Elements of a Great Copy

Have you ever wondered what differentiates a ‘great copy’ from a ‘good one’?

Well, here’s a gist: A good copy is generic. A great copy is purposeful.

Take a look around, peep inside your inbox and you will understand what I am talking about. You must be subscribed to at least half a dozen blogs, all offering quality content. Most of them are generic in nature, while others are not. They specialize! That’s precisely what makes a website or a blog successful.

Do you ask why you need a blog or a website? Most of us would simply roll our eyes and think, ‘duh!’. Yet a major chunk of internet real estate is captured by bloggers (and even writers) who just write about their lives, their cats, or their grocery list. They contribute absolutely nothing of value to the target audience, most of whom stumble onto these websites, hoping to find good content that will enrich their lives.

A successful blog would answer this question: What’s the point? Answering this would help the writers clarify their thoughts, stay focused, and create a great copy, which eventually would affect their blog’s ranking on Google.

However, the success of a blog doesn’t rely solely on purpose; that is just the foundation. We know that simply having a great foundation wouldn’t make a difference until it has been built into something great. Some of the key aspects that add value and depth to a copy (and purpose to a blog) are Substance, Style, Clarity, Focus, Tone, Punctuation, AIDA, and Audience.

Let’s take a look at each of these elements of copywriting, from a ‘blogging’ perspective:

Substance

Content that is meaningful to the masses. Great blogs are usually dense in substance; they serve their readers by giving them useful information (or advice). This could mean anything from Leo Babuata’s ZenHabits, to Tim Ferriss’s The 4 Hour Blog, to Allrecipes.com!

These days, the buzzword is ‘niche’ – experts will tell you to narrow down to a topic and specialize, which is a great strategy. It also fulfills the ‘having a purpose’ bit for a blog.

Style

Wannabe writers tend to take ‘style’ to an extreme. They sound a bit too literal than required, and consequently end up sounding verbose or just plain complicated! Style complements substance! A blog that focuses on literature ought to have content that sounds academic than plain English. On the other hand, if you’re blogging about recipes, it’s vital to keep the language simple and conversational. You don’t want to ‘triturate’ flaxseeds before ‘consigning’ it to a container. Do you?

David Ogilvy said it the best, ‘You can’t bore someone into buying your product’. Keep your style simple, conversational, and natural, just like the way you speak. As a reference point, I always ask people to check out any of Dale Carnegie’s books – they are written in a simple language and have stood the test of time. He must have said, ‘Speak to express, not impress.’  

Clarity

The simplest way to achieve clarity is very straightforward. Remember the KISS philosophy? Keep It Short and Simple! That’s it! It obviously violates amateur writers who ‘dig’ using big words, long sentences, and complex structures. It’s important to understand that the objective is not to write a novel, but to write an effective copy for readers who are short on time. They want to skim through your copy before they commit to read it thoroughly.

Keep your sentences short, 20 to 30 words to the maximum, anything more can be exhausting. Have more paragraphs. Let’s not write another ‘Gates of Paradise.’ (40,000 words, written in just two sentences!)

Think of an Apple product – the iPhone, for example. Do you recall the user guide that came with it? Wasn’t it a breeze to read through it? That should be our aim – just the essential and nothing else. Words can add meaning, life, and even ‘clutter’ to our sentences.

Focus

Unless you’re a Buddhist monk, you may inadvertently wander off the topic. It usually happens when you have too much to say. An effective way is to outline or mind-map your thoughts on paper or on your computer. It gets easier to stay focused when your thoughts are listed down.

Bruce Lee said it the best, ‘A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.’

Tone

You must have heard this: Find your voice. Have you? Well, tone is about that voice (not about finding it, that bit comes with much practice). The voice helps us to express, is unique to our personality, and often finds its way into our words.That is why experienced writers advise you to write as if you’re having a conversation with the reader. So, an easy style – shorter, simpler words – takes precedence over anything else.

