What is copywriting? The last copywriting guide you’ll ever need

Copywriting on billboardSo what is copywriting?

Copywriting is writing with the goal of persuading people to do something.

Do what?

Doing means either buying a product, believing in an idea, or adopting a set of values. Words can make readers do that. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Once copywriting equaled short-form content. Like ads in papers. Or on billboards.

But consumers have become increasingly immune to pushy advertising. I can tell you that overt attempts at selling seriously annoy me. Banners. Pop-ups. Ads sticking to a webpage. Begone from my screen, goddammit! Someone, please call Father Merrin.

I imagine you react in a similar way. Maybe with less swearing.

What does copywriting mean today?

Well, today advertising is different. Marketing is different. The way companies sell products is different.

An ad is not just an ad.

Take blogging, for instance.

Most companies today have a blog for content marketing. Content marketers cook up flavourful articles seasoned with valuable advice, inspirational guides, and knowledge just for you to devour. But there’s a point to the cookery. The content creators hope that you will bring your business to them in return for all the free and tasty goodies.

So even though a blog post is a piece of long-form content, its purpose is still to make you do something.

“Wherever words are making things happen for businesses and organizations there is copywriting.”

Tom Albrighton, Copywriting Made Simple

By this definition, content marketing is copywriting. So are emails, newsletters, social media posts, and website text.

Think about it.

Would a company spend money and energy mixing the ingredients for a yummy post if it wasn’t in some way driving sales?


Different kinds of copywriting.

Online ads, web copy, and landing pages urge you to act right now.

Messages here are often short and simple. A web page contains a headline and subhead with one or two key arguments and a call to action. Landing pages are slightly longer, but the point here is also to make you buy, call, subscribe, or sign up now.

Another type of copywriting is intended to create or increase brand awareness. Customers need to know you exist. A company in the process of building brand awareness is not trying to make you act this instant. Instead, content creators poke around for a vacant spot on a shelf inside your head. Once inside, half the work is done.

Then there’s the other half. The making-her-buy half.

But how does good copywriting make us buy stuff?

And exactly what is good copywriting?

Not words.

Litte bubbles of emotion.

Now I’m going to tell you what I think is the single most important thing to know about copywriting.

Write with emotionCopywriting is not about words.

Children start writing early. My daughter is almost four and will be writing two-letter words before long.  I think she’s the cuddliest, brightest little princess genius ever. But her ability to scribble words on her unicorn pad doesn’t make her a copywriter.

What all writers aspire to do – myself included – is not to create text. Copywriters don’t type words. They create bubbles of emotion. They transform abstract concepts into seductive and relatable sentences.

And make no mistake.

The process is strenuous and procrastination thrives. Oh, the things I wouldn’t do to get away from the keyboard.

Imagine having to explain being nervous. But without using the word.

Your heart feels twice its normal size. It’s beating so fiercely that you marvel at its capability. Near unbearable bursts of self-doubt and fear emanate from your chest.

You’re trying to picture every possible scenario. The good ones. The bad ones. Will you impress or disappoint?

You might snap back at someone talking to you because even a simple question can wreck the delicate emotional balance you’re trying to keep up inside your head.

Or you might go all quiet.

Poets and fiction writers do this all the time. Capture feelings and transform them into artful sentences.

So do copywriters.


Because it’s much easier to remember a feeling than a fact. And readers are far more likely to act on emotions.

The best copy makes you feel something. Happy, sad, excited, worried. Something.


Copywriting meant to build brand awareness has to be particularly sticky.

A great example is Nike’s Just Do It.

This enviable and addictive slogan inspires people to get up, get out, and get moving despite themselves. To overcome inner and outer obstacles. So simple. And yet one of the most impactful set of words ever created by a company.

You can’t capture emotions if you don’t notice them.

Writers are sensitive people.

As a copywriter, you have to be sensitive to the problems, interests, goals, fears, and dreams of your target audience.

Know your readerEveryone has his or her personal opinion of how the world works. And this mental model is like a brick wall.

In other words, readers are prejudiced.

So unless your words come in the shape of a mammoth wrecking ball you have to grasp the reader’s reality to make her listen. If you don’t, all your fine arguments will fall flat.

When you know who you’re writing for, you can start juggling words.

On opening paragraphs.

“I’m gonna get me a big one today”, he thought.

He stood at the edge of the lake savouring the fresh morning air.

Before he left home this morning, he made very careful choices.

He chose bubblegum and chartreuse.

These are great colors for the murky lake water.

For clear waters he would have gone with a silvery tint.

The fisherman.

Because the type of water and the color of the bait matter.

Fail to match the water and the bait color and most of the fish will pass him by. No bait and he won’t eat at all.

The fisherman is you. The fish are your readers.

And the intro?

That’s your bait.

Hook readers from the very beginning. Or all is lost.

None of the nifty copywriting tricks out there matter if you fail to capture the reader’s attention.

Knowing that your headline and intro mean life or death for your copy doesn’t make them any easier to write.

That’s why copywriters spend ages here, writhing and agonizing. And, yes, procrastinating.

