Copywriting for Designers: A Guide for Getting Started

Published

December 20, 2021

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So far we've looked at what it means to design with content in mind, and then we dove deeper into what copywriting is, what it means today, and what it could look like in the future. Now, Ana Wang gets to the fun stuff: practical tips and techniques covering copywriting basics for people who aren't professional writers or frankly, even amateur writer-types.

Writing, as universal a skill as it is, still leaves many people with dread and even panic. And blank pages that need filling? Almost as nerve-wracking as public speaking, but oh, the possibilities! What ideas and thoughts will I record into existence? Even more exciting: what of me and what I know will I share with others? And perhaps most exciting of all: what will I learn about the world and of myself with nothing more than my mind and a pen or a keyboard?

‘Perspectives, parables, proposals, lessons, fantasies – they all live within us, in the dark depths of the mind's ocean. Writing is the process of fishing these out.’ – Julie Zhuo, founder, author, and former VP of Design, Facebook

Why does it matter that you learn how to write?

At the very least, if you learn how to write better but never end up needing to apply the skill to any projects, you learn to communicate, period.

That kind of skill can help you get jobs, get your point across with higher efficiency and greater effectiveness, even help you navigate the world of remote work with more ease.

In designer and technologist John Maeda's Design in Tech Report 2017, he calls writing the unicorn skill for designers, not coding.

What I like most about his assertion? Not that writing is the new unicorn skill for designers, which it could be – but that he believes it's entirely learnable, just like the legions of designers in recent years who decided to learn to code.

So let's learn how to write, shall we?

The power of language and words

Let's start with laying some groundwork, some strategy and intent.

You may have stumbled upon this article wanting to pick up some tips for replacing your Lorem Ipsums with something. What you're going to learn isn't going to stick unless you get just how important language and words are, in spite of the evidence suggesting otherwise and people continually screaming ‘People don't read anymore!!’

They don't, mostly because of bad writing. People rarely read online (they scan). In fact, we're already fighting the odds if you got far enough to be actually reading this sentence.

The stakes are higher, the world is noisier. When there's so much else competing for our attention, bad writing doesn't deserve (and won't get) attention, even if the topic, product, or company at hand needs it.

And that's exactly it. Bad writing takes attention away and gives people a reason to redirect it toward something else (may I interest you in a cat video?). Good writing? Holds their attention and gets them to do something in a way that a visual can't on its own.

You can design words and words alone to get the message across. A picture may be worth a thousand words but hey, sometimes all you need is a few good words to say it all.

Words are a partner to visuals and together they influence people and how they make decisions, what they buy, how they experience a product, and ultimately, what choices they make.

‘People don’t choose between products. They choose between descriptions of products.’ – Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-winning psychologist and economist

Copywriting basics for designers (even if you're not a ‘writer’)

Today, with so many flashy tools and mediums at our disposal, the way people read words on the internet is very different from how we read books. Forget what you think you know about writing from English class.

For example, a common rule in copy and content in digital mediums is to use much shorter sentences and typically only one sentence a paragraph, a rule that traditional writer-types abhor as not being accurate to what a paragraph ought to be. In fact (cover your ears, grammar lovers), you might even need to forget proper grammar if it's not how people talk.

Clear over clever (mostly)

Have you ever used a product that just wasn't working for you? It's a frustrating experience and you're not usually thinking in admiration, ‘Wow, this product is so smart, no wonder I'm not getting it!’ Similarly, reading something that you don't understand doesn't make the writer seem smarter.

You don't need to be super creative with copy. Every sentence doesn't need to be a masterpiece. In fact, you may have noticed that all the best and most memorable copy is easy to read.

Copy that works is, quite simply, clear and to the point. Aim for shorter, simpler headlines with words that trigger a response. What words might those be? Well, to start, everyone understands them. For example, ‘new’, ‘free’, even ‘you’ tend to work well, no matter how much we think we don't fall prey to such simple tactics. And if you mean ‘use’, don't use ‘utilize’.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for clever or poetic or heart-shakingly beautiful language. There is. But that kind of language makes an impact best when there's room to appreciate it. So go for clear first and foremost and by default.

