Stop Writing Shitty Copy

I see terrible copywriting all the time. I don’t mean to say that if you follow my seven simple rules you’ll start writing brilliant copy. The most I can promise is that you’ll stop producing garbage. Solidly mediocre is often just enough to get the job done, so let’s set the bar there.

Your teachers should hate it

Nearly every teacher you’ve had from little on through university has made you a worse writer. Academic writing lives on bloat and bombast. We’ve all had a paper that had to be five pages long even though we had a page or so of material. Kill that instinct.

Cut to the chase, be as short as necessary and write in language that people actually use. Sneer at your high school English teacher that’s a proud grammar nazi yet buys unnecessary crap from companies that write clear, natural copy.

Easy to understand isn’t simplistic

I’ve read books about the quantum multiverse that are easier to follow than marketing emails and landing pages for simple products. Use the Hemingway Editor to check how complex your writing is.

Empathy is understanding your readers, respecting them and writing texts that neither assume they’re stupid nor waste their time by being needlessly hard to parse.

This is something that comes more from instinct than any hard and fast rules. Poke around r/explainlikeimfive/. Copy the style of posters who explain complex things in down to earth language.

Know what you’re talking about

Part of respecting your readers is having expertise in what you write about. If you don’t know your domain, why would your reader care about it? I’ve read way too many blog posts that were clearly churned out by cheap content farms. It shows.

Spend more time researching than writing.

The benefit goes first

You’re not writing an encyclopedia article with a bunch of dry facts. Compare:

Always stay in touch with 99.8% coverage, the best of any mobile network in the country.

Our company provides 99.8% coverage, which is the better than any of our competitors.

I don’t need to know extraneous information about obscure technical facts. Just let me know what’s important and how it affects me. For the 1% of readers who really need to know more, there’s always Wikipedia.

Knowing your audience is critical to figuring out what the real benefit of something is and what’s better left unsaid.

SEO was made for copy, not copy for SEO

You want your text to be found. I’m not against SEO. I’m against blog posts and ‘content marketing’ that are stuffed to the gills with keywords and click bait. If you could picture your title ending up on Buzzfeed, start over. I didn’t call this piece ‘7 Shocking Secrets of Copywriting That Will Revolutionize Your Sex Life’.

Know your audience and what they are likely to search for, but don’t go overboard with it. Something genuinely useful will be shared anyway. The army of fake social media accounts sharing your click bait spam isn’t going to buy anything from you.

Think in heuristics rather than rules

There are hundreds of style guides. Orwell’s six rules or Words That Work are even useful. But, the deeper you dig, the more contradictions and absurdity you’ll find. That’s fine as long as you never take anything as an iron-clad rule.

Even the best style guide is still only a heuristic—a shortcut to thinking clearly but not clarity itself. Invest the time in figuring out why a rule was formulated before you break it.

How I Write

Enough with theory. This is my work flow:

  1. Become a voracious reader: everything from blogs to marketing emails to technical documentation. Read every button on your phone. Don’t just passively read it, you have to analyze it. Shamelessly steal what works, ridicule what doesn’t. DocuSign has terrible marketing emails; Trello has beautiful API documentation.
  2. Use tools to check that you aren’t making your prose too dense. It’s easy to get carried away.
  3. Read everything you write aloud. Feel tempo and rhythm. Anything that’s too complex or unnatural will become obvious when you read it aloud.
  4. Think: is this something a professional in your field would conceivably say in real life? If not, rewrite.
  5. Kill your ego. You will rewrite your copy dozens of times. So it goes.

Time to get writing.


For my Russian-speaking readers, Пиши, сокращай is by far and away the best copywriting resource I’ve come across in either Russian or English.