Thursday, February 4, 2010

Short Copy Rules

Short Copy: Writing and Editing for the Web

There are all kinds of reasons to write short copy. For a website, it is essential.
  • Short copy aids scanning. Most visitors to your website will – at first at least – be scanning.
  • People are in a rush and short copy is less complex, easier to absorb.
  • Short copy is more inviting to the eye, especially to the lazy or rushed eye.
  • Longer copy creates boring gray blocks of text, short copy breaks up the gray with white.
  • Short copy tends to be written more in the vernacular, which is less formal and more relatable.
  • It’s easier to encapsulate individual messages or points into short bits of text.
  • Writing short forces you to edit down to your essential point and use the active voice.
As a writing process, write as you normally would, then edit down. You can tighten text very effectively simply by changing to the active voice. Using the active voice also makes your copy more assertive and more lively, your message more direct and compelling. Short, active copy makes strong sell copy. Use it wisely.

Use bullets to create lists of your points, and try to edit each bullet into one line of text. Because short copy tends to read more casual, it’s all right to break more formal writing conventions – just don’t overdo it. You want informal, not sloppy or unsophisticated. You may, for instance, begin a sentence with “but” or “so” or end it with a preposition, depending on your organization’s style.

Writing short copy involves shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. You may be forgiven for one- or two-sentence paragraphs, two- or three-word sentences. Break paragraphs into thoughts, sentences into statements. Observe the KISS principle: Keep It Short and Simple!

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Role Page Titles Play in Searches

Page Titles: More Than a Sell Line

A page title is far more than a sell line on your Web page. It should immediately tell the reader the main topic covered on your page, and it should be keyword rich. This shouldn't be a place for your company name as much as a place to tell what your company is about. It has huge effect on SEO (search engine optimization) or SERPS (search engine ranking).

Very often I see websites list a business or company name on their home page. For SEO that may be effective if someone already knows your business or company name, but many times as a business you’re trying to attract new customers. How can they find you? If someone new conducts a search and they don’t know your name but they will search for what you offer, they may not find you because your emphasis has been on your company’s name. That could be fatal.

For the home page, you can actually accomplish both by positioning a keyword for what your business offers first and your business name second: Doohickies – Joe Smoes. That way, someone looking for doohickies will find you among stores or business that sell doohickies, and someone looking for a store or business named Joe Smoes will find it.

Inside the site, where you break your pages down into more definitive services or products, your page titles should be even more specific: Red Doohickies or Metal Dookickies or European Doohickies, using keywords you know your customers will use to try to find you.

When someone is building your website, make sure they have thought of this. Many designers, developers, and writers put more thought into how pretty the site looks or reads than in how well someone can find it. Many aren't versed in building a site for search engine optimization and may, in fact, gloss over the subject.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Google Wave: My Over-Hyped Experience

Was Google Wave over-hyped in a perfect marketing storm?
by Alan Eggleston, writer and editor

This week like a well primed sports stadium full of stoked fans, we all dutifully participated in the Google Wave. Without fully understanding it, without even knowing if we would be able to use it, we wanted it. The more we couldn't have it, the more we wanted it. It was the perfect marketing storm, and the same people who brought us the Twitter hype brought us the Wave hype.

I've been teetering like a blind Ninja on the edge of a precipice. I've been reading on tech and geek blogs about Wave and its imminent arrival for days, even going to Google to try to learn more about it. Nagging at the back of my mind has been whether I know enough people who will use it to make it worthwhile to try. And since I don't use gmail or the calendar or the Google immediate messaging service, does this make any sense? But with all the gotta-have hype, dammit I WANTED it.

On Tuesday I did a Google search and there was a mysterious "10^ 100" coded link below the seach window. I was too busy on a client issue to explore it at the time, but it sure was intriguing. When I went back later, it was gone. Was it a secret invitation to Wave? Did I miss my chance? It nags at me like a free-offer coupon.

