Content and copywriting Q&A with Chris Lomas of Clear Comms…

Clear CommsAs I’ve blogged about time and time again, content really is king when it comes to SEO, in the Q&A, Chris shares lots of helpful tips, resources and advice around copywriting and all things content.

Hi Chris, thanks for doing this interview, tell us a little about yourself and how you got into all things content writing and B2B / B2C copywriting?

Hi Dave, thanks for the opportunity.

So, a bit about me… I’ve been writing professionally for the best part of 20 years now. First as an Editorial Consultant for Drain Trader Magazine – as featured on a very early edition of Have I Got News For You; then as a freelance copywriter. I was enticed out of freelancing by a role as Senior Copywriter at a big copywriting agency in Nottingham.

Then towards the end of 2010, I set up Clear Comms, a copywriting service for clients looking for well-crafted, clear and compelling copy, with an emphasis on plain English.

People that know me, know I’m not natural writer, what tips would you give to people who struggle to write content?

When people say they struggle to write, I think it helps to demystify what a copywriter actually does. Copywriting isn’t a creative art, it’s a process. And like any other process, it’s got steps you can follow, and checks you can make along the way.

I think the most important thing you can do is keep it simple, because whatever you’re writing will sound better that way.

So start out by thinking about what you need to say. What’s the one thing – above all else – that you want your reader to think, feel or do as a result of reading your copy. Then write it down. If you’re promoting a new product or service, it’s easy. You want them to buy it, or at least find out more about it. So work backwards from there. Why should they buy it? How will it make their lives easier?

Keep asking yourselves questions. And challenge everything. Why is this product revolutionary? How will it save your clients’ money?

By now you’ll have a desired outcome – and a load of benefits – together with a good few reasons why your clients should find out more – that’s everything you need. Now it’s really just a case of joining all the dots, and filling in the details.

I don’t think good copy needs to be coercive. If you’ve got a good product or service – and you’ve already gone through the process of highlighting its benefits, then you know your clients are going to be interested. Just tell them about it – as clearly as you can. That’s all you need to do.

Oh, and finally – it’s never finished when you finish writing. Edit, edit, and then when you’ve done that, edit some more. Editing is where the real magic happens.

What 3 tips would you give to business owners who are looking to write copy for their website?

First, write it for your customers. Stuff your copy full of things they’ll want to know. Answer the kinds of questions they’ll ask. Write it in a way you think they’ll respond to.

Second, I think it helps if you have (or can develop) a recognisable tone of voice – something that customers will recognise as being unique to you – that will really help set you apart from your competitors. It can take time to find the right tone of voice – and it really needs to be dictated by the kind of language and style of presentation your customers like. But it’s really worth doing.

Third, don’t try to use any existing brochure-copy or bits of leftover marketing material to write your website. Write it from scratch. And remember, websites should sound different to hard-copy marketing. Don’t be too influenced what any of your peers have done either. Do it your way.

Oh, and a bonus tip – read Dave’s site for SEO advice first!

What 3 things would you suggest to avoid when creating content? Example, rewording a Wikipedia post.

First, avoid writer’s block. I know that might sound a bit glib, but if you take a few simple steps you can make sure you’re never beaten by the blank page. In my experience, the hardest things to write aren’t the most complicated things… they’re the things you haven’t got a good enough brief for. Or you haven’t been able to research. That’s when writer’s block sets in. It’s not when you don’t know how to say something, or you don’t know which of three possible openings you could use… It’s when you haven’t got enough information to guide you.

Second, avoid taking too much notice of what everyone else is doing. It’s great that we can use the internet to see what anyone thinks about anything. It’s also terrible. If I want to give myself a fright, I can type ‘East Midlands copywriter’ into Google and see just how many competitors I’ve got – and how many clients they’ve got, and what they think about semi-colons. But I don’t do that (well, not very often) because I want to stay sane! And I want to go on doing things the way I do them, without being influenced by anyone else.

The same goes when creating content. Research is essential, but there’s a fine line between research and plagiarism. So try not to pick up too many inferences and opinions while you’re reading around your subject. Otherwise, it’ll seep into your work without you knowing it.

Third, try to avoid saying too much. The best content is clear and easy to read. I don’t like those US style sales letters that ramble on for page after page – I think that’s just beating people about the head with benefits, which can actually reduce credibility. Instead, make your copy concise. Make the important benefits stand out. And give readers a good sense of what they need to know as quickly as you can. Because if they want to know more, they’ll definitely get in touch.

