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Where great copy does not come from.

January 14, 2013

You need new copy for your website. It’s time and you’re ready. But how — pray tell — do you make words on a web page fully reflect the voice and vibe you bring to the meaningful work you do?

Where great copy does not come from.More importantly, how do you make sure your new web copy will appeal to your Right Person — the person you and your business are best designed to serve because you have solutions he really wants, delivered in the way he wants it?

The process by which draft copy becomes This Is It! copy is a bit of a mystery. The ideas and themes that are raw, rough diamonds shake out during the intake process with an experienced professional copywriter. Those diamonds earn their facets and setting under a copywriter’s experienced pen (or fingertips on the keyboard, as it were). Finally, the right words are polished until they gleam through a smart and sensitive revision process.

So how can you, as the client, mess this up?

Well, reader, it happens. Just as when any of us approach a creative service professional whose process we have little inside experience with (for me, I’m thinking: a high end house painter, a DJ who mixes beats, or a fabulous hair stylist or colorist), we can’t dictate a process to the expert we hired. We have to lay our assumptions about what works and why aside — and step into beginner’s mind.

So it is with getting great copy for your website written and delivered by your copywriter. Vet your creative pro and trust the process she’s used with many other clients before you. And if you’re curious about why she’s making a creative choice on the page as opposed to a different option — please, by all means, ask!

Friends of the entrepreneurial webiverse, in the spirit of education (and truth in humor, I hope) I present to you: where great copy does not come from.

  1. From your competitor’s website. I’m very serious. If you hire a copywriter, it’s not kosher to send her a link to your competitor’s sales page with the note, “Like this. But plug in my program’s details.” Nor is it cool to send her your best business friend-once-removed’s About page with the note, “I want this. But me.”
  2. From your mentor or inspiration’s website. Telling a copywriter, “Make me sound like Danielle LaPorte/Kris Carr/Marie Forleo/Your Favorite Inspiring Business Owner,” won’t really serve you or your Right Person. (Yep, even if your Right Person likes that other person, too.) Neither will saying, “I want to be the Danielle LaPorte of small online business accounting.” Om. Ka-ching.
  3. From your corporate bio or your LinkedIn profile, the one written to make you sound as learned, serious, and straightlaced as possible. An About page is not a bio page. Modern-day About pages — even for more ‘buttoned up’ professions like clinical psychologists, attorneys, and tax professionals, have a decidedly conversational tone to them. And no: ‘conversational’ does not by default mean swearing, nicknaming your site visitors, or mentioning your favorite stripey socks.
  4. From the ‘two minutes’ you’ve suggested that your copywriter give herself to ‘whip up’ a new name or tagline for your new virtual program. (I say this with love and gravity and as much as I can, without snark.) Thomas Mann says, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Most of the professional writers I know would concur with this. Not because we’re not truly talented, experienced, or even gifted at it, and not because we don’t enjoy it. We just understand the craft and what goes into making even a 10-word headline truly clear, impactful, and meaningful for a particular audience. There is no 2-minute job, ever. As many writing pros will tell you, sometimes the shortest bits are the most challenging to get just right, because with an economy of words, every single syllable has to stick its landing.
  5. From committee input. Across three businesses I’ve created and run, I can attest that the most bungled, least inspired creative decisions were made by committee. There’s a time and a place and a season for surveying your readership, leading a focus group, or consulting your advisory board, but knee-deep in the creative process with your trusted, hired, desired creative pro isn’t it. Trust. Running your freshly minted 1st Draft past your eager Mastermind group or emailing it to a group of your closest friends who “really get you” (yep, even your cousin Janie who majored in Marketing in college 12 years ago) is only going to get you a hodgepodge of responses, not the steely, resounding, soul-centered consensus you’re hoping for. Their variety of perspectives will most likely confuse you, throw you off your center, and distort your inner knowing. Personal story: When I was creating The Voice Bureau‘s site with Allie Rice, I didn’t show our mock-ups to a soul until we were in the 3rd round of revisions, and only then did I show two or three trusted people who were on my team (and thus, invested). By that point, I knew what I wanted and why. And when I got some feedback that didn’t resonate with me about a particular design element, I was able to discount it (not let it steer me off-course) because I knew the element was there for a purpose that mattered deeply to me.

In the comments, we’d love to hear:

What sort of guidance or leadership would you like from YOUR hired copywriter? Are you hoping she’ll take the reigns and guide you into a style that works for your brand? How much professional insight do you want from her versus just treating her like a hired pen?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

paul January 14, 2013 at 2:38 pm

haha, point #2 happens in my design world too. so! many! times!

it’s amazing how authentic voice works better than trying to copy someone (who uses their authentic voice).

when i hire a copywriter i like guidance and professional insight—i’m paying for their expertise and knowledge as much as i’m paying for them to “edit my stuff”.