Finally, Wednesday came, and the blogs and Twitter were alive with news that Google's invitations to try Wave were going out. The geek "Haves" hyped that they had received theirs. Opportunists began selling the extras they received to share with friends on eBay. Scammers offered extras they didn't really have on Twitter in exchange for following them and retweeting the message -- they did countdowns! Facebook messages popped up with friends begging for invites. I checked my e-mail to see if I'd received anything from Google or anyone else. No luck. And still that nagging question, do I really NEED this thing? I sure WANT it.

I haven't felt this dejected since failing to nab a Nintendo Wii that first year for my daughter's Christmas. The ironic thing is, I still don't know enough people who have it to use it effectively if I did get it. It's the fault of those frakking marketers and bloggers for blowing this out of proportion. It's still just a test.

I could apply for an invitation at Google ... and wait. A friend has gone that route, and I wish him well. He has the same unrequieted desire I've had. But I refuse to wait in line for something I'm not even convinced I need or will use once I have it.

This is the case of the overhyped application. The technology media has gotten on board and whipped interest into unwarranted frenzy, and I disrespect them for it. I played along unwillingly and I refuse to go along anymore.

I said sarcastically that in retribution I was going to do my searches on Bing, yahoo!, and Alta Vista. I'm not even a drop in Google Search's bucket! Some day Google will open Wave up to us Have-nots, and maybe in retrospect we'll have a better sense whether it really makes sense to use -- sans the hype.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hiring Writers V

When can you afford not to hire a writer?
By Alan Eggleston, writer, editor, SEO strategist

Shakespeare once said, All the world's a stage and we are all the actors*. That seems to be some peoples' attitude toward writing: All the world's a book and we are all the authors or All the world's a website and we are all the writers. To a small extent, that's true. We all have an ability to set a few words down on paper or on a screen and have it make sense. Some of us even have the gift of orginality or creativity. However, like any profession, it takes experience and practice to perfect a skill or make a talent pay off. It also requires hard work, which most people aren't willing to endure. I have written for more than 20 years, written for the Web since 1995, and I learned a lot along the way.

That said, there are times when it makes sense for you to write your own project. In those cases, you should not need to hire a writer and would be foolish to do so.

  1. If you are a gifted writer -- in the opinion of someone other than yourself or a close relative -- and have the time to write the project, by all means save some money and write it. However, do have an outsider read it to point out any flaws and suggest ways of improving it. Editors usually cost less than writers and will catch things you wouldn't dream are problems.
  2. Some parts of a project don't require as much creativity or finesse. Save some money by writing those parts and leaving the creative, more demanding parts for your writer. However, do allow the writer to adjust the language so everything flows as a unit and it doesn't show that multiple writers worked on the project. Or, have a less expensive editor pull the two parts together.
  3. In-house pieces with limited public exposure may require less writing skill. Pieces that set or explain policy may benefit from a legal review rather than a writer's hand.
  4. Signage, although you may want some kind of scrutiny of customer service signage.
  5. Small projects like short notices or web pages or quick promotional mailers, although a writer can often help you come up with a clever hook or intro that catches attention.
  6. Instances in which you need to provide a lot of detail and it would take a lot of time to explain it to a writer may be wiser to go ahead an write yourself and then turn over to a writer or editor to smooth out. They may have questions later, but it will be less costly than your trying to explain the all the details. Do have a writer or editor review it, though, to make sure it communicates clearly.
  7. A product page that is either more about details than sell, or that is copy and paste rather than writing may be a better investment in your time than a writer's -- or hire a virtual assistant or data input person. However, look for someone who is detail oriented and will catch mistakes and inconsistencies.
  8. If you simply can't afford a writer, you simply will have to do it yourself, unless you can find someone to donate his or her time. Perhaps your project will make a good portfolio builder. If you find yourself with a project to create and no money to spend (lack of cash, not lack of willingness to spend), at least find a word processing program or e-mail program with spell check and, if possible, grammar check.