What would you say are the main differences when it comes to writing website copy over brochure copy or email copy for example?

With brochures you can afford to take a more straightforward narrative approach. You can tell the story – build up tension, and take the reader on a journey with consecutive touch-points along the way.

Some rules apply whatever you’re writing. For instance, use clear sub headings to help break copy up into manageable chunks – and to help the reader find the information they want.

When you write web copy, you have to acknowledge that people probably aren’t going to read it all. So the trick is, writing it in such a way that readers will still get something out of it, even if they’re just skim-reading, or dipping in and out.

If it helps, think of web copy more as a series of linked tweets – useful nuggets of information that work in sequence, but also work in isolation. Ideally you want a reader to be able to read lines in any order and still get a good sense of what you’re saying. You want them to be able to glance at a headline and know straightaway if that section is going to be of interest to them.

Be rigorous. Subject every line to the ‘so what’ test – if it doesn’t say anything useful, get rid of it.

Take everything you’ve learnt from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and adopt the same kind of direct writing style to your website copy.

Is there such a thing as the perfect structure for content that is trying to sell? If yes, what is it?

Okay, this is where it gets a bit controversial! Personally, I don’t think there is a perfect structure or format. But really, it depends on who you ask. So, in the interest of objectivity, I’m going to say that there are plenty of copywriters who use a pre-defined structure for every sales letter, for example. It’s a more formulaic approach – and some people swear by it. But that’s not an approach that I’m very comfortable with.

Personally, I prefer to consider each new job as a unique proposition. It’s never, ever, a case of thinking what worked for this company will work for that company. There are too many variables at play, and I don’t think any of our customers would ever like us to take a formulaic approach to their one-of-a-kind commission.

In the SEO world, the saying goes ‘content is king’, but as we know not everyone reads a whole page of web copy, instead we scan them, what do you do to combat this and get the most important messages across?

The good news is that it doesn’t matter. Provided there is interesting, well-written content all over your site, and provided you know that readers will find something useful wherever they look, it’s okay.

Just remember that when you’re writing web copy, every line, or every couple of lines need to give the reader something – it could be a benefit, an answer to a question, or a reason to read on. Try to make sure that wherever their eyes come to focus next, your reader will be getting some value out of your site.

How you structure the content helps here. Break it up with plenty of sub-headings to draw the eye. That will make bigger blocks of copy look less intimidating too.

Use bullet points where necessary, and box-out sections – and again, make sure they all reward the reader with something useful. Highlighted quotes and testimonials are a great way to leave a good impression too.

Of course this does all mean that every line has to be carefully thought through. It means every page has to work as a piece of narrative text, and as a smorgasbord of useful titbits. So, no pressure then!

With the use of mobile and tablet devices, screens are getting smaller – has this impacted on how content is structured or written?

I think it’s increasing the onus on us all to write more succinctly. And that’s a good thing. Anyone who uses Twitter knows that, with a bit of effort, you can condense some fairly complex ideas down into 140 characters. And that’s a great skill to have.

If you can reduce your business proposition or sales message down to 140 characters, then everything else is just window dressing. So, as copywriters, we need to boil things down into sharp copy that works for the time-poor reader on the go.

And we can apply the same thinking to every kind of copy. There’s no desire or patience for copy that takes half a page to get anywhere, whatever you’re writing.

Another consequence of writing more succinctly is that it reinforces the importance of editing. You can almost always improve any piece of writing in the edit. It’s just the same with Twitter… it’s easy to go a hundred characters over length. At first, it might look like it’s all indispensable content, but as you start clearing words away, you soon get to the heart of the message. Invariably it’ll sound so much better in its stripped down form. And that’s the essence of clear, compelling copywriting.

Do you have any advice around giving a piece of content a title?

I do, and I’m afraid the boring truth is that simple is almost always best. Research shows that most readers are drawn in by benefit-led titles. Cryptic titles work to some extent, but aren’t nearly as popular, and humour is just too divisive. You’re liable to put off more people than you draw in.

So nine times out of ten, you need to play it straight. Get right to the big benefit and go from there. Provided you’ve got a good brief, and a good idea of what the copy needs to say, you should be able to identify your biggest benefit without too much trouble.

