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The Golden Rule of Copywriting
Hollie Sherrington
October 28, 2021

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there isn’t one. 

No golden rule. No Holy Grail. No silver bullet.

Just a bunch of people, like me, who are making it up as they go along.

Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t tonnes of good advice on copywriting out there. But there are no guarantees of success. Some people might like to pretend that what we do is a science — it isn’t.  But that’s not to say that it’s without skill — in fact, far from it.

Because there are approaches you can take and techniques that you can use that can, and will, if used correctly, improve your copy. I’m even gonna be so kind as to share some of them with you because otherwise, I would have led you here with a click-baity headline and given you no actual payoff. 

And that would have been wrong.

Because you would be sat there right now feeling like you’ve been misled and had your time wasted. Like you did at the end of Lost. 

So with further ado, here’s the payoff that I promised you, 10 tips on copywriting:

 

1. What’s in it for me?

 

This is the question we all ask when someone’s trying to pitch us an idea or sell us something. So make it as clear as a very clear thing indeed because you don’t want the audience to have to work to find the answer. 

 

2. Don’t waffle

 

When it comes to copywriting, never use 10 words to say what you can in 6.

Brevity is king.

If you need practice with this, Twitter is great for it.

I used to think Twitter was single-handedly responsible for destroying the English language, 280 badly arranged characters at a time. But I’m happy to say I was wrong.

It helps you learn how to cut away the filler, and what you’re left with is a killer bit of copy that says more with less.

 

3. Read it aloud

 

I can’t stress this enough. Once you read it aloud, you’ll quickly notice clunky sentences.

Copy should have a flow and a rhythm. It should be pleasing to the ear.

If it isn’t, rewrite it.

 

4. Let your work breathe

 

Stick it in a drawer, give it to your partner to hide, bury it in a chest made of skulls in your back garden if you have to.

But let the thing breathe before you decide that you’re some kind of creative copywriting genius and start planning your retirement.

Trust me, you’ll see things even a day later that you don’t see at the time.

 

5. View it on a different device

 

Sometimes, when you’ve been working on something for ages, you start to go ‘word blind’ and lose all ability to be objective about your work. And instead of not being able to ‘see the wood for the trees’, you’ll suddenly find that you can’t see the copy for the words.

So, much like reading it aloud, viewing it on a different device forces us to digest what we’ve written in a different way.

I’d also add to this that changing up the environment helps. So, if you worked on it in your office, view it in your kitchen. Or, if you wrote it in the unforgiving Sahara desert (ya know, as you do) then do the editing while topping up your tan on the tropical beaches of Fiji (chance would be a fine thing).

I can almost guarantee, you’ll spot at least one part that makes you exclaim ‘What the bloody hell made me think writing that was a good idea?! I must have been on drugs.’

Some people also recommend changing the font for the same reasons. But I recommend you don’t use wingdings because then you really will feel like you’re on drugs.

 

6. If in doubt, leave it out

 

Now this is a tricky one.

Sometimes, I slave over a sentence and marvel at how witty and profound it is, only to discover that it doesn’t actually add anything to the copy.

Realising that the jewell in the crown is actually just a superfluous shiny thing that diverts attention away from the message is shit. But you can’t be precious over these things, because such is the nature of copywriting.

If you know in your heart it doesn’t belong in the copy, cut it out.

Then, stick it in a file named ‘My Under-Appreciated Genius’ or ‘Now I Know How Van Gogh Felt’ and hope that it will be discovered by future historians.

 

7. Be Human

 

Being professional doesn’t mean you have to be dull. Don’t be afraid to inject some personality, even if your personality does happen to be a bit weird (like mine).

But the trick is learning to recognise that ‘personality’ can mean very different things to different people, so keep that in mind when writing copy. Copywriting is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

So as always, do your research and make sure the tone fits for the target audience.

But above all, be human! Because people are far more likely to buy from brands that talk like actual human beings.

For example, I have never walked into a department shop and declared “What a wonderful selection of lighting solutions!” And I don’t know anyone who has. So why on earth would I try to sell ‘lighting solutions’ to people when I could just sell them ‘lights’?

So when you’re writing copy, cut the waffle, burn the buzzwords, and get to the bloody point.

Your customers will thank you for it. (And so will I, because if I see the word ‘solutions’ used in advertising one more time, I might just lose my tiny mind.)

 

8. Read, read, and then read some more

 

And I don’t just mean books on copywriting — I mean anything and everything you can get your hands on. Even rubbish books have their lessons to teach (like how not to do it).

For one, it helps to improve your vocabulary so you can make Stephen Fry sound like simpleton. And it teaches you about pace, timing, brevity, language and tone of voice, and ultimately makes you a million times better at your craft.

Trust me, you’ll be a better writer for it.

We’re in the business of words after all. So I reckon it’s our business to read as many of them as we can.

For example, in the last six months, I’ve read Marlon Brando’s memoir, Have Swim Two Birds by the delightfully insane Flann O’Brien, Rik Mayall’s autobiography, and a book about a French bloke who was confined to his bedroom for forty days as punishment for taking part in a duel.

What did I learn?

I learnt about everything from Marlon Brando’s pet racoon, how Truman Capote managed to piss off pretty much everyone in Hollywood, McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare of the 1950’s’, right through to why Rik Mayall is probably one of the of the best things to ever happen to British comedy.

(And I also learnt not to get caught up in a duel if I can help it because it usually doesn’t end well.)

Not to mention what I learnt about editing, TOV and how to craft a compelling story. And as a generalised copywriter, who writes about anything and everything, this stuff is absolute gold dust.

Although it might not be directly related to copywriting, it makes my work richer and more nuanced because it teaches me about so much more than just ‘writing for business’.

 

9. Keep the creativity flowing

 

I think it was Hemingway who used to set himself a time target, and once he met it, he would stop writing, even if he was mid-sentence. I used to think this was obscene.

But there’s method to the madness. 

When I’m on a roll, I write until I’m exhausted and words stop making sense. And then when I get up the next day, I’ve inexplicably lost the ability to construct a sentence and the alphabet, once a dear and loyal friend, starts to taunt me in the convoluted way that only an alphabet can. And so for the rest of the day, I avoid writing like the Tory government avoids telling the truth. 

But when you force yourself to stop when the creativity is still flowing, when you get up the next day, the energy is still there and you can just jump right back into it. 

 

10. People watch

 

Copywriters have to understand people’s motivations — we’re like psychologists (but without the chez lounges). 

So, do some people-watching and ask some questions: 

What makes them tick? What do they emotionally respond to? 

When they’re in a shop for instance, why do they reach for one brand instead of another? Is their decision-making based on price, brand recognition, or is it just good old fashioned convenience (the product was what they needed and happened to be in their line of sight)? 

Do any patterns emerge? Do similar age groups make similar purchasing decisions and so on and so on…

And if you get bored of doing this or you ask so many questions that your head feels like it’s about to explode, then you can ask other questions like ‘Why are my shoes so shit compared to everyone else’s?’, ‘Why isn’t my hair that shiny?’ Or ‘Why does everyone look like they’ve stepped right out of a Calvin Klein advert, while I look like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and Lister from Red Dwarf?’. 

So, there we have it — no golden rule, just a few tried and tested tips that will help improve your copy, hone your craft and make you a better copywriter. 

 

There is one unspoken rule of copywriting, which is that you help your fellow copywriters out wherever you can. So with this in mind, I’d be well grateful if you subscribed to my blog, or at least shared it on social media. It would really help to put a smile on my gormless face.

If you’d like to find out more about how I could help with your word-related needs,

get in touch for an informal chat.

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