Authentic doesn’t have a singular voice

We know authenticity works. We know that people respond to people. We can see it with our own habits and likes, how we follow strangers on the internet, how we question and hold brands accountable when they don't seem authentic. But when it comes to marketing and copy, the lines are blurred and a lot of people have misconstrued authentic for same.

Writing authentically doesn't mean writing with a friendly or witty voice, as so many marketers and copywriters would have you believe. It means writing in whichever way best intersects a brand's core values and positioning with the audience.

How this translates for you? Don't worry too much about writing witty or bold copy for the sake of being witty or bold. Fewer people care about that than you think. In fact, I'd guess that writers are biased towards witty and bold because that's what they like, which is why we see so much copy (and therefore branding) that feels exactly the same – exactly the opposite of what they were aiming for.

Write not how you or your peers/industry would write. Write how your customer speaks.

This is the biggest mistake I think people make when they're writing copy. They write with their own lens, which by default caters toward others like them: usually their peers.

It might not be ‘bad’ copy and your peers probably think it reads great. But your peers are not your audience necessarily. Your readers are probably people who know a little less than you do. They need what you have. Your peers don't, because they're already doing the same thing.

This is harder than you think to untangle from: we want to sound smart, to demonstrate our expertise, to be on the same level as who we aspire to. But that's where things land flat.

Writing great copy is so much about being a good listener.

The most underrated tip I have for writing great copy? Social media listening, customer reviews, and feedback are great places to pull ideas and even actual language. You'll hear exactly, in your user/customer's words, how they feel, what they want, what their frustrations are. This is how I cheat when I write copy, not because I'm lazy, but because it works.

Oh, and like I said above, ‘you’ all the way. Not ‘you all’, not ‘Hey everyone’. Write like you're writing directly to one person. Isn't that how you feel when I'm writing to you? Because I am. I know you're not reading this in a group. This experience is a solo one.

Bonus: writing how your reader/user/customer would is actually SEO best practice, because search engines match up what people search for with on-page text, while factoring in analytics like how long people stay. So you writing in a way that speaks to them? That'll speak to search engines too.

Be inclusive with the language you use

Copy has the power to both attract and repel people, and if you're not using inclusive language, you're repelling entire groups without intending to do so.

  • Again, use language your reader actually uses and understands

  • Unless you are bound by geography, be careful about using any language (including casual slang) or references that are location-specific

  • Use gender-neutral pronouns by default unless you're referring to a specific person.

  • Be mindful and avoid words and phrases that could be triggering for specific communities and people (e.g. terminology that could be interpreted as making light of mental health issues)

Buffer wrote this great guide covering more inclusive language basics.

There are a lot of things to be mindful of and avoid, but on the flip-side, thinking of language as having the power to create spaces of belonging is an amazing thing to be a part of. 

I've seen how through writing alone, you can hold the power to include more people in spaces that they may not have felt included in before. Don't take that lightly.

Focus on benefits, bullet point the features

You're going to like this one because it means a much easier time when it comes to writing copy: you get to write bullet points!

Bullet point lists are easy to read because they break up text visually. They give your reader a bit of a breather.

A general guideline that seems to work well? Write benefits out as headlines and prose, and features as bullet points, which you can see in practice commonly on product pages for eCommerce sites, often featuring a paragraph focused on the benefit, with technical specs of products in bullet points, and marketing websites including SuperHi’s course pages

The benefits a.k.a. 'the impact': 

​​This free course is go-at-your-own pace and has 4+ hours of video lessons that will teach you, from start to finish, how to get your very first website online. It's an introductory, crash course to learn a range of new creative, digital skills so that you can start making things online for fun or take your career to the next level.

The features a.k.a. 'what they’ll get' or in this case, 'what they’ll learn':

  • How to work with a client and set up a project plan.

  • How to design a brand using Figma — we'll cover fonts, colors and how to create a logo, even if you're not a designer.

  • How to code your website from scratch — learn the basics of HTML and CSS using our intelligent code editor, the SuperHi Editor.

  • How to plan and wireframe your design — we'll be creating a 3-page website including a contact form.

  • How to convert your wireframe into a design using Figma.

  • How to get your website online including a walkthrough on domains and hosting.

(See also: bullet sections, which are bullet points, but in blocks). It's not only more effective; it also makes the writing process so much easier and faster to not have to spiff up every single feature into beautiful prose.