When it comes to turning that benefit into a headline, try writing it down in as many different ways as possible. Change the words; change the order of the words and see what works. It’s important that it trips off the tongue too. Say it out loud and make sure it’s easy to say. True, most of your readers don’t tend to read out loud, but it’s surprising what a difference it makes when your headlines look unwieldy or sound cluttered.

I was reminded of the importance of alluring headlines (or of any kind of promotional copy really) when I passed a restaurant recently. The sign outside read, ‘We serve quality coffee’. It was just so underwhelming. No benefit and no inducement. Whatever happened to ‘damn fine coffee and apple pie’, or ‘rich, aromatic coffee’? That would have put me in the mood to stop off for 20 minutes.

When you start thinking about it, there are just so many things you can do to market a product in a few words. Suppose this restaurant ran a quick survey among their regulars asking who serves the best coffee in town. There’s a potential headline for you…

Are there any copywriting blogs, books or tools you would recommend to go look at?

I think if you’re an aspiring copywriter the best thing you can do is just get on with it. There’s so much advice out there that you can a) spend too long sifting through it all, and b) get too swayed by other people’s opinions and writing styles.

So, whenever possible, I encourage people to jump in feet first and find their own way – and their own ‘voice’ first. I’m with Dr Seuss on this one – “Learn by doing.” You don’t learn writing, you just do it… And you keep doing it… And keep getting better at it.

All that being said, I can recommend The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. Andy Maslen’s very popular and rightly so; his newsletter’s worth a look. And at the risk of sounding too self-serving, you can check out our free eBook, The A-Z of Copywriting. Its focus is on helping people who perform a copywriting or marketing function in their jobs but don’t necessarily consider themselves copywriters.

Another resource I’m happy to recommend is the TED website (www.ted.com). In short: a wonderful melting pot of inspiration and new ideas. It really is the most incredible resource, full of thought-provoking, mind-expanding talks – all free – by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, visionaries, artists and entertainers. You won’t find any copywriting advice there, but you will find plenty of new angles on marketing and creative thinking.

I expect, like SEO, there is a variation in price for copywriting services, very cheap to very expensive – what 3 things should somebody look for when looking to appoint a copywriting firm?

For a start, find someone you’ll be able to work with. You won’t necessarily meet your copywriter, but chances are, you’ll spend a fair bit of time dealing with them on the phone or via email. So it helps if you can get along. Do remember that copywriting is a process. From the initial brief through to completion, you’ll work through various ideas and iterations with your copywriter. So as well as being able to get along, it helps if you can talk openly. You need to be able to respect each other’s opinions and ideas.

Next, don’t get too hung up on the size of the organisation. There are some wonderful copywriting agencies out there. There are some exceptional freelancers too. It all comes down to how they write and how closely they meet their objectives. So ask for samples of work, and get a sense of how each piece that you see actually met the client’s brief.

Finally, make sure you choose an adaptable copywriter. This is particularly important if you’re looking for a longer-term relationship that’ll encompass different types of copy. A good copywriter should be able to hit any kind of tone of voice required. So again, ask for samples of their work – try to get a range of pieces so you can look at their different writing styles and approaches.

If you get all those assurances from your copywriter, price won’t be too big an issue, because you know you’ll get good copy that does exactly what you want it to.

And finally, tell us about your company ‘Clear Comms’, what you guys do, offer, your core services, etc?

Well I’m going to lead with the fact that we’re still the only copywriters anywhere to have been awarded a gold medal by the Plain Language Commission. And I’ll keep saying it until someone else comes along! So that means we take an anti-buzzwords approach to our writing. It’s clear, benefit-led copy that speaks in ways readers will respond to.

We’re very lucky in that we get involved in all kinds of copy – both B2B and B2C – and we can cover any kind of copywriting requirement. So that includes articles, case studies, company profiles, newsletters, product descriptions, sales letters, speeches, tender documents and video scripts.

Come over to www.clear-comms.com to find out more. There are lots of copywriting resources and guides there, and our free A-Z of Copywriting eBook. You can sign up to our monthly newsletter too, which is full of tips, articles and opinions on copywriting and marketing.

Note: I couldn’t finish this post without saying a massive “thank you” to Chris. To find out more about Chris and Clear Comms, visit Clear-Comms.com.

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