The optimal flavor of your words depends on the type of copy.

Writing web copy is like catering for someone with a very particular and very powerful craving.

And she wants to satisfy her craving now.

So the flavor of your web copy has to be straightforward and recognizable.

Tell her what kind of company you run, what services or products you offer, what problems you help solve, and why she should pick you over your competitors.

If it’s obvious that you have what she wants, she’ll stay.

Hook her by letting her know she’s in the right place.

Make something up.

It’s all downhill and tailwind when she has made up her mind to buy.

When she actively searches for your product, credit card in hand, all you have to do is guide her through the checkout on your web page.

Fight for attentionEasy-peasy.

She doesn’t have the same urge to consume your blog posts, social media updates, and ads.

Put another way, this is where you take up arms and fight for her attention.

Contrary to what you might think, your opening doesn’t have to be directly related to your topic. The colors bubblegum and chartreuse have nothing to do with openings. So I made up a connection.

Your headline needs to make the reader curious in some way. It has to be noisy or prickly. Try asking a question. State something surprising or provocative. Or begin with a personal anecdote and use it as a way in.

Anything magnetic.

Also, make it short.

Make introductory sentences short. No complicated words. No jargon.

Many people think long, voluptuous sentences are packed with persuasive power. But, really, they’re just packed. Not only are short sentences harder to write, but they also make a much bigger impact.

Try writing naturally. Like you’re about to tell a story to a friend. When you write the way you talk, it feels like you’re present.

Readers respond to that.

Get to know the product. Or don’t.

What makes you and your product special?

Why should I buy it from you and not your competitor?

When you know the product and the target audience it’s easier to find the unique selling point, or USP.

To me, USP sounds corporate and crafty. Sounds like jargon. I don’t like it. So I’ve found a substitute.

It’s angle.

When I write, say, product descriptions for webshops, I imagine the product lying at the center of a circle. I walk along the edge trying to find my angle. The spot where I can sit down and write. And since the circle has 360 to choose from, I have a pretty good chance of finding one that’s not taken.

Knowing the product inside out is a good thing. Most of the time. But there are downsides.

One massive downside to being an expert is the curse of knowledge.

You’ve been cursed when you’re no longer able to imagine what it’s like not being an expert.

You’ve forgotten what it’s like to see the product for the first time. In other words, you can’t find the for-dummies angle anywhere on the circle.

Why is it important to be able to write for dummies?

Because your reader is experiencing your product for the first time.

(There is not a trace of condescension here. I love the For Dummies book series. In fact, I think a few of them were written especially because of me.)

Stuff arguments full of benefits. Back up with facts.

Your product has features.

Great features, I’m sure.

But we don’t care about any of them. And if you’ve been too cursed by your own expertise, we don’t understand a word you’re saying.

What we do care about is how those features benefit us.

First, you need to find out what features match the audience’s interests and desires. Then you need to convert those features to benefits.

Because benefits hold persuasive power.

Remember, you’re not selling products. You’re selling values.

Let me give you an example.

My father calls my home a petting zoo.

I have a hyperactive golden retriever (or golden bulldozer, as we call her) and three lovable cats, one of them a beautiful blue-eyed miniature Siberian tiger.

So I vacuum a lot.

A. Lot.

I have a vacuum cleaner on each floor of my house. One of them is as loud as the front seat experience at a rock concert. I have to wear earmuffs to keep my hearing intact. The four-leggeds are not too enthusiastic about the monstrosity either.

One day I browse for a new vacuum cleaner. I find one and the description says:

This vacuum cleaner only generates 50dB when in use. 

So what? I ask.

So the vacuum cleaner is so whisper-quiet that you can vacuum while your baby takes a nap.

Yes! That’s what I want.

Always ask ‘So what?’ when you come up with an amazing feature.

And then put the answer in your copy.

Depending on the type of copywriting, you can focus on one or more features. An ad is typically about one key feature while a landing page or a product description has more.

Sometimes a benefit is very basic or practical. But that doesn’t mean that you have cold and insensitive customers. They just crave simple and dependable things. And when they spot one, the fire starts burning inside them.

Show and tell.

Show, don’t tell.

It’s a classic among writers.

Telling means listing features and facts. Showing means appealing to emotions and senses through imagery, like playing a roll of film inside the readers’ heads.

Readers read facts. Readers feel sensory words.

Reading words like humming and crackling also means hearing them. You don’t just read plush or prickling, you feel them. You see glittery and cloudy as your eyes go over them. Fresh and sweet you can taste. Research has found this out.

See where I’m going?

Showing is seducing the senses.

By snatching sensory words, action verbs, metaphors, analogies, and quirky comparisons from your vocabulary you dazzle your audience.

Do I make myself clear?

I try my best. And so should you.

You don’t want your reader to have to spend her energy picking apart muddy sentences or decipher jargon. Your copy has to be as clear as the water off the coast of Greece.

Imagine writing for a school child. It’s a great way of making sure readers get you. Packing your text full of 10-syllable words and neverending sentences will make her feel stupid. Like when she’s reading a legal document.

