Some business skills are hard to define because they incorporate things that most people do every day. We all manage projects and personal finances, but that doesn't make us product managers or accountants. Copywriting is similar—since most Americans spent years in school being taught to write, many people don't understand that copywriting, particularly for business, is a completely different skill on its own. As a copywriter myself, I can tell you firsthand that people underestimate the amount of work that goes into developing this skill a lot.
The good news is that any writer can learn how to write copy that sells with a little bit of instruction and a good amount of practice. Let's break down the key elements of great copy, and the steps you need to take to create it.
What makes for good copy?
Excellent copy has all of the same traits that good writing has: it's clean, well-structured, and flows naturally for the reader. But in the business world, copy also has a job, and great copy delivers on its intended outcomes.
Email copy should generate click-throughs.
Web copy should improve rankings in search engines.
Sales copy should, well, sell products.
And it needs to do all these things while still sounding natural, conversational, and interesting.
How to write good copy
1. Write like a reader
When it comes to copy, our writing isn't well-served by nitpickery or strict grammar rules. The impact of your writing matters far more than your personal vendetta against the occasional split infinitive.
Instead of focusing on writing rules and regulations, think instead about how effective your writing is from the reader's perspective. Technically pristine copy serves no one if it's too sterile and boring to grab the reader's attention. Write copy that you would find easy to read if you came across it as a user. Think about what type of copy feels exhausting to slog through and what kind of writing doesn't take any effort to read at all.
One of the biggest keys to good copywriting on the web is information architecture: use formatting, bullet points, and headers to separate your content into manageable, visually diverse chunks. The worst thing for a reader to encounter is a giant wall of text.
2. Be creative—even when your topic is boring
I can hear you thinking, "Tim, you don't get it! I'm limited by my industry! My vertical is tyrannical!"
I feel your pain. I'm a copywriter in the B2B SaaS space whose job is to write copy that helps deconstruct and explain a complex enterprise software product. I'm certainly not writing copy for the company that makes my favorite shorts or preferred beachside beverages.
We all have limitations set by the powers that be, but great copywriters find ways to be creative and engaging within the confines of their industry. Zapier's blog contains a ton of great examples—there's nothing inherently thrilling about workflow management or a customer pain and gain analysis, but there are lots of creative and interesting ways to talk about those things.
3. Write the way you talk
With conversationality comes engagement, clear ideas, and concise language—plus it's welcoming and accessible. The goal is to get your organization's ideas across with the fewest, most effective words possible.
Write as though you're talking to someone whose attention you don't want to lose. Because that's what you're doing! (Just not in person.) And when you're writing for the web, holding onto your reader's attention is even more important, since there's an entire internet's worth of distractions just one click away from your content.
Whenever you write, read your copy aloud to yourself. Give it some emotion, some pizazz! I perform my own writing—in front of a cat audience in my own home—and can hear when my writing shines and when it makes me bored. It's great practice for every writer, but crucial to developing better conversational copywriting skills.
Here's how a small SaaS company like Basecamp offers help to its users:
Click Holler, and you get routed to the next page, where the copy shows you that software companies talk like humans—because they are human.
If every company in the SaaS space took a page out of Basecamp's book, we'd have a whole lot more engaging copy permeating the software industry. It's not an impossible task. It just takes some humanity and laid-back language.
4. Educate your audience
Copywriters are educators, first and foremost. You're teaching prospects about your product, customers about new features, and the world about why your company's mission matters. The more complex the product or service, the more crucial this becomes. Frustrated users will find similar products that are explained more effectively and buy those instead.
In my organization, our co-founder is fond of saying: "An educated customer is a secure customer." Business boils down to two priorities: making a useful product, and then making people good at using it. Both of these things revolve around customer education, and both require great copy to get the job done.
Copywriting shows prospects the value of the product, and then later, shows converted customers how to become proficient users. When your writing teaches people how to effectively use your product, your product's value becomes tangible. Tangible value is all people are looking for—not vaguely promised benefits and empty words sprinkled into sales presentations.
5. Balance fun stuff with function
Every writer wants to focus on their product's coolest features in their writing—and they should! The "Whoa, that's cool!" moment is an important part of engaging copywriting. Use your product's head-turning features as the bait-and-hook to grab people's attention and draw it to the essentials.
As an example, let's look at Wistia, which is a video hosting platform for B2B marketers. Its complete guide to video marketing is a prime example of engaging copy that reels in users with something shiny—the tips on video marketing that the reader was probably searching for—then embeds information about its specific product into the copy the reader came here to see.
The page shows what anyone searching for video marketing advice could want, gives clickable chapters with clear objectives, and all the while, peppers each of the sections with its own video creations hosted on its own platform.
Providing value while showcasing its strengths? That's well-thought-out.
6. Lean on the editing phase
Great copy walks the line between business and pleasure, and great copywriters know how to walk that line well. That said, you don't need to strike that balance immediately with every first draft you generate—that's what editing is for.
