When it comes to writing web copy, you probably thank your lucky stars you can hire a copywriter to do it for you. But if you can’t afford that luxury, or are just determined to do it yourself, you may have sorely underestimated how difficult it can be.
The first thing you need to remember is that you’re speaking as your brand, product or service, not yourself. And although there may be some overlap there, don’t fall victim to the rookie mistake of forgetting how to talk to your audience in the voice of your product, while still sounding human. And then once you get your words on paper, you need to be able to edit that sucker within an inch of its life without getting attached to your own writing. It’s not as easy as you may think.
Beth Dunn is passionate about good writing and offers her tips and tricks to writing and editing persuasive copy that speaks to your audience in a language they trust, understand and respect.
Rich: Beth Dunn is the Product Editor in Chief at HubSpot, where she manages the HubSpot product microcopy, voice and tone and customer communication. She’s also the founder and editor of HubSpot’s cherished weekly internal newsletter affectionately known as, The WIN.
Born and raised on Cape Cod, she studied geology and paleontology at Mount Holyoke College and Syracuse University, and then left academia to pursue the life of an interrent chef and freelance writer.
When the charms of the vagabond life grew thin – as they often do – she returned home to Cape Cod to work in theater and the arts, which oddly enough led her to go back to school for an MBA from Simmons College in Boston – and upon graduation – to a job at HubSpot as one of its earliest employees.
Besides being passionate about good design, good writing and the importance of having at least an informed opinion on the Oxford comma, Beth loves her cats, her knitting, and wearing the tread off her latest pair of running shoes for no discernable reason. Beth, thank you for being on the show.
Beth: It’s my pleasure entirely, thanks for inviting me.
Rich: So what do you think about the Vampire Weekend song about the Oxford comma? Did it do more harm or more good for the Oxford comma?
Beth: There’s no such thing as bad press. I love the fact that it got a whole generation of people to know that there is such a thing as an Oxford comma.
Rich: During my day job at flyte new media, we often talk to clients about creating their content and writing their copy and I often tell them how long it’s going to take and they say, “No, this copy is going to write itself, it’s going to be easy.” And then they come back to me afterwards and they say it was so much work. So Beth, let me ask you, why is writing so hard?
Beth: I think you put your finger on it actually, it’s hard because we think it’s going to be easy. It’s hard because we think anybody can do it and we don’t actually recognize it as such a skill that needs to be developed, worked at, and acquired over time.
Rich: So it is a skill like anything like learning to cook, learning to hit a baseball, like learning to drive, it’s something that you need to put time and effort into.
Beth: That’s one reason why whenever I speak I always emphasize the importance of diligent practice. I don’t sit down at a piano and expect to be able to play any sort of recognizable melody, because I’ve never practiced it, I’ve never learned. But we have this idea that just because all of us can sign our names or write a note to our spouse or friend that we can write for some other purpose or some business purpose. It takes a lot of practice.
Rich: Very often we’re working with people who are authors, and when I suggest that maybe they want to bring in a copywriter, they’re completely offended, “I just wrote a book, what makes you think I can’t write a website?” But in my mind they are very different skill sets.
Rich: You don’t’ see somebody running a marathon in the Olympics and then turn around and run the 100 yard dash.
Beth: That’s right.
Rich: So do you need to be a professional copywriter to write good copy for the web?
Beth: That sounds like a little bit too much of a blanket statement for me to be comfortable with. I think that it needs to be something that you’ve worked on before, something that is an arrow in your quiver. You don’t necessarily have to have “copywriter” in your job title or in your job description necessarily. Some people are just natural copywriters, I think that it does good to look for a person in your organization for an element of yourself and has a natural affinity for that, and maybe that just shows up as somebody who is really good at writing tweets. Tweets are a really good indicator of whether or not you can write short, pithy, and to the point copy.
Rich: Absolutely. So speaking of tweets and other types, if we’re sitting down to create content for our business or for our non profit, are their different approaches that you’d recommend for writing a blog post versus writing a web page or writing a social media post versus an email, even if we’re trying to say similar things?
Beth: I think it’s always a good exercise to start off by thinking about your intended audience. One of the mental exercises that I like to do when I’m writing is don’t just imagine a sort of vague persona. If you can think of a specific person that you hope will be reading this website or this email or this Facebook status update, then it often helps you use the words and phrasings and the examples that will resonate with that particular person.
You can have a sort of avatar of you intended audience in mind while writing that specific forum. And keep in mind that specific forums are encountered by people in different ways. What happens when you open up that email. Are you in a rush, is it first thing in the morning, is it late at night, do you have time to do anything more than scan it, what about in a Facebook feed, you’re embedded in with their friends and their family, how is that going to play. So you have to think about context as well.