What's the difference between a benefit and a feature?

Benefits are how the product will actually benefit the person.

Features are the features of the product, usually technical specs.

When in doubt, think of it this way: what the product is (features), versus why the product matters to the customer (benefits).

For a great study on how this works, look to Apple. They're known for this approach (‘People don't want to buy personal computers. They want to know what they can do with them’, said Steve – and it works.)

Headings should tell a clear story and be understood on their own as person moves down a page

So we already know that people don't actually read online. They scan, until something really catches their attention and they want to dig deeper (that's when you get the people who read the same thing over and over again, multiple times, before signing up, buying, whatever the intended action is).

This is why design and content should be tightly integrated in the product process; there's a huge opportunity during wireframing to establish the content structure and story of the page, right from the start. That makes writing copy infinitely easier closer to the end of the design process.

A webpage will contain headlines, subcopy, and body copy. How do you arrange all this information? Find a flow that works and that's clear and understood if someone were only to read the headlines. No one should feel confused as they're scrolling and scanning, and you should think about what the key messaging is to make sure that's clear from headlines alone.

Flow is the keyword here. Keep them going, keep them interested. You don't need to pack a ton of information into one section because that's what the section's about. Prioritize flow and key message. People will keep scrolling, but they won't stop scanning.

Use design principles

Writing good copy actually uses the exact same principles of good design, believe it or not. And if you think of it this way, it's much easier to break down and understand why some words read so well, why some people write so well.

Professional writers, just like professional designers, have honed their craft so that these principles are intuitively built in.

For example:

  • Repetition: alliteration (when words start with the same letter) and repetition of sentence structures can draw emphasis.  Examples:  'A few of our favourite finds' 'Big. Beefy. Bliss.' - McDonald’s (also employing 'rhythm', see below, with the power of three) 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…' - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

  • White space: writing with room to breathe, both visually and otherwise, can make a greater impact than writing that's too dense for people to get through. Example: Apple.com, which allows both visuals and copy room to breathe and make impact with as few words as possible.

  • Rhythm: mixing up sentence lengths can make for better flow, versus too many long sentences that are difficult to read or too many short sentences that sound curt and boring.  Example: 'In the realms of international allure, where beautiful people are draped in beautiful things, no more heinous act of sacrilege could be imagined. It’s like spitting on a Botticelli.' - Anthony Lane, Trapped in the House of Gucci

  • Contrast: drawing attention to opposing words and ideas can make them stand out. Examples: 'Mighty ideas. Tiny team.' 'Slow down the moments. Get ultra-fast shipping.' (for an imaginary e-commerce shop selling digital photo frames with Amazon-speed delivery)

What else can you think of?

Tips for becoming a better writer

There's so much nuance to ‘good’ writing – and I hope this much is clear by now: good writing how we're defining it, isn't the most clever, the most beautiful, the most poetic, or even the most clear (even though it's mostly clear).

Good writing is, just like good design, abstract in its definition but powerful in its delivery.

What's the difference between 75% lean and 25% fat? Nothing, except people are a lot more likely to choose the former option, believing that it's the higher quality (and better tasting) option. How we choose to frame words matters too. Bill Clinton was referred to as Hilary Clinton's husband – when ‘former president Bill Clinton’ would have been just as accurate, what's the meaning that's inferred?

Good writing is something that can be honed and developed over time. 

Unlike learning to code, you don't get the same kind of immediate feedback when something isn't working. But you'll start to notice when it does: people will stay longer, they'll buy, they'll read, they'll learn, and some of them will even tell you that you made a difference to them.

Here are some tips to train yourself to become a better writer:

Read a lot.

Notice words. Notice when you pay attention and when you don't pay attention. Author Zadie Smith lays out in her rules for writers:

‘Read lots of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.’

I heeded this advice and started going to the library almost every week, returning with a new armload of books. We're not the best judges of our own progress, so I think it means a lot that even I can tell I'm a better writer since starting this habit.

Along the same lines, when I decided that writing was going to be important to my career and that I wanted to get better at it, the first question I asked myself was: what kind of writing do I enjoy and why? (I found it easier to start with what I didn't enjoy: bland, run-of-the-mill, impersonal SEO content. Been there, done that, and I'm over it.) Then, what's standing in the way of that writing and my writing? I wouldn't have an answer to this if I had not read a lot and started to notice what it was that moved me as a reader. You may not be your end user, but through this practice, you can recognize and analyze the patterns of good writing.