Creative ideas require out-of-the-box thinking, so it's better to start out with copy that pushes the envelope and refine it during the self-editing process (followed by a formal editing phase with a copy editor) than it is to start with something conservative and boring that stays conservative and boring throughout the process. I'm not suggesting you channel your inner Hunter S. Thompson for a SaaS blog or Aristotle for ad copy, but there is plenty of room to work within the overlap between your creative voice and your organization's voice. Finding that overlap takes time, and it can be messy. Don't play it safe just because you're afraid of your editor's red pen.
7. Set intentions that align with your campaign's goals
When you're writing good copy, your prose shouldn't be the purpose—it should promote the purpose. Always start with the goal that your product, team, campaign, and company are trying to achieve. In almost every scenario, that goal is not going to be to produce copy that wins awards; it's going to be to communicate effectively with your target audience.
Here's some advice from David Ogilvy, the "Father of Advertising," on how to approach your copywriting in context:
Resist the temptation to write the kind of copy which wins awards. I'm always gratified when I win an award, but most of the campaigns which produce results never win awards because they don't draw attention to themselves.
Oatly, a dairy-alternative oat drink company, demonstrates this concept well with its creative campaigns. Trying to promote dairy-free alternatives in a dairy-sodden world is tough work, so it appeals to people and makes its mission accessible with humor. One particular campaign is called Help-dad.com—a guide to helping dads quit dairy.
The idea itself is clever, and will get a smirk from anyone whose dad has ever complained about how there are too many kinds of "milk" these days and one was just fine for him back in the day. Scroll down, and the clever concept is backed up with obvious value in the form of dairy-free recipes, milk statistics, and pre-written replies to the most stereotypical "dad"-style disparagements of dairy-free milk.
The Help Dad campaign did wind up being shortlisted for a few advertising awards and was written up in a number of different industry publications. But it's clear that the campaign wasn't formed from a desire to win acclaim; it won acclaim because it was so effective in communicating Oatly's message.
8. Use yourself as a litmus test
The best way to write good copy is to recognize good copy, and the best way to recognize good copy is to take notes on the copy that affects you. To get started, ask yourself some of these questions:
What commercials do you think about when they aren't playing?
What are some products you've bought or explored because of their advertising?
What are some products you have no interest in buying or exploring because of their advertising?
What brands have blogs that you actually read?
What brands would you love to write for?
Once you've got some answers, ask yourself why those brands or products stand out. Chances are, it's because their copy is notable for being funny, personable, natural, genuine, or educational—or even all of the above. Take note of what you like about their copy. Is it the conversational voice, the sense of humor, the air of confident authority, or the authenticity? Is it pithy and clever, or is it thorough and knowledgeable?
On the flip side, you can learn just as much from bad copy. What content is so abrasive, uninteresting, or off-the-mark that you don't have any interest in what it's selling? Look out for ads, commercials, blogs, and websites that rub you the wrong way, and then explore why—and think about how you'd do it differently.
9. Write for your audience, not yourself
All copywriters fantasize about hitting that homerun copy that goes viral, wins awards, or evokes philosophical musings in a Mad Men-style boardroom. But sometimes, the best copy is clear, direct, concise, and descriptive. To help your client hit their sales KPIs and give their customers what they want, it can help to put yourself in the shoes of a brand's specific audience as you write.
Let's take Persefoni, a carbon accounting automation company most people haven't heard of but serves a very important and specific purpose for its market.
If you're considering Persefoni, you don't want wordplay or flashy headlines. You want to know what you're getting, what the benefit is, and whether you can trust the provider. Persefoni's content has no filler and little discernible personality, which can actually be tricky to pull off. It comes across as authoritative and trustworthy without sounding overly corporate or idealistic, and that's exactly what customers need when they're shopping for a product that helps them meet carbon emission compliance standards.
10. Don't be afraid of AI
AI is a touchy subject for copywriters right now. Some see it as a threat to job security, while others see it as the cornerstone of a productivity revolution. For better or worse, it's here to stay, and copywriters can leverage AI to improve how they do what they do.
Here are just a few ways you can use AI tools like writing generators to enhance your work:
Do a little prompt engineering to generate new content ideas.
Automate your outline phase, and then make tweaks as needed.
Replace your spell checker with an AI grammar checker to find ways to improve your copy and make it stand out.
Automatically rephrase sentences you're struggling with to get phrasing ideas.
Use Google Bard to automate research.
This is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. AI will continue developing and getting more sophisticated, so be on the lookout for more ways to put it to use. Just be sure you always chaperone.
11. Never stop learning
None of this is law. Language is always in flux—that's why it's so fun.
There are rules to follow in writing, and they're evolving at the same rapid pace as technology. Copy that won awards in 2020 might get tossed into the digital scrap heap today. Meanwhile, any "best practices" you learn here could be completely reshaped by new user trends, social media platforms, or AI solutions by the time you read this.
The best way to improve your writing is to keep writing and keep reading. The more innovative, experimental, effective copywriting you absorb, the better your own writing will become.
Become a stellar copywriter
One of the most important things you can do as a copywriting professional is to keep growing. Keep paying attention to copy your favorite brands produce, and be honest about where yours can improve to meet those standards. And don't shy away from productivity tools that can help you produce smarter copy faster, like automation and AI.
This article was originally published in April 2021. It was most recently updated with contributions from Bryce Emley in June 2023.