Just remember if you decide to tackle the project yourself: Whatever it is will represent your company. Misspellings and typos, erroneous grammar and punctuation, strange formatting and unwise word choices will say something to potential customers, something you may not have intended. An experienced writer or editor will help guide you past those, even if you write the rough draft and they do a revision.

Look at it this way: When Hollywood does a blockbuster movie, they don't advertise for just anyone off the street to play the big parts -- they go for superstars. Sure, once in a while a production will cast an unknown and getaway with it. But more often than not, they go with the big names who can sell the story. Which way will you go?

*There's more meaning to this Shakespean wisdom than I'm attributing here; I don't mean to short-change The Bard, but it illustrates the attitude sometimes shown toward hiring creative talent.

Look me up on Twitter:
Personal: @alaneggleston
Professional: @a_copywriter

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hiring Writers IV

Writers: What to expect from your new hire
By Alan Eggleston, writer, editor, SEO strategist

We all know what we want from a new writer: competence. But what exactly is that?

Presume she knows the basics...
Let's presume for a moment that your new writer knows the basics: her grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It would also be nice if she had a flare for words, could turn a phrase and knock out a tag line, select a meaningful quote, so let's give her that, too. Let's also give her the benefit of the doubt about sentence and paragraph structure.

What makes for a good -- no, an excellent -- writer is when he can add value, when he can contribute to the project by advising you beyond the basics.

Tap into his experience...
Your new writer should bring all his business experience to your aid. That's true, whether your project is a website, brochure, or a business letter.

I have developed business websites since 1994. That includes, writing, editing, site mapping, navigation design, project management, content management application integration, search engine optimization, and more. I have also been a privacy officer. All that has taught me to look beyond writing when I integrate with a client developing content. When I go into a website project, I always have a lot of basic business-decision questions that I find many businesses haven't thought through that can have an impact on copy or site structure. Clients always appreciate it.

In addition, I have worked on hundreds of print projects over the years. I know about design and production issues that can help guide a project to successful conclusion, and I know that decisions that are made early-on can have a huge impact on later work on the project. I don't hesitate to advise clients on things beyond copy that will make a project communicate better.

This is all to say, your new writer should be able to provide insight into more than copy for a project, and don't hesitate to ask him questions or listen to suggestions. Make sure they make sense before accepting them, of course.

You should get what you pay for...
How much you're paying for her work may determine how much she's willing to provide in "extra" advice. However, as with any professional, most writers will try to provide as much value as possible. After all, they would like you to return as a client and refer them to others.

Keep in mind, there is a division of labor in the editorial world that might make it more useful for you to hire an editor than a writer if what you really need is an editor. An editor has made many more editorial decisions beyond simply writing ones. She has headed a project, dealt with writers, designers, and production (or developers for websites), and done battle with accountants over budgets. In a sense, a writer has to worry about a page, an editor has to worry about a whole book.

Look me up on Twitter:
Personal: @alaneggleston
Professional: @a_copywriter

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hiring Writers III

Writers: How do you pick a good one?
By Alan Eggleston, writer, editor, SEO strategist

Everyone thinks she is a writer, and everyone thinks he can make money at writing. That's why services like are so successful in content bidding wars. However, the truth is, not everyone can write well and not everyone should be in the business of writing. You, certainly, shouldn't have to be in the position of paying them for their work when you could be hiring someone better.

Moment of transparency: I have been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. I have copyedited as well as edited publications, and I have faced my share of professional writers. I know a good one from a poor one. Here are some things that you as a client can look for when considering a writer for hire.

Look at their work...
First, your potential writer should be able to provide a portfolio for your review. Most often it is a set of hard copies of their work, whether print off of Web pages or cut outs of magazine pages. You want to see examples from their body of work, but especially those that reflect the kinds of work they will do for you or can indicate how their work may reflect on you. Someone who specializes may not offer a lot of variety but they should be able to provide plenty of samples.