Rich: Alright, so first off we want to think about who we’re writing for, and you’re saying don’t think of a woman 50-60, think about maybe Aunt Beth or something like that where we’re specifically thinking about somebody or who we understand who they are. Even if they’re a fictional person, just to know what kind of language you might use in that situation.
Beth: Sure, I think of it as a step in the process. I’m certainly not discounting the importance of using personas – I think they’re highly valuable – but once you’re at that point of refining your copy, I find it most helpful to zero in on a particular person and really try to hear through their ears and read through their mind and their experiences. It’s just easier for me, at least, to think of a specific person.
Rich: A lot of us struggle when we’re sitting down to write web copy, literally copy for our websites. Do you have any rules or structure that you go through when you’re trying to create that copy? I know you mentioned that we want to start by making sure we’re clear on who we’re writing for, but when we’re writing copy, is their something about length or tone or anything else that you go through when you’re creating web copy?
Beth: Well, I guess it mostly comes out in the editing process. My process tends to be one of just get the words down first without editing yourself at all. So even if you’re trying to compose a tweet or a very short piece of web copy, give yourself the time and the space to actually do a dump. Just write out everything that you think you possibly want to have in there. Don’t try to be short and clipped to begin with. Get it all down. And then stand up and walk around the room for a little bit and then go back to it, look at it and see what’s really important here. Then, as I say, take out the machete and start chopping away.
So once you’re at that point, once you’re at that editing stage – and I think that’s a mistake that a lot of people make is they don’t do it in two parts like that – they write with the machete in hand. Big mistake, you’re going to cut yourself. Once you start the editing process, then there are a few things that I always have in mind that help me hone something down. Maybe I’ll start putting in some contractions to make the language sound more human, maybe I’ll look out for the passive voice and use exacted verbs instead, maybe I will look for jargon and make it into simpler, clearer language, things like that. Just normal things that come up time and time again. It’s not that professional writers don’t fall into those traps ourselves, it’s just that we’ve learned over time to edit them out.
Rich: So by stopping and then coming back with a machete – as you say – to edit, that almost gives us – if we’re not buying or paying for a copy editor – it almost gives us the copy editor because there’s a separation there between when we stop writing and then we can come back with a clear slate and start looking at our content and maybe not feel quite as attached to it.
Beth: That’s right. I think it’s vital to not feel as attached to it as so many of us do. When I look at my rough drafts when I’m in the editing stage, I really try to make the concerted effort to imagine that it’s somebody else’s writing. That’s kind of a double edged sword – or two sides of the same coin – it allows me to have the detachment that I need to be somewhat ruthless, but I also probably treat other people’s writing with more tender compassion than I would my own when we’re not being so hard on ourselves. I won’t say, “this sounds so stupid”, I’ll say, “how can this sound better”, if It’s written by somebody else.
Rich: Well my next question I was going to ask is, where does writing stop and editing begin? So, you kind of stole my thunder. I’m not upset, I’m just saying, it’s like you were looking over my shoulder. So let me ask a different question. Where does editing end, where do you know that it’s time to hit “publish”?
Beth: Well, I don’t think editing ends when you hit “publish”. I’m in the software business so the things that I write and put into the software are susceptible to being updated. I just went through and updated a bunch of things that we’re kind of treating in a different way just this morning. We just have a different approach to sort of how we treat that web element. So you have to allows accept that things are going to be iterative – even if it’s a blog post that you publish – it makes sense to go back. If it’s an evergreen piece of content, go back a year later and refresh it and bring it up to date and make it better, more relevant, more fresh.
So it’s a never ending process and I think it’s a false expectation that paralyzes us to think it needs to be perfect and it needs to be perfect forever. Nothing is perfect forever.
Rich: Ok, and that makes a lot of sense and there are definitely times when I’ve wanted to go back and update some information, because when you write about social media things change all the time. And then there’s also the email. The email is that moment in time and there’s no “unsend”. Unless you’re doing it in Gmail, but that’s neither here nor there. In fact, I was just having lunch with a friend and she said she’s afraid of hitting that “publish” button when she’s about to send out and email newsletter. Is there any kind of tactics that you use specifically for email where you know there’s no “Control Z”?
Beth: Ok, you’re absolutely right. That definitely is a more do or die situation. I was just reflecting last night, actually, on how there was a job that I had in the distant past where I made a mistake, I sent out an email that had a horrible typo in it. I was young and inexperienced and I valued speed over quality. And because of that catastrophe, I trained myself to really pause before hitting “send”, and reread, reread, reread.
So some of the tactics that I’ve learned – and I actually learned this when I was a copy editor at Random House – is if you’re really too close to a piece of writing, it helps to read it backwards. Just read the words as independent, isolated words backwards from end to beginning. It helps you just look at that word and say, “Oh, I reversed those letters in it.” Otherwise, your eyes will skip over it and see what they expect or want to see.
