Your business needs content and copy. How to get better at writing both.
Every business needs both content and copy. In a nutshell, copy helps your business sell and content helps it get found. Do you want your business site to perform better in either of those ways? Improving the content and copy on your site might help.
Before we dig into how you can improve your content writing and copywriting skills, let’s talk a little about what content is, and how it contrasts with copy. (Or how content writing contrasts with copywriting.)
Suppose you own three restaurants and you have a website that has a blog and you also post cooking videos. You have an online reservation system and an online store selling branded merchandise. Occasionally, you run a Facebook ad and place an ad in a local glossy magazine.
Your blog and your videos are content. The primary purpose of that content is to inform and/or to entertain your website visitors.
Its primary purpose is not to sell or to get website visitors to do anything else (such as sign up to a newsletter). Of course, you hope that eventually your content will result in customers. After all, you’re in business and need to make money and content marketing is marketing. But getting visitors to do something is a secondary, indirect purpose of content — after informing or entertaining them.
The copy on your website is different. It might also inform or entertain, but that’s not its primary purpose. The words in your online store are supposed to persuade your readers to take an action — e.g. to buy a tote bag or a t-shirt with your restaurant logo on it.
Even the words on your homepage are intended to get visitors to do something (although not necessarily to buy right away).
You don’t want visitors to go to your home page and think, “Oh, that’s nice” and leave. You might want them to visit your online store, or to make a reservation at your restaurant, or to sign up to your e-newsletter. The primary purpose of your home page is to get visitors to do something.
(This is a fatal mistake that lots of businesses make on their websites. Have you ever visited a site and been bombarded with so much information that you’re overwhelmed and can’t even find the contact button or the store’s open hours?)
The copy in your Facebook and magazine ads is also intended to get readers to do something — perhaps to visit your website or call to make a reservation.
Of course, talking in terms of primary and secondary purposes is a bit vague and fuzzy, and there are cases where there’s overlap. But that’s the general gist of the difference between copy and content.
Businesses need both content and copy
With these explanations in mind, you can see that your business needs both content and copy.
When writing the words for your website, keep your goals in mind. Why are you writing this? Is it to inform or entertain? Or is to persuade a reader to take an action? Confusing the two can get poor results and be annoying to your reader.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently subscribed to a famous copywriter’s email list. I signed up, expecting to receive something that would be valuable to me. (Why else does anyone sign up to an email list?) I was expecting advanced copywriting tips, maybe summaries of research relating to copywriting, and so on.
Instead, I was blasted with sales pitch after sales pitch for the author’s advanced copywriting course! This copywriter couldn’t stop himself from trying to sell, apparently. But it meant that I unsubscribed after a few emails.
He may have turned me into a customer if he hadn’t tried to sell in all his emails.
He would have been better off giving me information. But his emails were all copy and no content. Even if that was the best advanced copywriting course on the planet, I wasn’t interested in buying it.
Of course, adding a little copy (e.g. a call to action) at the bottom of your otherwise informative email or blog post is a good idea. Readers know you’re running a business. If they feel your email or blog post was worth reading, they’re more likely to visit your website or to subscribe to your email list or whatever. And you’ve moved them one step closer to making a purchase.
Resources to help you get better at content writing and copywriting for your business
If you want to get better at copywriting, there are TONS of online resources that can help you. (In the next section, I’ll give you some tips you can put into action right away.) Here are few articles to get you started:
There are also lots of online courses you could take. Although I haven’t taken any of these particular Copywriting Courses, I have taken another of Belinda Weaver’s courses (which she did with Carol Tice) and it was awesome. (Weaver even has a free mini-course so you can see if you like her teaching style.)
And to get better at content writing, I recommend two books:
On Writing Well is a classic. I was expecting it to be old-fashioned when I first read it a few months ago, but it’s not. It’s an easy, enjoyable read. I recommend it for beginners — but even advanced writers will find valuable reminders.
And a book specifically for writing content that I recommend is Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes.
Writing tips to use immediately
Here are some tips you can put to use immediately to improve your copywriting and content writing for your business. (They’re more straightforwardly applicable to content writing than copywriting. Content writing is closer to ‘ordinary’ writing than copywriting is.)
Give yourself permission to write a cruddy first draft.
It’s OK. It really is. When I talk with people who don’t write much but want to write for their business, this is often a big stumbling block: They think they’re terrible writers because their writing doesn’t come out fabulous the first time around. But, remember, all excellent writers edit what they write. Indeed, a major part of being a skilled writer is being a skilled editor. Nobody’s first draft is fabulous.
Often, it is not until you are in the editing stage that you spot the overly complex sentences, with multiple clauses, and a lack of contractions, and you can reorganize and simplify them to make them easier to read. (Ha, did you see what I did there?) I find the Hemingway app useful for spotting horrible sentences.
When you edit, you reorganize sections and delete words, sentences, and paragraphs. You replace ordinary words with more powerful ones.
