Marketing & communications, Writing

Writing great copy: five top tips

Alan Barker, DSC Associate, provides an insight to writing copy.

Good causes deserve good copy. Where to start?

Focus on the reader

Don’t talk about stuff; talk to your reader. Address them directly. Imagine speaking to them, and write down exactly what you would say. Then edit the copy – ruthlessly. Think benefits, not features. Why should your reader care about what you have to say? A colleague of mine talks about ‘tuning in to Radio WIIFM: What’s In It For Me?’ What matters to your reader? Corporate sponsors have quite different values and priorities to volunteers. Think also about how the reader will encounter your copy: funding applications command quite different levels of attention from campaigning emails. How committed is your reader to reading? Are they sitting at a desk or scrolling on their smartphone? How can you capture – and hold – their attention?

Keep it simple

Two messages is one too many. Decide what you want your reader to do as a result of reading your copy and say what you need to say to achieve that action. Make the ‘ask’ specific: if you want them to give money, say so (don’t fudge the issue with words like ‘support’).

Persuade in three dimensions

Great copy seduces. The reader feels that they’ve decided what to do, rather than being persuaded by you. Great copy seduces in three ways: through reasoned argument; through credibility and reputation (why should we respect your charity more than others?); and through emotion. Like most buying decisions, most giving decisions are based on feeling rather than logic. And that’s as much about stimulating the imagination as about arousing emotion. Show, don’t tell: avoid emotive language that tells the reader what to feel or what you feel. The feelings should occur in the reader – not in the text. Use stories and examples and let them do the work.

Make it zing

You can bring your copy to life in (at least) four ways. First, use power words: single-syllable words, human words, action words, feeling words, concrete words, words that stimulate the senses, and onomatopoeic words (chop, fizz, crash, scrape). Second, use personal words: words like ‘you’ and ‘we’, but also words that name the people (and non-humans) that are doing things in your copy. Third, use strong, specific verbs, and avoid abstract words (recognition, awareness, opportunity). Finally, express your ideas as positives.  Don’t write about what isn’t happening, or won’t happen; tell your reader what is happening, what they can do, and how the world will be a better place as a result.

Integrate your copy with design

Every copy has some sort of design element. It might be no more than a paragraph break. Email newsletters include colour and pictures; brochures and flyers must be designed; blog posts can include cross-line headlines (that break up the text) and standfirsts (short paragraphs that sit between the main headline and the body text – just like the copy in italics at the head of this post). Make your copy work with the design, not against it. Oh – and one final hint: work at least four times as hard on your headline as you do on your copy. After all, four times as many people will read the headline – or the subject line of your email – as read the body copy. Don’t try to make your headlines cute or clever. If you’re stuck for ideas, start your headline with ‘how’, ‘why’ or a number.   If the headline works, chances are that they’ll read your copy. And all your hard work will not be in vain.