Copywriting 101: 5 easy ways to upgrade your skills and write copy like a pro

October 12, 2020
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I write words for a living. Sometimes that means long-form articles that read like research papers. Other times, it means speeches. And occasionally it means an op-ed or an interview. 

But most of the time, I write copy. 

And if you’re a marketer, you write copy, too—whether you know it or not. 

Copy is the bucket term for everyday words that drive organizations. It’s headlines and ads and emails. It’s social media posts and status updates. It’s campaigns and calls to action. It’s all the stuff you’re writing every day to compel donors to give, people to buy, and prospects to get involved. 

And it’s something that you could probably be doing better. 

Whether you’re new to the copy game or have been writing organizational messages for years, here are five tips to upgrade your skills and write copy like a pro. 

Write like a human. 

If you learn nothing else, learn this: Write the way you speak. 

Luckily this is the easiest thing in the world to test. Ready? Read your copy out loud. If it sounds clumsy and confusing when you’re saying it, it’s not ready yet. Your readers will think it’s clumsy and confusing, too. 

If you’re really stuck, pull out your voice memo app. Explain what you’re trying to communicate to your phone, then type up a transcript. Chances are, you’ve just done 90% of the work. 

We know you’re smart—you don’t need to prove it by dropping in big words and being complicated. 

Speak to a human. 

In copywriting, the most powerful word you can use is “you.” 

Unlike a college essay or a news article, marketing copy is directed at someone—and is designed to move that person to action. Who is your reader? What do you want them to learn, think about, or do? Are you holding their hand until they get there? 

Define your “you”—then spend the rest of your copy talking right to them. 

Think like a human. 

You know more about your work than anyone else does (and, spoiler, you care more about your work than anyone else does, too). So ask yourself this question: If you didn’t know anything, would your copy still make sense? 

There’s a popular notion that you should always write for a third-grade reading level. Generally, this is good advice. But even if your audience is a bunch of technical experts who have the vocabulary of a college professor, you still want to think simple, conversational, and clear. Have you deleted all the industry jargon? Can you make what you have even simpler? Would it make sense to a brand new reader? 

Details matter. 

Proof, proof, and proof again. Small errors may seem insignificant, but they separate good writers from great ones. If your idea is clear, your language is concise, and your proofing skills are strong, you will stand out. 

There are a million things to keep in mind, but simple things like capitalization, passive and active voice, parallel sentence structures, and all things punctuation are good places to start. 

Simplify, shorten, and sizzle. 

Here’s another trick to make your copy even stronger: Delete words. Literally. Go through what you’ve just written and remove whatever you can. (You can always put it back if you decide you need to!) 

And as for that sizzle? What can you do to make your copy pop? Can you make your headline bolder? Your subhead snappier? Your call to action even more compelling? 

People are inundated with content all day long. Your job is to cut through the noise with something punchy and powerful. 

For nonprofit organizations (the organizations I work with most frequently), effective copywriting is critical. The power of your writing is directly correlated to your fundraising success. If your campaigns are boring, cluttered, and difficult to understand, donors won’t feel inspired. If your webpage is impossible to navigate or riddled with errors, prospects won’t know how (or why) to convert. If your email asks fall flat, you’re just delivering one more message to an over-crowded inbox. And most of all, if you aren’t thinking, writing, and speaking like a human, how are you ever going to build relationships with your community?

But here’s the good news: You have a great story. I know you do. And I know that you can tell it well. It just might take some practice.

Like anything worth learning, copywriting is a skill built over time—but thankfully there are a few easy tricks that you can start using right now.

If you’re interested in learning more about effective copywriting—or looking for someone to manage your messaging—reach out! I’d love to talk to you about your story.

Allison Kooser

Allison is Chief Storyteller at Swell+Good, where she partners with amazing organizations to help them bring their stories to life. She is an avid traveler, an expert takeout orderer, and a big believer in curiosity and kindness. She tries to learn something new every day, and she reads, writes, and paddleboards more than the average human.
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