Rich: Right, instead of what’s actually on the page.
Beth: Right. Reading it outloud also helps. At one point when I had something very complex and I was extremely overtired, I read it outloud and recorded it, and then played my voice back as I read it. It’s just really helpful. And what you have to do when you do that is you have to actually include the punctuation as well.
Rich: Who is that guy that used to make all the sound effects with the punctuation?
Beth: I don’t know.
Rich: Victor Borge or something.
Beth: Victor Borge, absolutely. Yeah, so that’s an extreme case, but I think just training yourself to pause and reflect, read it through at least one more time, have another pair of eyes take a look at something, read it backwards if you have to, then just gird your loins and hit “send” and understand that the world is an imperfect place.
Rich: Sounds good. Now very often one of the things people talk about these days is finding the voice of your brand. I think that confuses a lot of people. How do we find the voice of our brand especially if we’re just starting out in business?
Beth: That’s a really good question. I think that it comes back to your target persona. Again, I really do believe in the power of persona. What you have to think about is not who are you the solution provider as a person, or even necessarily who is your target audience, but in a jobs to be done sort of framework who is your product to your target persona. Who is this piece of software, this solution or this offering to them. They’re going to hire that thing to do a certain job, so is your product or your service a contract worker that comes in twice a week that they hope is fairly presentable and professional and young. What kind of persona is this employee that you’re offering to your target persona. Is it their right hand man, is it their first lieutenant the one that will be there no matter what come what may and they can handle their most complex and challenging projects. Well that voice and that product and service is going to have a completely different voice than the two day a week contractor. Does that make sense?
Rich: It does. And do you think that sometimes that practicing your writing skills helps you kind of get into preparing your voice to be heard by your ideal customers?
Beth: Oh, absolutely. Practice is essential in this – and I’ve struggled with this myself – the tendency is to write like yourself. If you’ve practiced writing at all, you’ve probably developed a certain voice. A lot of us start off sounding like our favorite writer or somebody that we want to model ourselves on, but with practice you start to develop your own voice. And your own voice is going to bleed through into whatever persona you’re writing through, but if you’re writing the voice of your product, it’s going to be different from who you are as a person. Maybe it’s a tightly overlapping venn diagram, but it probably isn’t as much as you think. It takes practice to learn that slightly – or maybe largely – different tone of voice.
Rich: Ok. Now one of the things we often talk about when we talk about voice is humor, and I know you like to talk about humor in writing. So I guess my question to you is, how can we be funny, or in my case, funnier?
Beth: I think most of us think we are funny, and I happen to think that most of us are right. I find people charming for the most part.
Rich: I like to think that most people are above average, as well.
Beth: I agree. So I love it when people try to employ humor in their writing, for sure. It’s definitely the trend. People want their products to have a more human voice and that means being funny sometimes, and being lighthearted and sometimes cute. But it’s not always the right time. This is more of a tone questions. Voice is the personality of your product, and tone is more context specific. So you may have a playful voice, but maybe when you need to deliver bad news, the playfulness is tamped down, you have to take on a serious tone.
Rich: Are there certain tricks to writing humorously, though? Is it punchline, is it vaudeville, is it the rule of threes or what can we do to just make sure that if it is appropriate that our jokes are landing #rimshot.
Beth: Well, I’m a big fan of the rule of three, personally. But I mean, that’s going to be a personal preference in whatever you can make work. I know that some people are extremely effective at puns, and of course puns are very, very popular on the internet. They can come across really well in the written form, strangely. So you can use that. Vaudeville and slapstick probably doesn’t work quite as well.
Rich: Unless it’s an animated gif. But that’s not writing.
Beth: One caveat that I would say about using humor is to be very, very careful that it’s not at your reader’s expense. That you’re not demeaning them or anybody else when trying to create a shared sense of “it’s us against them”. It can come off as very tonally wrong when you try to bring down anybody else, basically. You can be a little self deprecating, but even that can be a bit overplayed.
So what I have found helpful is to have in mind some source of humor that is fairly consistently kindhearted, in a sense. And I know I’m going towards my own personal preferences here, but this is what I do. I try and think of something like the early Muppets – before they got rebranded – when the humor was just consistently kind and wasn’t there to tear anybody else down. Maybe there’s a TV personality for you, someone that really resonates with you and that always makes you feel that the humor is uplifting in a certain way. I know that this isn’t everybody’s flavor but it is what I’ve found comes across most universally to the most readers as funny and will not get you in hot water. Snark can really get you in trouble.
Rich: Yeah, I found that out the hard way. I’ve definitely had three jokes land perfectly in a row and then I make that last joke and the entire room either groans or turns their back on me. So I definitely feel that pain.
Beth: That’s the other thing, too, is not to be greedy. You get one laugh, leave them on a high note.