Ever fought your way through one?

Don’t write like that unless you’re a lawyer and absolutely have to. In fact, don’t write like that ever. Lawyer or not, writing like that is a crime against humanity. Besides, nobody likes a pretentious attitude.

Which brings us to an agonizing but very helpful copywriting rule.

Omit needless words.

This imperative is famous.

It’s from the 100-year-old book on writing called The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

And it’s still valid.

You know how much content is out there. Unfathomable amounts of words flood the web like plastic in the oceans.

So clean up your copy and make it sharp.

Clear and concise copy satisfies the reader’s hunger for information. You don’t want her to think about reading. You want her to float effortlessly through your copy.

A good tip is never to publish the same day you finish your copy. Sleep on it. Then edit it the next day. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to spot and cut needless words. Zooming in on your writing patterns is the first step towards more concise writing.

Try this.

Set aside 10 minutes every day for free writing.

Just write and don’t stop until the 10 minutes are up. Then do a word count. Start the editing process.

You’re done when you’ve cut half the words.

Nobody can steal your voice.

Like copywriting itself, finding your writing voice is a tour of trial and error.

Everyone’s rambling on about voice.

What’s all the fuss about?

Why is voice so important?

Because voice signals that there is an actual human being crouching behind the words.

Readers can connect, and this, in turn, inspires an emotional response.

If you want to be able to keep up your tone of voice, it has to be authentic. It has to reflect who you are.

Never write what you would find awkward saying. If you do, it isn’t you. Just think about letters from your bank or insurance company. You marvel at the fact that people keep committing such written atrocities.

When you find your voice, stroke and cradle it. Because in your arms you hold something unique to your brand. Something that is very difficult for your competitors to steal.

Don’t try to make everybody happy. It makes you a bore and a betrayer.

Sounds harsh, I know.

But actually I’m celebrating who you are. So be that person. Honesty and integrity are powerful psychological triggers that increase your sales.


Because internet goers never leave their bullshit detectors off.

Besides, there are always going to be people who don’t like you.

And that’s fine.

The ones who gulp your stuff and keep coming back for more do so because of your values and the way you communicate them. Don’t disappoint loyal readers and customers by trying to please the sourpusses.

Also, a guarded voice is an average voice. In other words, a boring voice.


AIDA and copywriting.

Chances are you’ve heard copywritng and AIDA in the same sentence before.

AIDA is an acronym invented way back in 1898. AIDA make up the four steps of the sales funnel. These four steps can unfold within a single piece of copywriting or as a process when you build your marketing campaign.

A is for attention.

Obviously you need to catch people’s attention before trying to have a conversation with them.

In a piece of copy, the attention grabber is your headline. In a campaign, this first step is building brand awareness.

Before you start calling for attention, you need to research your readers and get to know their desires. Maybe you prefer creating different buyer personas.

When you know your readers’ interests and problems, you begin creating matching content. This content could be blog posts, ads, social media posts and updates, pictures, infographics, or maybe videos and podcasts.

I is for interest.

OK, so you made them look.

Now you have to keep them focused on your message. Appeal to their logical sense and enlighten them with tons of educational content written with loads of passion.

Use product features to explain why they should buy.

For a single piece of copy, this next step is to introduce the product. Craft a sparkling intro to suck the reader in.

D is for desire.

It’s time to strike the match that ignites a passion. Dazzle them with all the benefits that come with the features.

This also goes for copy about a particular product.

Online shopping doesn’t allow her to touch or try on the product. Utilize her curiosity. Create vivid descriptions of what she can’t see in the pictures. Make her imagine she’s using the product.

The boundary between interest and desire is not always clear. Don’t repeat yourself if it isn’t. Instead, mix them up like you mix features and benefits, and showing and telling. That’s perfectly fine.

A is for action.

Finally, you have to persuade them to take action.

You do this by inserting calls to action, discount codes, coupon codes, and maybe create a sense of urgency. Place a counter next to the offer, or tell customers that you have a limited number in stock.

Remember to tell readers exactly what to do when you want them to do it. And don’t be afraid to sound bossy. Use the imperative form like you were handing out orders. ‘Clik here’, ‘Buy now’, ‘Sign up’, or ‘Read more’.

Sometimes she needs an extra little nudge.

Her desire might not be strong enough so she needs the logical side of her brain to tell her it’s OK to buy. That it’s risky or unwise not to buy.

Point out the low price and the quick delivery. Or go back to the most potent product feature and lay it out for her one last time.

Mastering copywriting takes effort and practice.

I write for hours every day.

Painful copywritingPracticing, squirming, complaining, pitying myself. Cleaning kitchen cupboards and wondering why I didn’t become a zookeeper. And then, just moments before I break, an acceptable version of my shitty first draft materializes before my eyes.


Trust me, I know.

Reading articles like this one is easy.

Researching the web for top copywriting books is easy.

Studying the books is easy.

Sitting down to write, however, is hard.

And the writing part? That’s just plain painful.

So sit down to write. Then write.

It’ll come.

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