What You Should Know About Copywriting

Copywriting, mostly associated with marketing, is a part of writing for businesses, but its particular purpose is to generate a response, making it very different in practice. Copywriting is often tested and based on statistics rather than personal preference, though overall styles may be defined. This means that the actual wording of writing for marketing purposes may be decided by how people respond to it, not by the principles of what is considered to be good writing.

If your audience responds better to long sentences than short sentences, long sentences are better. If your audience responds better to complicated or abstract words, they are better than simple and clear words. The same could be said of other fields, of course, but copywriting typically has the mechanisms in place to produce such analysis.

For the most part, this is simply putting theory into ruthless practice: I have said that the best writing is the most appropriate for the purpose, and the audience. In copywriting, there are simply ways to test the most effective writing – by splitting variations of emails for different audiences, for example, or by running adverts in different regions, and analysing link clicks or sales.

This is fine for dictating style issues, but it is important to recognise when the results undermine accepted rules of English. If incorrect punctuation produces a better result, for example, it may be due to a misunderstanding. Genuine errors in English, after all, are those that make a message unclear, so if the tested results go against the most accepted rules of English, the writing may actually be misleading (and even if not, such inaccuracies may create a bad image for a business).

Before you get to the stage of testing your writing, you can start with the principles highlighted throughout this book. Aim for language that is clear and simple, and use specialist language only when it is appropriate for your audience. Use exceptions rarely to avoid them losing their impact. Read widely to understand what your readers expect and already know.

Copywriting can be the reverse of formal business and academic writing. Generally, marketing copy needs to be informal, direct, and accessible, as the purpose is to engage and persuade rather than to present a company or idea professionally. 

Exactly how informal your marketing copy can depend on the market, but generally light, friendly copywriting is more effective at engaging people. The exceptions are in industries where the subject matter is necessarily serious and customers are searching for security and assurance; for example, in finance or funeral care. Even in these cases, though, copywriting should be aimed at making a personal connection.

With this in mind, copywriting is one of the main areas where the second person perspective is used, particularly to ask questions of the reader, or to try and transport them to a different place. Emotional language can also be used, particularly if it generates curiosity, urgency, fear, or excitement. Open questions are useful for this:

  • Which of these sofas will change your life? (the curiosity of what this product can do for you)
  • Can you afford not to read this book? (the fear of missing out)
  • If you like chocolate, you’ll love McChoco Lollipops. (the excitement of a new way to enjoy an existing passion)

Copywriting can be a very creative area. You can experiment with flamboyant language and broken sentences, for example. Also, consider the flexible rules of writing headlines, and take guidance from fiction and storytelling. Often, the same elements that make a good story engaging work for marketing, too, including the principle of Show Don’t Tell.

Writing to produce a response goes beyond these principles, however. It is a science that has been well served by a number of excellent books. 

The techniques in style guides such as Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 1999) help produce accurate English, while books on copywriting craft can offer tested techniques for the business of selling through writing. Writing that Works (Roman & Raphaelson, 2000) is a good introduction to the art of business writing, while Andy Maslen’s books, such as Write to Sell (2009), give scientific and accessible advice on writing to generate a response.

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