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abby January 14, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Paul –

Why am I not surprised that you, more than anyone around here, get ‘rip-off requests’ for lookalike designs? ;)

Thanks for weighing in on what you want from a copywriter. Me, too, when it comes to design. I have an aesthetic strongly in mind (probably because, well, this is what I DO), but I know better to leave the ‘how to’ to the pros. It’s why I hired Allie, which was a great decision!

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Heidi January 14, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Thank you, Abby for this piece.
You have done a great job of pulling back the curtains so to speak on Copywriting.
There is incredible amounts of magic that you provide when you deliver beautiful copy, You have reminded your readers that the “magic” takes time. Love this part especially, “There is no 2-minute job, ever. As many writing pros will tell you, sometimes the shortest bits are the most challenging to get just right, because with an economy of words, every single syllable has to stick its landing”
It makes me appreciate my own writing and the amount of time it takes to get it just right.
Writing is an art, and you are helping to remind us all that excellent art takes more time than we may hope or anticipate, but is definitely worth the wait.
Awesome.

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abby January 14, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Oh, thanks, Heidi. I appreciate hearing that this piece helped ease any anxiety non-copywriting pros may be feeling about writing their own copy. Pro copywriters feel it, too! Writing isn’t easy, but the results: magic.

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Susana Frioni January 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Lovin’ #5! I see this heaps in the online community groups i’m apart of. Have always been dumbfounded about getting advice from people who are NOT my right people.

As for hiring help, I’m with Paul on this. I’m paying their opinion, their insight, their guidance…not JUST their amazing writing/editing skills.

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abby January 14, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Hey, Susana! Oh, I personally steer clear of airing sensitive questions (both branding and non-branding related) in online community groups, too. There are benefits to be found in those communities, for sure, but branding by consensus is NOT one of them! ;)

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Carrie January 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Love love love the Mann quote! This list is a delight, dear Abby.

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abby January 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thanks, dear Carrie! There’s a blog post of yours I’m distinctly remembering where you share your process for writing your clients’ web copy. (Or was that in an e-newsletter?) I just loved it!

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shanna January 14, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Oh, Abby, you KNOW #2 and #5 make me cuckoo!
When I wrote my post in December, Copywriting, it’s Not Hard, Right? I listed Death by Committee as one of my points. Ask a million people, get a million opinions. Most of the creatives I know (that we both know) struggle with most, if not all of the points you listed above.

When a client is inspired by another’s site or copy, that’s one thing, but the direct rip-offs are patently offensive (for shame, designers and writers who agree to do this).

And 2-minute job? *snort* :)

Thanks, as always, for your clear insights and calling it as you see it!

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abby January 15, 2013 at 9:47 am

Oh, yes, Shanna, I know you know of what I speak. And so do our sisters and brothers in ink (or in . . . mouse). I, too, wonder about the creative pros who agree to rip off another business’s site layout, or mimic a font family, or VERY loosely adapt copy from someone else’s sales page. Time for an integrity check!

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Diana January 14, 2013 at 9:20 pm

These points are exactly parallel to web design. Especially #4. “Simple” is not easy! It takes a professional to pull off something that LOOKS simple. Thank you for writing this.

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abby January 15, 2013 at 9:48 am

Right, Diana? So true. My pleasure — glad you enjoyed this piece.

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sas January 14, 2013 at 10:18 pm

the guidance and insight are SO valuable.
I see the whole process of building my business, as using the experts in their field and coordinating their hand-picked wisdom to make my vision real.
Understanding the role everyone plays is huge – and I have to play my part by being as clear and prepared as I can be, especially around the aspects I am unsure of, or need help on.

For those who want to be the next whoever…it must be bloody exhausting trying to be someone else! And I think our Right People can smell that. If only people knew just how utterly transparent we are on the interwebs.

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abby January 15, 2013 at 9:51 am

Hi, Sas. Yes, when it comes to the mimickers and the ripper-offs, I think most of them go into it truly just wanting their business to succeed and their brand to be endorsed and accepted. And they’ve bought into a story that says they can ONLY have success and favor if they look/act/sound like their industry’s current top headliner. There’s a palate for every flavor under the sun, though!

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David McGuire January 16, 2013 at 5:50 am

I pretty much want to marry this article.

Thanks for writing it, so I can point my clients at it instead of, you know, having to TELL them and stuff…

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abby January 16, 2013 at 10:56 am

Hi, David –

The article . . . accepts (?). :)

Glad this piece will be helpful for you in your work with clients. Client education is what it’s all about!

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