Read out aloud to ensure that your content is conversational, take out the words that make it sound choppy or interruptive. I, sometimes, use the built-in text to speech utility and let my computer speak, while I concentrate on the tone. It’s important to always keep a neutral tone – by neutral, I mean a tone that is warm and friendly.

Punctuation

If your blog is going to be read by thousands, it’s important to ensure that there are no grammatical mistakes in your copy. You can’t afford to get your tenses wrong.

Punctuation, however, always gets a special treatment. The easiest way to master punctuation is to keep your sentences short and simple, no more than 20 to 30 words, and write them just like the way you speak. The last nugget magically creates natural pauses in your copy. Try it!

Buy a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss – it’s a must-have for editors, and anyone who writes. You should know when to use the commas (it’s not just a breather, but has varied functions). You can use a comma before ‘and’. Purists might have a different opinion, and there have been many heated debates in the past as well. To be on the safer side, however, refer to your house style guide. If there is none, go with the Chicago Manual of Style, which says that you can, especially to avoid confusion.

You should know how to effectively use colons, semicolons, brackets, parentheses, quotation marks, dashes, and hyphens in your copy (elements that are beyond the scope of this post).

AIDA

AIDA is short for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. It has been a staple for marketers and advertisers for quite some time now. Instructional designers use AIDA to create compelling training content.

Speakers and trainers use AIDA in their speeches to add pizzazz to their presentations. Let me explain: They ensure that their opening grabs the audience’s attention by making a startling remark, or a beautiful quotation, or sometimes diving right into a story (it was one of those days…). Then they make a transition into the body of the speech, conveying a point or  two (though, three is the golden rule) that generates interest in the audience. In due course, the audience’s desire rouses through the roof when finally a call to action is made by the speaker.

The exact principles apply to great copies, as well. Brian Clark of Copyblogger tells you ‘how to’ in this post: http://www.copyblogger.com/aida-formula-for-blogging/.

Audience

Whom are you writing for? If you’re thinking that I should have covered this topic ahead, let me tell you that I have deliberately planted this at the end. Why? What’s the point of having a great copy that doesn’t interest your audience?

Keeping your audience interested is vital. You can’t expect a 1000 likes for your post on AIDA if your target audience cares more about rock music, can you? Dale Carnegie said, ‘The sweetest name to a person is his own.’ Likewise, your topics need to resonate with your target audience’s tastes.

Remember this, everyone’s favorite radio station is WIIFM. What’s In It For Me? Failing to answer this question can be disastrous! How to avert it? It’s simple, just remember the following:

  • Don’t bore them with too many technicalities!
  • Give them something that they can relate to, like a human interest story or an anecdote
  • Stick to AIDA – especially the first ‘A’ for attention. You can open with a bang!
  • Wordplays – One of my friends recently used this ‘MAID for each other.’ That’s a grabber! Use them often!
  • Don’t forget the most important word in English: The word YOU. The more you use them, the closer you get to answer their question: WIIFM. The word personalizes your copy and transports the reader into a conversation with you (reread this sentence, you and I are conversing right now!)
  • Use quotes: I read this yesterday ‘You would care less what other people thought about you if you knew how little time they spent thinking about you.’ Isn’t that thought provoking? That’s what quotes do. They make your readers think deeply, and thank you for sharing that nugget of wisdom
  • Crescendo: Or simply a climax. A good copy has an effective conclusion. A great copy, however, always loops back into the opening and ‘completes a circle.’ A crescendo makes the copy whole, leaving the readers satisfied.

Follow these steps to create engaging content that will make your readers come back to the blog. You don’t have to follow them in order or have them all in place to write a great copy. Try to include one or two of these elements in your copy, observe and await feedback, and then add a couple more, repeat, until you have mastered them all.

You do have the option to ignore some of these elements, at the expense of quality. Great copy, after all, is purposeful, and these elements ensure that your copy is one. Good luck!

 

Originally published in November 2013. Published as is. And honestly, I can do much better! Yikes!