When we think of the writing process, we either picture manic messiness with bursts of inspiration or slow torture with blank page staring contests.
If a piece of long-form writing is looming, the prospect of getting something – anything – on the page can be daunting. But despite preconceptions, the creative process for copywriting can be moulded into a methodical structure.
This article does just that, aiming to make your writing workflow easier, more productive and less intimidating.
Because who doesn’t love organised fun?
1. Read the brief
Every copywriting project should have a detailed brief. A brief allows you to collect all the information you need surrounding a project, so you are fully clued up on the whats and the whys before you start writing. It will also help you gauge how long the project will take, so you can plan (and price) your time accordingly.
A brief should include:
- A summary: a synopsis of the project, the deliverables and what the overall goal is.
- Background information: a brief history of the client and their mission.
- Target audience: who is the writing aimed at, including demographics and characteristics.
- The task: a detailed outline of the task, including word count.
- Keywords: a list of primary and secondary SEO keywords.
- Sources: a list of links and publications that will help in the research stage, including competitors.
- Style guide: tone of voice, including examples, as well as formatting and punctuation dos and don’ts.
- Links, assets or CTAs that need to be included in the piece.
- Contact: details of the person who should be contacted for queries and sign off.
Unfortunately, not all briefs are this detailed. Sometimes, your brief is merely the uttered words ‘write a blog post’. When this happens, it’s up to you to fill in the blanks with a brief of your own. While you can deduce some, if not most, of the information solo, do push back and ask for a style guide from the client. This will minimise questions, queries and corrections further down the line. If you are building your own brief of sorts, you will also need to factor this time into the mix.
Free creative reign may feel liberating, however we would recommend making your client aware that you’ll be using best practise in terms of punctuation and dos and don’ts. This is to cover your back in case they attempt to nit-pick the final result, as any toing and froing of amendments could be avoided with a brief.
If you have been given a brief, read it thoroughly. If anything is unclear, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. You might feel like you’re being a nuisance, but it’s better to clarify all the details from the start.
Once you’ve read it, it’s a good idea to write a paragraph of sample copy on the topic and send it to the client for feedback. It doesn’t have to be detailed, as this exercise is to check you’re on the right track before continuing.
2. Research relentlessly
Research is the single most important part of writing good copy. Ogilvy, the Father of Advertising, said you should “stuff your conscious mind with information”. He had a point. When researching, you’ll be expected to pass as an authority on the topic by stuffing your mind as quickly as possible with all the information you can find about it.
If you’ve been given links in the sources section of your brief start with these, but if you’re taking on this responsibility yourself you should start with a few online searches around your topic area.
If you haven’t been given sources, use the keywords list in your brief as search terms. This will not only show you what to aim for when writing but will show the competition you’re up against.
If you haven’t been given a keywords list download the Keywords Everywhere plug-in. Begin by searching the core topic, then the plug-in will reveal a list of variations as well as their popularity, giving you a few more leads. Rinse, repeat.
While you’re researching, look for credible articles, facts, statistics, testimonials and case studies and make note of anything that you want to reference. Better still, speak to experts on the subject. To find these, look to see who’s already been quoted in other articles, scour Twitter or use a website like Expertise Finder to see if there are any academics who specialise in your topic.
3. Question everything
Ask questions about the project, the topic, the audience and everything you’ve just learnt in your research. Why? Because answering these questions will help you determine the intention of the copy and will give you building blocks to expand from so you’re only including relevant information that the person reading it will want to see.
Ann Handley, marketer and writer extraordinaire, explains this step best…
“Be sure you know the purpose or mission or objective of every piece of content that you write. What are you trying to achieve? What information, exactly, are you trying to communicate? And why should your audience care?”
For example, let’s say you’re writing a blog post about beginners’ running tips for a fitness tracker brand. Here’s some questions you might ask and the answers that will help your writing:
Who am I writing this for?
Running novices who need basic running tips and who may be thinking about buying a fitness tracker to aid them.
What information does the reader want to see?
Useful and practical advice, like warming up and pace recommendations, that will equip them with the knowledge to ease themselves into their initial running sessions as well as the features and benefits of a fitness tracker that can help with this.
What am I trying to achieve?
For the blog post to inform first-time runners on how to begin the activity correctly, change the reader’s perception of the blog and the brand as an authority and convert readers into fitness tracker buyers.
4. Decide on a structure
Some writers are able to write through a continuous stream of consciousness, just seeing where the flow takes them. As a copywriter with a clear objective in mind, this method may see you go off on tangents, creating more work for yourself in the editing process. To avoid this, it’s best to draft a structure with rough headers and bullet points of what will be included under each header. If you’re not sure where to start, summarise your core idea into a couple of sentences and expand on that using the knowledge you’ve gained and the questions you’ve answered.
In a typical creative structure, you’ll have a short and punchy introduction, before seamlessly moving on to make your main case; you’ll provide some balance, maybe make some predictions, and use your conclusion to revisit the central theme and really tie things together.
