13 Jun 2018
In part 1 of my conversation with Amanda Jackson, we talked about tone of voice, what makes good copy and why you should always employ a copywriter.
In part 2, we discuss writing for the web, working with designers and how to choose a copywriter.
On writing for the web…
AJ: We briefly spoke about websites, and I wanted to ask you about website copy because I think writing for the web is a skill set of its own. You wouldn’t, for example, use the same copy from the print brochure for a website, would you? Can you explain why?
ST: It takes twenty five percent longer to read something online than it does in print. So I write really short copy for websites – apart from my own!
People will take a brochure and open the first page and they’ll skim the page and then look at the second page, and the third page and that’s how people read brochures. But that’s not how people read websites.
They click a Google result and might come to your home page, or they might come to your contact page, or they might come to a random service page. So the copy should be short, engaging and interesting. You want a visitor to think: ‘yes, I’m in the right place. Let me explore further, or make a purchase, or call, or fill the form in.’ Whatever.
Having said that. These days blog posts and online articles are getting longer, as more people are willing to read longer articles. The Guardian now has a section called The Long Read. And from an SEO point of view Google likes 1000-word blogs because a 1000 words contains lots of juicy information that readers find useful. And that makes Google happy.
But I think for service pages, you just want to give enough information for your visitor to take action: to click or download or purchase or call.
AJ: Can you talk a little bit about SEO?
ST: I’ve been an SEO (search engine optimisation) copywriter since 2005, and SEO copywriting [where keywords and keyphrases are included in the headlines and the copy to make it easier for Google to find you] has changed so much. Google practically does an update every month, so you just have to keep on top of it.
But I go back to the same thing all the time: Don’t try and trick Google. Clients often say: ‘should we write for Google or write for our web visitors?’ Just write for your visitors. And if you do it well, that’s what Google likes too. Google just wants you to provide good content to your visitors. So that’s nice headlines and good copy, and keywords, keyphrases and synonyms weaved into the copy in a very natural way. Google is super super clever these days. So, it knows that ‘cheap car insurance’ is the same as ‘cost effective’ and ‘not expensive’ and ‘vehicle’. So, Google understands that. It means you don’t need to keep putting ‘cheap car insurance’ into your copy. In fact, if you stuff your copy with the same keyphrase over and over Google will almost certainly penalise your site. Avoid!
On working with designers…
AJ: What point do you get involved in a project?
ST: [Laughing] Not early enough! I often get emails saying ‘our website is about to go live. Can you write the copy this week?’ It’s a joy to come in early and influence the design of the site and what pages are actually needed. But that rarely happens. People always get the design done first and then they do the copy. And that’s fine. In an ideal world, what needs to be said should be done first, however long it is, and then you build the design around it. But as I said that rarely happens.
The process of working with a designer is a bit chicken and egg. One doesn’t get done completely then the another one starts. Ideally, you start doing copy, and I speak to the designer very early on to see if they’ve got any ideas, and then I make sure that the copy is going to match. It’s key that the tone of the copy and the design matches. It has to be a marriage. You can’t have super quirky funny copy in a very corporate blue website with people looking around a computer. So it’s important to get onboard with the designer very early on and have a conversation.
AJ: Yes, in practice, design is a process that should happen with content. But sometimes (and don’t kill me for saying this!): it depends on the project.
I had a client that wanted a book designing but they hadn’t finalised the content. In this case, the copy needed to come first because it’s heavily content based. So I’m asking what are the key messages? I’m a designer and I need to communicate. But there was nothing to communicate!
Designing with dummy text causes problems as you end up designing the same thing twice! Content that comes after the design rarely fits into place. In this case, good design first needs good content.
However, with something like a website landing page where the design greatly impacts the user’s experience I think the final product can be stronger if the designer creates wireframes with the already agreed key messages in mind before final copy is created. It can be helpful for the copywriter to know whether a section will be displayed as one long blurb or broken into clickable sections. Of course, wireframes aren’t carved in stone; it’s an opportunity to discuss and shape things before they are final.
When we’re doing packaging design and only have a certain amount of space, it’s great to collaborate with a copywriter when we know what we’re working with. Clever wording can really help to elevate a design.
To be honest, the concept should come first before either the writer or designer can start anything. A concept is what essentially creates an experience and provides clarity during a project.
ST: I think what’s key here is that early collaboration between the designer and copywriter is essential.
AJ: Agree. Writers + Designers = A match made in heaven! In my experience, if designers and copywriters collaborate at the early stages of a project then the final result is always better.
ST: Absolutely. So my answer is ‘as early as possible’!
On looking at copy in situ…
AJ: I remember when we were working on the Jackdaw website and you did something I really liked. I thought the copy was written and the job done. But I remember you saying that you wanted to have a look at how the words actually looked on the page. And I didn’t expect that.
ST: There are some people who still talk about below the fold on a website. I’m like, what fold? That applied when screens were the same size and we had to scroll down the screen to read the words. Now, no one has the same size screen. Now people look at websites on laptops, on your mobile, on iPads. I’ve got a massive Mac, so have you. So huge screens. So that below the fold stuff doesn’t happen anymore.
But I still like to see the copy in context. Sometimes there’s a beautiful image, and there are a few lines of copy on the images and you realise it’s too long or doesn’t sit quite right. Or suddenly, you have two columns and there’s a lump of white space. Now, I like white space but sometimes it doesn’t look quite right and needs an extra sentence or two. Or a sentence needs rewriting. So yes, I do like to see copy in situ, to check that it looks alright.
AJ: As well as sound alright.