If you’re me, you also take out about 90% of the parentheses you had in the first draft, 98% of the swear words, and 99% of the ellipses…
Generally speaking, you should avoid jargon. There are exceptions, though. If some terminology is appropriate and easily understood by your audience — even if it’s not by outsiders — then it can be preferable to use the insiders’ jargon. This is true especially if it means you can use one word instead of ten.
Instead of thinking of yourself as writing to your audience in general, it might help to write to a specific person. If you have an ideal customer, try imagining you’re writing a letter to them.
You can test if you sound like a human by reading aloud what you’ve written. If you sound like a robot, then you’ve got a problem. A simple thing you can do to sound more human is to use contractions (I’ll, I’d, you’d, can’t, etc).
Some writers record themselves reading their work out loud. Then, after a break, they listen to the recording to detect where they drifted away from conversational writing.
Show your personality
Don’t feel like you have to sound the same as everyone else in your industry. But don’t try too hard to sound like something you’re not.
Having your own point of view and opinion on topics relevant to your industry is great too. You may get some haters, but you’ll also find people who love what you have to say. (So long as you can back it up with solid reasons. Being controversial for the sake of it is just a way of being bullshitty and annoying. In my opinion.)
Here are some practical tips for developing your tone of voice from Ann Handley: 5 Keys to Developing a Strong Tone of Voice in Your Content Marketing
Be clear, and be kind to your customer
In both your copy and your content, ditch typical businessy-sounding words that don’t mean much. Get to the root of what you’re trying to say and say it more simply. Have some empathy for your dear reader! They don’t want to read business gobbledygook any more than you do.
Write less about yourself and your business, and think more about your customers. A mistake that many businesses make on their homepage is to go on about how fantastic they are. (We have decades of experience. Or: We are synergistically disruptive while we leverage the cutting edge. Or whatever.)
Think about what your customers want. They want something when they come to your website. If they came into your store or your restaurant or your office, you or someone on your team would welcome them and offer to help them. You wouldn’t start going on about how you’ve been in business for 32 years. Why does it matter to them if you’ve been in business since 1987? Why does it make a difference to them if your business is synergistic or disruptive or any-other-buzzword?
Think in terms of the benefits to your customers and make sure those benefits are 100% crystal clear to your site visitors. They want to know what you can do for them. After every piece of copy on your website, imagine a grumpy customer asking, “So what?” Keep asking and answering that question to get as deep as you can. In your copy, tap into the most fundamental benefits you provide. (Belinda Weaver’s free mini-course that I mentioned above walks you through the process of ‘translating’ the features of your products or services into benefits.)
In your content, think about the questions your customers ask before buying from you. Try to be helpful in your blog posts and other content. Anticipate and answer their questions as well as you can. (Keyword research can help with the anticipation part. That’s a topic for a whole nother blog post.)
If a word isn’t adding anything, cut it. Same goes for sentences and paragraphs. Even if it’s a beautiful paragraph, kill it. You can save it to spark another blog post or article. This does not mean your content has to be short. It just means it has no unnecessary verbiage.
Dickens would have been bottom of the class for writing for the web. Although you don’t want all your sentences to be super-short, you’ll want to avoid overly complex, serpentine sentences.
Use short paragraphs and plenty of white space. This makes your writing easier to read on a screen.
Edit (and edit again)
So, you gave yourself permission to write a cruddy first draft. Awesome! You have words on the page. Now you have to put in the work of editing to turn that draft into something excellent.
Ideally, have someone else to read it and give you feedback. Bear in mind that they may not be your target audience. You get to make the final decisions, but it’s helpful to see your words through someone else’s eyes. They can tell you where they didn’t understand what you were trying to say, or where they got bored.
You might find it valuable to attend a writing group to have a bunch of people who can give feedback. And to whom you can return the favour, so you don’t feel like you’re imposing.
It’s easier for people to give you feedback on content writing — because it’s more like ‘ordinary’ writing. Copywriting is a different beast. Most people don’t know the psychological principles behind persuasive copywriting. So there’s not much point asking most people to give you feedback. The best thing to do is to find a fellow copywriter to give you feedback. If you take a copywriting course (and you should, if you’re going to do your own copywriting!) offer to team up with a classmate to give one another feedback.
In addition to the things I mentioned above (being conversational, having personality, being clear and concise), editing is also about organization. Your content needs to flow logically and the order needs to make sense to your reader.
In your first draft, you might make points A and B in one paragraph and point C in the next. But your piece might make more logical sense if you explain B first, then C, then A — and spend a paragraph on each point separately. Definitely pay attention to the logical structure of your piece.
Now, go make magic!
Content writing and copywriting are skills — and like any other skill, we get better by gaining knowledge and practicing what we’ve learned. Luckily, the internet is a cornucopia of resources that can help anyone improve their writing skills, at every level of expertise.
If you’re a business owner or entrepreneur, my Mission Support is designed to keep you on track as you write your own blog posts for your business. I provide extensive feedback on every post. To get better at something, nothing beats doing it and committing to continuous learning at every stage.
Although writing can be hard work, it feels magical when you know a piece of writing nails it. It feels even more magical when you look at your website analytics and see the results. :)
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