5. Get everything out
At this stage, you should be close to bursting so now it’s time to write, write and write some more (or vomit, as some writers like to call it). It doesn’t have to be good, just get it all out on the page. Novelist Jodi Picoult puts it perfectly,
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Remember: first drafts don’t count. Don’t agonise over every sentence, just take your structure and fill in the blanks with everything and anything you’ve acquired over the last few steps. Keep going until you’ve got nothing left. Write horrible sentences and cringe-worthy syntax. Re-write sentences in several different ways but keep every variation. Write words, phrases and quotes associated with the topic. Highlight any parts of the text that are giving you trouble, write something else to get your creative juices flowing again and revisit any nagging details with a fresh pair of eyes later.
6. Cut it in half (or editing)
This is where the real work gets done. Begin by piecing together everything you just spewed out. Refine it line by line, then focus your editing on these four things:
- Add interest and personality: you were probably in too much of a rush to get the core information out that you didn’t have the capacity to slip in apt idioms or make witty comments. Get creative and inject your personality into the work.
- Simplify: be brutal. Cut out all the unnecessary words and ask yourself if every sentence really adds something. If the answer is no, delete it.
- Check readability, purpose and consistency: do the sentences glide? Have you kept the same tone throughout? Are certain words styled consistently throughout the copy? E.g. ‘WiFi’ suddenly turns into ‘wi-fi’.
- Optimise for SEO: ensure your primary keywords are included in the title, headers and the body of your copy. However, don’t overdo it as unnatural sounding copy puts readers off and search engines can detect keyword stuffing and may penalise the page.
7. Write an attention-grabbing title
On average, 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will click on the article and read it. This shows the importance of writing a killer title.
A good title will convince the reader that you’ve got something interesting to say. A great title will make them want to read more.
You might be asking, “well, if it’s so important, why is it step 7 on the process list?”
Well, at this stage, you’ll feel more ready to write your title as you’ll have a better understanding of what your copy offers.
In the book ‘Made to Stick,’ by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, it’s explained that good ideas are more predictable than bad ideas, as they tend to follow a pattern. The same is true for title writing – there’s good reason that the internet is awash with ‘how to’ and ‘list’ headlines, as they can be annoyingly effective.
Here are some other templates you can use for writing titles:
- Questions: What Kind of Dog Are You? What Happens When You Give up Deodorant for a Week?
- Opinions disguised as fact: What You Think You Know about the Web is Wrong.
- Commands: Take Back your Mornings.
- Curiosity gaps: This is What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep.
As you’re writing for the web, remember that Google truncates page titles (this doesn’t need to be the same as your headline) that are longer than approximately 60 characters. Other than that, use active verbs, keep your language simple and try to address your reader directly.
8. Take a break
This might seem like a strange step. Surely you need to get this work done, not abandon it for hours. But studies have shown that taking a break increases your productivity. Not only that but having some time away from your work will give your mind some respite from the topic – a chance to recharge.
The ideal length of a copywriting break is 24 hours, because you’ll most likely have gone home, relaxed, slept and you’ll come back with truly fresh eyes. Unfortunately, deadlines don’t always allow this. If time is tight, aim for a minimum of a couple of hours. Make sure you don’t look at or touch the writing in this time. You’ll come back with a refreshed perspective and you’ll spot any mistakes or missing information easier.
9. Proofread and then proofread again
If you’ve ever experienced the horror of discovering a typo in your published copy – even though you proofread it a dozen times – you’ll already know how difficult it is to spot these seemingly non-existent errors in something that you’ve written.
In an ideal world, your copy will be closely edited by a colleague who is an eagle-eyed wordsmith who doesn’t mock you for your incessant slip-ups. If this isn’t possible, Wired suggests doing whatever you can to “make your work as unfamiliar as possible.”
To do this, we’d recommend:
- Printing it out: looking at the words through the medium of physical paper changes how your eyes view it, allowing you to spot mistakes you might not have seen on screen.
- Change the background or text colour on your word processor.
- Read aloud: through this exercise you might stumble over some sentences. This is an indication that the structure or punctuation isn’t right. Sounding out your piece will also help you to hear if there’s any repetition.
Proofreading for different kinds of mistakes in one read through is ambitious, even for the most seasoned proofreaders. One of the most sensible methods of proofreading is to scan the work several times, focusing on a different discipline each time. Here are some things to look out for per scan:
- Spelling and grammar
- Sentence length
- Switching verb tenses and pronouns
- Consistency and flow (you may have already checked this in the editing stage, but you may have also made tweaks since then so it can’t hurt to do it again)
Grammarly will not only check your grammar, but by entering the intent, audience, style, emotion and domain, it will suggest certain words and phrases that are more suited to the piece’s purpose.
This tip is a bit painstaking, but it works: analyse every word. Does it make sense in the context of the sentence? Should it be there? Is it spelt right? Even with fresh eyes, you’ve been looking at this piece of work for so long you could pretty much recite it, which means spotting mistakes is difficult. Your word processor and Grammarly should pick up the easy stuff, but they won’t notice if you’ve written ‘can’ instead of ‘to’, so this tip will highlight any of these slip-ups.
10. Add sources
You should have been keeping a note of the sources you’ve used along the way. Reference these at the end of your work. This is because clients are more than likely to ask you to verify some information with a stat or an authoritative domain. Sources should be in the order they appear in the work and should contain the title, the date and the link.
And there you have it.
The way you apply this process is going to vary from project to project, however as long as you hit each of these steps at some stage in your process, you’ll find the process of writing killer copy a simpler and more enjoyable task.