect grammar and straight A’s in English aren’t required to write copy that sells.

But on the other side of the coin, you do need to be a good writer. You need to be able to write copy that connects with your audience and clearly communicates your message. Sometimes this means breaking a grammar rule or two to get your point across, but if you break rules unknowingly, you’ll lose credibility.

You need to write well enough that you don’t lose credibility with your audience by using poor grammar and not catching typos.

On one hand, you don’t have to be the world’s absolute best writer to write persuasively. On the other hand, you do need to improve your writing skills as much as possible in order to clearly get your point across and effectively sell your product in print.

Let’s talk about how to become a better writer now.

Rule one Why you copy shouldn’t be about you

This may seem counterintuitive, but an important rule for writing better copy is to not focus your copy on yourself. It’s also a rule that a lot of people break.

Most businesses break this rule by writing business-centric copy instead of customer-centric copy. They write about how awesome they are and how great their product is, failing to focus on their customers and selling them what they’re looking for. This is a bad way to write and a bad habit a lot of companies have.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to spot this kind of writing. Company-focused copy uses “we” much more than it does “you.”

Here’s an example of company-focused copy (a style you’ve probably seen before):

Can you see the problem here? All of the copy is focused on the company. It uses “we” and “our” over and over again. Everything is written as a description about the company.

Here’s what’s wrong with this type of copy: customers don’t care enough about you and what you do. They care about themselves and what you can do for them. They care about you in the context of how you can help them accomplish their goals.

Thus, all of your copy should focus on the customer. Everything you write should be something that appeals to them and shows how you can meet their needs. That’s the point of your copy, and that’s really the point of being in business in the first place.

The secret is that you can write about yourself so long as it’s in the context of providing value for your customers. It’s ok to write about yourself if you’re providing information that’s useful to the people who may want to do business with you, but it’s not ok to write about yourself just for the sake of writing about yourself.

Here’s an example of the right way to write customer-centric copy for the same cleaning service described above:

Can you tell the difference? This copy replaces the use of “we” and “our” with “you,” “your,” and “yourself.” This simple change of perspective makes the copy much, much more customer focused. Instead of merely describing the cleaning company, it explains what the cleaning company offers in the context of the customer and how the service helps busy professionals free up more time for themselves.

This version is much more interesting to prospective customers, and it’s exactly how you need to write all of your copy. You need to write about your business in the context of how it helps your customers by focusing on their needs, by using “you” more than “we,” and by making sure your copy explains how you will help the customer instead of only providing a boring description of your business.

This is the first writing rule that will make you a better copywriter.

Rule two Write conversationally

The next rule is to write conversationally since that’s the whole point of writing anyway. The act of writing is a conversation between the author and the reader. It’s not the act of getting ideas onto paper; it’s a conversation that takes place after a piece of writing gets completed.

In a normal sales process, a salesman talks with customers in person. He shows up, greets the customer, and proceeds to talk about the product or service he’s selling. The only difference with copy is that it doesn’t take place in person.

Copy ends up being a conversation between your company and your prospective customers. Your company has a message to get across so it’s talking with customers online or in print.

Thus, you want your copy to be as conversational as possible. You should use words and phrases you would use in everyday conversation and write in a very similar way to the way you speak. Don’t feel like you need to sound important or erudite when you write. This will put your readers to sleep and make you seem arrogant and self absorbed. You’ll end up seeming boring and stodgy.

The Digital Telepathy “Hire Us” page is a great example of this. Here’s what the top half looks like:

Here are a few standout points from this copy:

  • The section begins with a question: “Are we a good fit for your project?” Asking a question is a great way to start a conversation. The copy that follows answers the question in a simple, straightforward, conversational manner without attempting to use extra big words to seem important. It uses phrases like “bang for your buck” which are very conversational.
  • The second headline is also simple and straightforward: “Get in Touch and Grab the DT Playbook.” “Grab the DT Playbook,” for example, is a phrase that would easily come out in an everyday conversation. It doesn’t sounds stiff or formal and adds a touch of personality to the page.

Keep this in mind when writing your copy: Your customers want to have a conversation with you. They’re not interested in talking to a faceless organization. They want to talk to a person. Your copy should make them feel like they are.

Rule three Create a slippery slide

In addition to writing conversationally, you need to write your copy so that each sentence compels the reader to continue reading until all of your copy gets read.

Legendary copywriter Joseph Sugarman called this creating a “slippery slide.” He talked about writing copy so compelling that readers couldn’t stop reading until they arrive to the end. Here’s what he had to say about it:

As mentioned before, this rule starts with the headline. You need to write a headline so compelling that prospects have to read the sentence that follows. Next, your first sentence should compel them to read the second sentence, and so on.

Each section of your copy, each new sentence and new paragraph, should work together to draw the reader in and keep him reading until he gets to the end. None of the copy should be unnecessary. Every sentence should function to propel the reader forward.

So how exactly do you write copy like this?

First, keep the reader in mind at all times. Consider things like, “Would the reader be bored at this point? Would he be interested in what I’m saying? Is this sentence confusing? Is this paragraph necessary? Am I going to lose anyone with this point?”

Always consider how the prospect will respond as you’re writing the copy. If it’s boring, she’ll go on to read something else. If it’s confusing, she’ll stop out of frustration. You want to constantly be thinking about the reader’s needs, desires, and interests. You need to always write copy that keeps each and every prospect reading.

Second, only write as much as you need to write and no more. Does your point strengthen your copy and bring your prospect one step closer to buying? Good, then make sure to include it. Or is it tangential, and is there a chance that the prospect will get lost and move on to something else? If so, leave it out.