ST: Absolutely. Whenever I’m writing, I’m always thinking about the design. And designers will say to me: ‘how are you seeing this?’ and I might say ‘I was thinking the image on the left and the copy to the right, and that quote in a box or something’. And I don’t mind it when designers say to me they’ve just put some placeholder text in for the headline. That’s great. If I like it, let’s use it. I’m not going to rewrite the header just for the sake of it. If it works, it works. Designers are looking at copy all the time and copywriters are looking at design all the time. And you get an eye for it.
AJ: Do you have a particular approach when it comes to writing?
ST: As a rule, I write and then halve it. What do they say? Write drunk and edit sober.
AJ: [Laughing] Really?
ST: I don’t totally recommend it literally, otherwise I’d be drunk at 10.30 in the morning! It just means write with abandon. And then edit. So squeeze it down, then squeeze it down, then squeeze it down. Can I make it shorter? And shorter? And that takes time.
It kills me when the clients say: ‘this won’t take you long because it’s really short.’ I’m like, seriously? That’s going to take me twice as long because it’s really short. It’s about crafting that sentence so it’s just right.
I get that people scan copy. But they’re not going to engage with the copy at all if they’re bombarded with overly long words and super long sentences. So it just needs to be short and tight.
On how to choose a copywriter…
ST: There are tons of copywriters out there, thousands in fact. If you’re looking for a copywriter, obviously have a look at their portfolio. But one of the most important things – and I say this all the time – is the relationship you have with your copywriter.
Clients always laugh at me because I start saying ‘we’ very early on in the project. I say, ‘when we launch the website’, and ‘when we send the brochure out’ because I totally consider myself part of the team, part of the marketing department. And that never goes away. If six months down the line, I’m looking at a client’s blog posts and I see a typo, I call them up! I have one client, and sometimes their tweets are not what I think are on brand. I did their brand guidelines. So I tweet their MD, who I know well, and I tell him. I’m such a snitch!
AJ: [Laughing] I love that! Do you find because you write for brands, if a key person leaves that company – I’m talking about a big corporate – and a new person comes in, you probably know that brand better than they do and can advise them?
ST: Yes. Although that’s why the tone of voice document is such an important document. It’s a really good pack that someone gets handed on day one.
But yes, you’re right. There are companies I’ve worked with for a long time. And there are companies that I’m writing their third or fourth website. And when people leave they often take me with them and I end being their copywriter at the next job.
There’s also that time when you can’t do any more for a company and you need to walk away. When you say: ‘I just can’t write about this anymore’. Sometimes you need fresh eyes and ideas. And that’s absolutely fine.
The important thing is, when it comes to choosing a copywriter, pick someone you can get on with. Someone you can call anytime and ask what they think of something. You’re on the same team, and you have a common goal. The difficulty is some companies see the copywriter as a supplier. And they see suppliers as adversaries to treat badly and pay late. And then it all becomes very difficult.
AJ: I have very similar things in design. I got asked to do a supplier interview and I felt quite offended. I don’t think of myself as a supplier. I’m a partner and part of the team.
ST: Yep, it’s about ownership as well. I really care about what I work on. The whole time I’m working on a project I really care about it. And you become an absolute expert for a short amount of time. I was at a party once and chatting to this doctor, and she thought I was an antitheist because I’d recently been writing copy for a university and talked with such confidence about it!
AJ: [Laughing] I love that story!
ST: Because you get so immersed in what you’re writing about. And you become an expert for several weeks and then go on to the next job. There are not many businesses now that I come across that I haven’t written about before.
AJ: Do you have a favourite type of client?
ST: [Laughing] One’s that pays me on time! No, I don’t have a particular type. I just really like the diversity of different types of clients. There are some copywriting niches like medical copywriting or something like financial copywriting. And if any of that comes my way I pass it over to colleagues who specialise in that. But anything else I write. With a good brief, I think a good copywriter can write about anything.
AJ: Yes, I think that way about design too.
ST: Yes, because you research it, you get involved in it, you get look at their competitors and you just read everything about it, and then you start. So, I wouldn’t like to specialise really.
AJ: Is it important to meet your clients?
ST: I do like to meet a client ideally. I have clients all round the world. But if they’re in London or close by it’s good to go to their head office or factory. I did some work for this client who makes beautiful Victorian windows and I went to see the windows being made. And it was so easy to write the copy after that because I could see they were so enthusiastic about their work.
So often you’re walking into an office and you think these guys are going to be quite conservative. And then you get there and there are bean bags everywhere and a fun interior and it’s all pretty cool. And you think, ‘why doesn’t this come across on their website?’
On collaborating with other copywriters…
AJ: Do you collaborate with other copywriters?
ST: Not so much collaborate but we certainly share work. If I’m too busy I’ll pass work over. There’s a great copywriting community on Twitter and we’ll recommend each other there.
ST: There are some things I won’t write about, so that gets passed on.
AJ: Is that for ethical reasons?
ST: Yes, so I won’t write about gambling or betting. I’ve turned down a guy who was a glamour photographer. And some guy was a fashion designer who made crocodile handbags. I’d never write copy about smoking although I did do vaping. And I’d never write copy for Manchester United because I’ve got standards! How about you Amanda?
AJ: Cigarettes, I wouldn’t do either. And I haven’t really been asked to do anything else that’s touched a nerve. A good while ago when I was a designer at a bigger agency and they asked me to write for a cigarette brand and I said I wouldn’t do it.
ST: It’s nice that we can pick and choose the jobs we do. That’s important.
I always think copywriting is a bit like cooking. If you’re a bad cook and hate cooking, like I do, it tastes in the food. So I never cook. And people who love cooking – well, their food always tastes lovely.
And I think the same with copywriting: if it’s written with love you can see it in there.
AJ: What a great point to finish on. Thanks Sarah!