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The word is not dead: 12 steps to writing better content

18 Apr 2017

Posted by Nicky Hughes

In an age where brilliant design and development have been thrust to the forefront of brand success, Onespacemedia’s Thomas Rumbold discusses why sleek, engaging copywriting is more important than ever.

Despite whisperings to the contrary, the word is not dead. Actually, the word has never been healthier. It is however, kicking, raging and screaming behind two feet of soundproof glass that has ‘design is more important’ pristinely stamped across it.

Despite the digital industry almost collectively denying it (and I don’t think it’s entirely intentional - we’re just a new industry that has been distracted by the myriad of technologies we need to keep mastering), the role of the written word is more important in branding and marketing than it has ever been. The Internet is a global marketplace that is permanently open for trading. Which means that successful messaging, in an endless ocean of competing messaging, needs to be driven by the best combination of words possible to even be found. Then, those words need to be so engaging that they hold their visitor - and further yet, strong enough to sell. It is very important for design and development houses to embrace that.

The word is as important a part of brand direction as colour choices are. It directly shares a message, with no ambiguity. The language and tone that are used have an enormous impact on the automatic associations that an audience make with a product - and the assumptions they make about how their choice reflects on them personally. A product alone, does not sell itself. We also have to give it an identity - and writing lean, engaging copy is the best chance a brand will get to directly connect with their audience, and help them take away a positive, emotional interpretation of the whole package.

I’ve written professionally in various capacities for the last seven years. In this time, I have written a combination of material that has both made me beam with pride - and some copy so poor that it should have been hurled into the nearest fireplace, computer included, before it even hit the page. I have learnt many, many lessons. Based on those, and in a rather grandiose statement of intent, I’ve put together a few practical things I consistently do to improve the quality of the words that I write.

Lay the foundations

Audience

First, thoroughly consider your audience. Who are they? What do they value? Why are they reading? This is vital stuff to get right. It’s also vital to accept that it is impossible to please all of the people, all of the time. Anybody who challenges that is wrong. To clarify, you will not be able to cater perfectly to 100% of the people that read your words. However, if you can engage 80% of them very well, that’s a brilliant result.

Length, tone and language

Keep in mind your audience when considering length, tone and language. To illustrate this, imagine you’ve been commissioned to write the new Bentley marketing material. Your luxurious associations with strength, beauty, power and success are very different to the fun, accessible, playful and caring language you’d have to use if you were writing for the Early Learning Centre.

Don’t over-illustrate your points, either. Being descriptive is very different than being flowery and this is not chapter four of a Pulitzer nomination candidate. People don’t react to brand messaging in the same way that they do when reading for pleasure. People who land on your copy haven’t made the decision to sit down and read for enjoyment - so it really needs to hold them. Like the best graphic design, language needs to be sleek and under-designed. As soon as the reader notices the words, they’ve usually been divorced from their message.

Planning

Before I write anything, I put together a ‘skeleton’ document, made of headings and subheadings. Under these, I have a bit of a keyword ‘jam’ where I empty my mind of section appropriate words. This allows me to visualise topical flow, identify any glaring omissions, and see if some headings can be bundled together into single topics. Even if you don’t end up using headings in your work, your piece will be logically segmented and the structure will strengthen your ideas.

Consistency and style

You may have the luxury of working to a house style. That will make decisions for you about whether you use digits or words for numbers, whether the Oxford comma is acceptable, the various spellings of ambiguous words, and occasionally, things like paragraph lengths.

If you don’t have that luxury, just be consistent. Don’t do anything weird. Decide what you’ll do and then make sure that cascades throughout your piece. Smaller paragraphs are better online to compensate for the ‘wall-of-text’ effect that easily bounces them back into the depths of the Internet.

Writing

Prioritise and link

It’s critical to the flow of your piece that the information is prioritised correctly, and the sections link naturally. This isn’t exclusive to any specific length of document - the paragraphs in a 400 word section of branding need to work together in the same way that entire chapters need to have natural links throughout a 3,000 word paper.


Brevity and trimming the fat

No message in the history of writing has ever been afforded infinite words. It just can’t happen. You have limited words to tell your story, and that should be central to the decisions you make. Every sentence should serve a purpose, and even the words within those sentences should be optimised. If you’re not sure whether to cut a section, ask the question: “Where is the value in this paragraph?”. Look to achieve absolutely minimal waste to keep your reader reading. I try to subscribe to the idea that whatever the length of my first draft, it can likely be 20% shorter if I’m a little smarter about my articulation.

Au naturel

This point addresses something that might actually be more a reflection of my own style than anything else - but I’ve always had great results with using a natural, almost conversational tone. I’m not talking about slotting ‘mate’ onto the end of your sentences - but I do carefully consider whether I could say the words that I’ve written in a conversation without feeling like I’ve just stepped out of Victorian England. Being overly formal is a surefire way to separate yourself from your audience, making it exceptionally difficult for them to care about your words.

Quality control

Error-checking

This part has been overplayed in any guide to writing anything in the last fifteen years, so I will keep it brief. Spelling errors jump off the page like tiny tributes to how little you care about attention to detail. Grammar errors confuse and break the flow of your sentences. Either use both to gloriously destroy your brand, or use spelling and grammar checkers to keep it great.

Print it out

I’m sort of old school. Printing a document out and working with the draft on paper for some reason engages a different part of my creative brain than sitting at a desk and pounding out 1500 words does. I print it and annotate it and it plays a massive part in helping me optimise it. I know we’re supposed to be paperless, but I’m not there yet. Plus, I think Hemingway would agree.

Read it out

Reading your work out loud is a great way to detect sentences that are too long, and other suspicious grammar. If you can read it out loud naturally and easily, it’s likely that your audience can digest it mentally without much of a problem.

Get others involved

Without driving a stake through the heart of your team’s productivity, try to get others involved if you think it’s appropriate. This isn’t a ‘writing by committee’ suggestion - but it’s amazing what others might spot simply because you’ve been submerged in the intricacies of language all day. Ultimately, you can overrule these things - but a different perspective can really help sometimes.

Give it some distance

If you’re lucky enough not to be working to an insane deadline, I’d really recommend giving your final draft some distance. Bring it to the point that you’re convinced that it’s ready to go - and then revisit it the following morning. You’ll be separated enough from it that you can spot any tiny tweaks - but conceptually it’ll all still be fresh in the mind. The devil really is in the detail.

Finally

While there are only a few hard and fast ways to end up with great copy, one of the most reliable ways to improve your chops is to practice. On-brand, engaging writing is a powerful way to stand out in busy, competitive markets that constantly demand the attention of their audience.

Nicky Hughes
Posted by Nicky Hughes

Digital Communications Manager at Onespacemedia

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