Tip: keep a swipe file of great copy and return to it to see any patterns that come up. You'll start to notice what ‘good writing’ actually looks and feels like in practice, not how an English professor may define it.

Be ruthless with bloat.

‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.’ – Ernest Hemingway

We all have a tendency to want to fill up space, to pack as much as we can, to go for dense rather than light. But bloated writing is bad writing. The problem is: it's really, really hard to see this in our own writing. (It's why they always say that a writer's most valuable asset is a great editor.) We become attached to our own words, our brains stuck in the pattern of words we've just typed into existence.

An easy way to think about where to break your copy to avoid overwhelming readers is to stick to one main message per block of content. Anything more and that main message starts to get lost.

When it comes to the actual content of the copy itself, it's easy to say ‘get rid of unnecessary copy’ (no one wants to write useless words that no one will read) – but what exactly is too much? You don't have a copyeditor at your beck and call like the best of writers do. So, what do you do?

Here's a tip: remove a part of your copy, a word, a sentence, even entire paragraphs (copy and paste it somewhere so you still have it handy, just in case). Read it again. Did you lose anything? Read it again. Are you sure? If your message is still intact, you're better off without the baggage.

With this technique, I've retroactively discovered that I had indeed said the same thing twice*. I was just so attached that I didn't see it.

*Not to be confused with intentional repetition, which is a very effective and arguably necessary branding, marketing, and copywriting technique.

When in doubt, write how you speak, and then polish based on brand voice.

Putting words down on a page is easy enough. Writing well is really hard, because at the same time that you're defining what your intent and message is, you're also choosing the words to communicate that in a way that aligns to the brand and product. It's actually two cognitive challenges and two tasks at once.

So if you're finding it hard to get started, write how you speak. Dictate your speech into text if you need to. Think about how you'd explain what you're trying to explain to an actual person in front of you. Don't worry about brand or voice or style.

Then, once you've gotten the right messaging down, go back in with a brand lens in mind.

This removes the simultaneous cognitive challenges of doing two tasks at once.

Use AI writing tools.

They're getting smarter, these bots.

I wouldn't have ever thought that I'd be the one to recommend something that's practically set up to take my job, but that's the thing: just like no-code tools made creation more accessible, AI writing tools make communication more accessible. And that's huge.

No one should feel held back from communicating what they want to communicate just because they're not a professional. Using an AI tool may not take you all the way, but it can lay a lot of the groundwork.

Will you come up with the most creative tagline ever with AI? Probably not, but never say never. 

Just remember: most copy is not about being the ‘most creative’. Most of it is just simple sentences and clearcut communication.

Here are some recommendations (they're not free, but are a huge time-saving option to look into if you work on a lot of projects that involve copy):

Just start.

‘You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.’ ‘The hardest thing about writing is facing a blank page.’ ‘As a writer, a blank page will humble the hell out of you.’ ‘A blank page? Terrifying’. Writers have feelings about blank page – above quotes by Jodi Picoult (novelist), Octavia Spencer (children's books), Barry Jenkins (screenwriter) and Marie Lu (young adult fiction).

More than just a motivational nicety, ‘just start’ is the best tactical advice I can give. Everyone from experienced professional writers to you, the amateur writer, will face this same blank page.

You show up anyway.

You write your shitty first draft – words that don't even make any sense, thoughts that haven't fully crystallized yet. My first drafts include underscores galore because that's what I do when I haven't found the right word to complete a thought but want to keep my flow going. I say this not to disparage my own abilities as a writer but to show you the work that goes into taking a message and intent and turning it into something that moves, connects, engages, and helps people.

It helps so much to think of all writing in these steps: outline first (your wireframe), write second (low-fidelity design), edit third (high-fidelity finished product). And if you have the resources and capacity, then I'd add test fourth to that.

To cap off this series, let me end with this: the words you choose can change the world people see, and impact the choices they make. When you learn to write better, you're building new worlds. And through these words, you hold power: to champion ideas, issues, causes, people, and products that deserve it.

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About the author

Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.

Published

December 20, 2021

Author
Illustrator
Topics

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