First up let me say that the beauty (and the terror) of great copy is that there aren’t all that many set rules. And the rules which do exist (like never starting a sentence with ‘and’) are made to be broken.
Having been plugging away at a computer as a freelance copywriter over the past five years, and for many years in editorial roles before that, I have noticed trends shape themselves then fall away.
The way I learned to write at university and for a radio audience is now rejected by auto-checkers within Grammarly and WordPress. There are new words to use and new technqiues to try.
If you’re taking a stab at copywriting in 2020, the following are a few things to keep in mind.
These tips are also handy for composing emails, creating presentations and communicating with your co-workers.
The ! is dead
The exclamation mark is dead.
Many online publishers have a ‘no exclamation mark’ rule or at least a directive to minimise its use. This is generally because using an exclamation mark can come across as cheesy or give a sense of immaturity to copy. Like writing in all caps, it can also be interpreted as shouting at the reader.
Think before you ‘!’
If you must use an exclamation mark, be very sparing. Don’t be that person in the office who can’t help but pepper every missive with !!, even when it’s an update about the kitchen.
The exception for exclamation marks is when you’re quoting someone, e.g. ‘“Wow!” he exclaimed, his pulse beginning to race.’
Keep it simple (because they’re stupid)
Goodness knows I love a big word. They bring diversity to copy and using them gives me a smug, self-satisfied feeling.
The bummer is research suggests most people read at the level of a nine-year-old.
I refuse to believe this is because people can’t read at a higher level… in my opinion it’s that when we’re shopping online, cruising the web or even reading emails, the nine-year-old level is about as much of our brain as we bother to commit.
- Skip the big words.
- Ditch long paragraphs.
- Abandon convoluted emails (and there I go, breaking the long word rule).
When people read work-related or marketing copy, they tend to skim. They read in an F-shape and look for headlines. Craft your copy and your emails carefully with this in mind. Use bullet points and bold headings. It makes life easier.
Don’t forget to keep your target reader in mind. You can probably go a little harder on the complexity if you’re selling to law school alumni. For busy mums, consider they probably have a toddler trying to grab at their phone as they read.
It’s worth saying that some people still love a good long page of text. There’s no harm in adding FAQs, video scripts or long-form blogs to accommodate these customers. This will also give your website SEO cred.
Use your active voice
When I went to broadcast journalism school, I learned to write ‘A bus has crashed into a building’. However, this counts as passive voice which is now the enemy.
According to Grammarly:
“In general, the active voice makes your writing stronger, more direct, and, you guessed it, more active. The subject is something, or it does the action of the verb in the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other performer of the verb.”
Ugh… it’s a bit confusing isn’t it?
Basically, when you write in the active voice it means focusing on the present, the ‘real’ and the most simple way of saying something.
E.g. “He was thinking he could maybe eat a sandwich”
“He had a sandwich on his mind”
Passive voice is a crutch for writers who are trying to hit a word count. Adding little words like ‘could’, ‘was’, ‘being’ etc gets you closer to your target. But minimise passive voice and your content becomes snappier.
Tip: WordPress reprimands you for passive voice. Take a look at your readability report and use it to whip yourself into shape.
Love a 💖
Writing is all about capturing emotions.
After resisting for a while, I now allow emojis into my work. They’re not technically words but they say a lot, they do get noticed and they bring the feels.
Obviously, a corporate accounting firm isn’t going to communicate with major clients using 💰🤑💸 but it’s ok to let emojis do some of the work in a few places, particularly social media and email subjects.
Slang is language too
It’s all about the audience but if you want to throw in a ‘fo’ shizzle’, rest assured all the cool kids are doing it.
Saying things like “I stan” (which means you are a huge fan of something) or “Frothing over” (a synonym of “I stan”) can be an engaging way to connect with your reader and let them know you’re on their level. There is some assumed knowledge and you’ll need your urban dictionary handy (e.g. look for ‘What is a Karen?’) but it is loads of fun to craft copy this way.
SHOUTY SALES COPY IS OVER
Copywriters don’t try to frighten people anymore. Lord knows, life is scary enough.
2020 will see the continued rise of storytelling as a way of highlighting a brand and its message.
Instead of screaming “BUY NOW”, good copy explains to the reader why they should make a purchasing decision. It tells a story, it has heart and it keeps the reader as the hero of the story wherever possible.
Here’s a nice example of a brand story from Remedy Drinks:
THE REMEDY RADICALS
We could tell you that when Sarah and Emmet Condon started Remedy in their kitchen they had no idea what lay ahead. But we’d be lying. They had an inkling. They’d been making kombucha for a while. Their kids were into it. Their mates were hooked. Family members were dropping by more often for a taste.
So, they took a chance. Some might call it a massive risk. They had a young family. No jobs to fall back on. Some savings, a couple of credit cards. Entrepreneurial know-how, but no experience in the food and drinks world. What they did have was big aspirations and a simple belief. Oh and – perhaps most importantly – a tasty kombucha brew and a whole lotta guts.
They wanted to do something good. Shake things up. Make it right. They knew that healthy could also be tasty and easy. They believed we all deserve to know that too. While they’ve moved on from the kitchen bench, Remedy is still made the old-school way: in small batches, long-aged brewed for 30 days.
The result is the tastiest and healthiest kombucha going around: it contains no sugar, naturally, and is chock-full of all the right stuff: live cultures, organic acids and antioxidants that are good for your gut and overall wellbeing.
This doesn’t actually sell you the beverage. Instead, it demonstrates how you’re supporting a mum and dad business plus helping your own health if you buy the product.
Storytelling takes time to get right but can be far more effective than a sales message which relies on fear to get people to make a purchase.
Work your mediums
It’s content that is king, not copy.
As a copywriter, embrace creating GIFS and videos to make a point and reach a wider audience.
Plain text can get boring so think of ways to add diversity and appeal.
What are your copywriting tips for 2020?
Clea Sherman is a Sydney freelance copywriter.