Rich: Exactly. Mic drop, George Costanza will walk out of the room at that point.
Rich: So I know that I come from an SEO background, I know that a lot of HubSpot clients care about search engine rank. How do you balance the needs of search engine optimization in your writing so you can still write coherently and persuasively, but with an eye towards Google? Or do you, and you just say maybe you don’t pay attention to that at all and you hope for other ways?
Beth: I will be honest that I don’t come from a very strict SEO background. I was an early blogger but in a personal essay sort of way. So it’s not a core strength that I tend to draw on very heavily. My attitude towards SEO and copywriting tends to be that the Google algorithm – to my understanding – is really just trying to put into a formula what humans actually want. So if you try to speak as a human to the humans that you’re trying to help and give them content that’s truly helpful to them and their needs, then you can’t go far wrong.
Rich: Alright, that makes a lot of sense. I do think that Google – with it;s continually changes and evolution – is trying to mimic human intelligence as closely as possible. So I think that the long term solution is to write for humans, but I still am a fan of tweaking your titles and maybe a meta description or two just to make sure that you’re covering all your bases.
Beth: Oh, by all means, I probably should have stated up front that the basics of SEO should always be respected, and if you’re having trouble with SEO you dig in and you look at the “basic fives” and you really need to address that. It really wound up around the arcane bits of SEO where people thought they had to repeat this keyword so many times and then don’t spend any time on the basics. But the basics get you 80% of the way there.
Rich: Absolutely. I’ve seen people write these very introspective blog posts that are things like “what I’m thinking”. And I’m like, unless somebody’s Googling the phrase, “what I’m thinking”, they’re never going to find you and they’re probably not going to find you anyway. So why not tell them in the title what you’re thinking about, at least, and then that might be a good start.
Rich: So along the same lines of SEO perhaps, if SEO gets injected at the beginning then something comes at the end, and that’s a call to action. Not every piece of writing has to have a call to action, especially if it’s personal journaling. Do you, when you’re creating your content, end with a call to action and do you have any tips to make it feel more natural and more effective?
Beth: I am a strong believer in the call to action. I don’t use them on my blog, personally, just because it’s not that kind of a blog. But I believe strongly in the power of the call to action and that if you don’t have a call to action on your content to an offer that is capturing leads, then what are you even trying to do.
So to make it more natural I think you have to go back to the original intent of your content of your post. In what way are you trying to help your reader. It always comes back to helpfulness, and so the call to action should be a follow up to taking it one step further. Like “If this was a little bit helpful, you’ll probably find this to be enormously helpful”. And then as you know of course, try to make your CTA very strongly mirrored by what you see on the landing page so people not just know they’re in the right place, but what it does is it builds trust. It wasn’t a bait and switch, they clicked on this and it brought them to that. Perfect, they trust you.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. So from what I’ve heard you say today, a lot of this focuses around knowing who you’re writing for, practicing your writing – because it is a skill that takes a lot of energy and focus and repetition until you get it right – making sure that you understand the voice which is really coming from who that end user is, and when we are writing – if we don’t have a professional copywriter with us – that we should take a break between writing and editing so that we have a second perspective to look at this, that humor can be used and be careful – say it in the voice of an early Muppet perhaps, make sure you get the basics of SEO down, and calls to action. What’s the point of writing the article and who are you writing it for. And form that you can probably come up with a really strong call to action and then just make sure that when they land on whatever page that is that that call to action is repeated – or at least reflected – in the copy they find there. Does that sound like a good summary of what you shared with us today?
Beth: I think you nailed it.
Rich: Excellent. I’m sure people do want to dig deeper, and I saw a couple of your videos and they were great. Where can we find more about you online?
Beth: Well my blog is at bethdunn.com, and I also write occasionally for the HubSpot blog, so I think you can do an author search on there. The most recent piece was a while ago now but it got a lot of play, it was the point about exclamation marks. I have a flow chart as to whether or not you should use an exclamation mark at any particular time. Your listeners might enjoy that.
Rich: I will definitely have to check that out, because when I can’t use an emoji, I often fall backwards onto the exclamation point and sometimes it can be painful.
Beth: Well print out this flow chart and stick it next to your desk.
Rich: I absolutely will. Beth, thank you very much for your time today, I appreciate it.
Beth: My pleasure, thank you.
- Check out Beth’s personal blog, read her blog posts for HubSpot (including her flow chart on the appropriate time to use an exclamation point!) and follow her on Twitter.
- When he’s not busy crafting jokes for his own blog posts, Rich Brooks is the president of flyte new media and founder of the Agents Of Change Digital Marketing Conference.
- Also check out Jodi Flynn’s blog and podcast over at Women Taking the Lead.
- Transcription provided by Jennifer Scholz Transcription Services.