Copy Hackers provides a great example of this type of copy. Their homepage headline and sub-headline reads as follows:

Can you tell what’s so effective about this headline? It almost requires you to keep reading. After finishing, you pretty much have to continue to find out what comes next. It’s a cliffhanger that forces you to go on. There’s enough information and context to get your interest, but they hold enough back that you have to go on to read the next sentence to learn more about the offer.

That’s exactly how you want to write your headlines and copy. You want to write them so your prospects have to go on to learn more about what you’re offering.

Rule four Write quickly

This rule may seem counterintuitive to good writing, but one thing you need to learn to write copy more effectively is to write quickly.

The first reason is that when you write quickly, you use more of the emotional side of your brain. Instead of stopping to rethink everything and to rewrite on the spot, you let the copy flow from the way you feel about the subject you’re writing about. This is good for writing persuasive copy that appeals to your customers emotions (something we talked about in chapter four).

The second reason is that it’s much easier to improve words that are on paper than it is to write a perfect draft the first time around. Rewriting, i.e. editing, improves your copy much more than taking hours to write a first draft. Actually, rewriting is the number one secret of professional writers. They don’t always have the most polished first draft, but they’re excellent at editing their prose until it’s nearly perfect.

Don’t worry too much about your first draft. Take a stab at the copy and get something onto paper. Once it’s there, you can take the time needed to edit it and get it ready for publishing. Most writers consider this to be the most important part of the writing process. The first draft is just a way to get a rough draft that’s ready for editing. The second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts are when the writing gets polished and turned into a gem.

Rule five Use simple language

The next rule to follow for better writing is to use simple language in order to make sure your copy isn’t too technical or too complicated for your readers.

Here’s one the main reasons: It’s widely believed that the average reading level is between the 7th and 8th grade. It’s likely that the majority of your customers read at this level.

If you end up writing at a level that’s too high, it’s possible that your copy will be lost on your customers. They may not understand your vocabulary and may have trouble with your complex sentence structure.

Take the previous sentence as an example. It could have been written with “diction” and “syntax” instead of “vocabulary” and “sentence structure,” but the former would be understood by a much smaller audience. Some customers will understand, but a large percentage will not.

Instead of showing off your extensive vocabulary and making yourself feel important, it’s better to choose words that reach the largest number of people because you don’t want to write in a way that alienates a significant percentage of your customers.

Writing for a highly educated audience is an exception to this rule. If you’re writing a sales letter to recent Harvard grads, then you have full right to flex your well-defined vocabulary muscles. But if you’re not, it’s better to use words that everyone will understand.

Rule six Use short paragraphs

This rule works for online copy because shorter paragraphs are easier to read online.

There’s a study from 2004 to back this up. The Eyetrack III study conducted by the Poynter Institute revealed that shorter paragraphs received twice as many eye fixations as long ones. What does this mean exactly? It means that readers read text with short paragraphs twice as much as text with longer ones.

Short paragraphs end up being a lot less intimidating online. We can deal with long paragraphs in print, but online it’s daunting.

This can end up being a hard rule to apply since we were all taught to write longer paragraphs in grade school, but online it just won’t work. If you want to create a slippery slide that keeps readers engaged, then you’ve got to use shorter paragraphs.

If you end up writing a traditional print sales letter, you don’t have to worry about this tip as much. You can write longer paragraphs and not be as worried about losing your readers. But if you’re writing a blog post or website content, remember to use shorter paragraphs to break up the text and make your copy less intimidating.

Rule seven Always get your copy edited

The last rule, but possibly the most important, is to always get your copy edited.

Here’s why: It’s nearly impossible for you to find every mistake in your own copy. Even if you’ve put it aside for a few days, which is a great idea, it’s too difficult to find every error in copy you’ve personally written. You’re too close to the copy, too subjectively involved.

But are typos and grammar mistakes really a problem? Yes, they are.

They’re a problem because they erode your credibility. You can get away with a mistake here or there in a blog post, but if your homepage copy or sales brochure has typos, people won’t be able to take you seriously. They’ll question your credibility. If you can’t write an error-free piece of copy, can the rest of the work you do be trusted?

Grammar mistakes cause you to lose credibility with your target audience.

As a general rule, you always want to get your copy edited by someone else. Preferably this will be a professional writer or editor who has experience with proofreading and copy editing. Someone who has experience with editing is much more likely to catch your mistakes.

At the very least, you need to have someone else at your business read your copy over. Preferably it will be someone who has a good eye for clear writing and an understanding of grammar. The simple fact that someone besides yourself edits your copy means mistakes are more likely to get caught. Thus, to avoid having your credibility undermined, you need to make sure someone always edits your copy.

Bringing It All Together

In this chapter we talked about seven ways to improve your writing. Once you begin writing copy, you don’t have to become a grammar genius, but you do need to improve your writing enough to connect with your audience and write compelling copy. To do so you need to remember to:

  • Write copy for your customers and not simply to talk about yourself
  • Conduct a conversation with your prospects
  • Create a slippery slide that compels readers to continue
  • Write quickly to engage the emotional side of your brain and to not overthink your copy
  • Use simple language your customers will understand
  • Write short paragraphs that break up your text online
  • Get your copy edited so you don’t lose credibility with your prospective customers

By following these rules, you’ll become a better writer and be better prepared to write copy that compels your customers to take action.

In the next chapter we’ll talk about more pro tips for writing persuasive copy. Let’s go on and talk about that now.