Verify that this work is theirs, not simply something they wrote but was reworked by an editor. Consistency of style and look may help you determine this. If the writer provides print offs of Word or Wordperfect documents, look for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and appropriate usage. Also look at presentation: If the work is sloppy, steer away from this writer! If it's sharp and polished, you may have a winner.

How well do they work...
Second, discuss the writer's clientele. You aren't looking for trade secrets here, just an indication of how the writer worked with them and any bad experiences he had and how he resolved them. Who has been his favorite client and why was it such a good experience? You would also like an idea of how much work he has done and how much like you they were, so you know how you may be able to work with him -- or not.

Are they dependable...
Third, ask about process. How does the writer work? Is she punctual? Can she turn on a dime? Is she flexible? What formats does she work with, and what services will she provide for what you're willing to pay her? This isn't about how much can you push her but how much can you depend on her and will you get what you need in the end?

What their price says about them...
Finally, ask about price. An actual quote may come as an hourly rate or as a project quote. If a writer is too cheap, you may be facing an inexperienced (though creative) writer. If a writer is too expensive, you may be facing an inexperienced (and demanding) writer, or a very specialized writer in heavy demand. Pricing depends a lot on the market and the kind of project you want. Don't be afraid to ask for a break if you're offering a lot of work. Make sure the writer understands the scope of the work and your requirements.

In the end, the writer you hire will be providing words for you. See how she writes, what words she uses, how she forms sentences and how her paragraphs flow. Do you like her style? Can you work with her tone? A sample of her work is the best way to tell all that. All the rest of your research should reinforce or refute that.

Good hiring!

Look me up on Twitter:
Personal: @alaneggleston
Professional: @a_copywriter

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hiring Writers II

Writers: Do you hire a specialist or a generalist?
By Alan Eggleston, writer, editor, SEO strategist

A great mentor once told me, a good writer can write anything. At the time, I doubted him, but I came to see through experience that he was right. Although subjects and formats and often the way you carry a project out are different between jobs, all writing is essentially about communicating facts and truths. A good writer, with a little research and toil, can write anything.

Answering the question I have posed would seem simple, then: You can feel good about hiring a generalist writer for any project. Yet, I think you can make plenty of cases for hiring a specialist, too.

When You Should Hire a Specialist
A specialist writer, like a specialist in any occupation, is one who works almost entirely in one discipline: a poet, a sci-fi/fantasy writer, a Web writer, a direct mail writer, a video writer, an audio writer, a DVD or or other interactive media writer, for instance. He or she has gotten so good at the craft and is so effective at it, that he or she can concentrate on that form of writing and make a good living at it. He or she has a reputation and clients have formed a line to tap his or her services. These professionals have tapped into niches that many other writers either haven't dared to try or haven't had the opportunity to do. They have honed skills key to mastering some very difficult or very intricate art or science.

I would hire a specialist when this is the sole project I'm going to do or when it is so key to my campaign or upcoming season that to fail would cause irreparable harm to my business. Or, I would hire a specialist when I don't feel confident the generalists I usually hire can or will do the project well.

When You Should Hire a Generalist
I would hire a generalist when I have multiple projects and he or she is so talented or skilled that I feel he or she can handle multiple formats. Or, I would hire a generalist when there are multiple elements to a campaign and you want to make sure the elements and messages hang well together between them, that they sound like they're part of one campaign. For instance, you may have a multi-tiered campaign involving letters, brochures, websites, post cards, radio ads, and mall kiosks, and you want the same theme and messages to run throughout them. A generalist will bring you unity across a range of collateral.

You may also have worked with a specialist who can handle a wide range of projects. For instance, I specialize in websites, but I can also write letters, brochures, event programs, blogs, social media, DVDs, post cards, videos, audios, ads -- you name it. Such a writer should be more than happy to help you with any project, even though he markets himself in a special niche.

The thing about writing is, the more you do the more you come to realize as a writer that a good writer can write anything. The goal is always good communication.

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