Hire A Copywriter…Please

Mondays can be groggy and grey. Want a brightening laugh? Read this article about a castle in The Netherlands, from which I’ll quote:

After passing through the centuries, Valkenburg castle is now the only remaining local government, but at least conscious right, remains of the castle should not disappear, I also need to keep maintained. The ease and convenience of tourists continue to make improvement, if not strange in the cave is provided so that the train can enjoy a variety of survival under the ground.

Whatever you do, don’t be strange in the cave. I’m more concerned, frankly, that it appears The Netherlands is being governed by a ruined castle. Perhaps this explains why it was once illegal to bake gingerbread men in Holland (this is actually true).

Pained laughter aside, the article I’ve linked to is a fine example of how you don’t want the text copy on your website to read. In my daily work as a web designer, copywriter and copy editor, I’ve come to see that many small business owners approach their text content as an afterthought, second in importance to the visual elements of their websites. It’s up to me to explain that such a business owner has things in reverse and before we go to contract, we have thoroughly covered the topic of how their copy will be created.

I give the client the option of creating their copy and handing it over to me for editing, or, having me create their copy in toto, from a list they provide of points which need to be made in the copy. I don’t take on projects in which I don’t at least have a basic editing capacity, as experience has taught me that nearly all small business owners definitely need help in the editing and optimization of their tags, titles and headers.

I would estimate that less than half our clients over the years have been confident in writing all of their copy and while they generally don’t produce anything as wacky as the example I’ve cited, above, they seldom have the staff, time or skills to produce text content that I would deem web-ready. There have been exceptions to this, but in general, my experience has been that small business owners either approach this phase of a project with fear and confusion, or they hand over the task to someone in their organization who undertakes the work with similar tentativeness. Very often, we wind up with copy in our inbox that reads like this:

We provide services. We have been providing these services since 1983. We take pride in what we do. We guarantee our products. We take pride in our products.

There’s nothing knee-slappingly funny about copy like this, but you, the user, are in danger of falling asleep reading it. It has been a privilege and a learning experience for me to receive copy much like this from so many business owners over the years and my work as an editor has enabled me to identify the three main mistakes I most commonly encounter:

1. General Instead Of Specific
Organic cotton towels instead of products. Eco-friendly landscaping instead of services. It’s an acquired skill to write for the web so that your text utilizes actual keywords in describing what you do and sell instead of using generalized umbrella terms and third person pronouns. What works well for us in our spoken language doesn’t help website users or Google’s bots to understand the focus of a given page, but unless you are used to thinking from a web-based mindset, your copy is likely to be vague and ineffective.

2. Passive Instead Of Active
Typically, when I request that a small business owner give me copy for an About page, what I receive is text that speaks only to itself, reading like a memo from an internal business meeting rather than an engagement with the public. We do this, we do that, we are this, we feel that. Yes, your small business website must reveal what you do…but it must follow through to the next step and reveal what you do for me, the website user. A very large portion of my editing time is spent re-purposing text so that it is swung in the direction of the user, actively explaining to him the benefits he will experience from working with company X.

3. Simple Errata
Is it it’s or its? Family’s or families? Is or are? Right now, in my town, there is a giant billboard on a major road which reads, “Our Restaurant Was Voted The Best Of It’s Kind.” True, you don’t have to punctuate correctly to be a good cook, but my belief in your general professionalism has just died a silly, chuckling death. We all make mistakes, but a concerted editing effort is your company’s best shot at avoiding looking foolish due to simple errors of grammar and orthography on your website.

The transition from print to web has been a rough one, when it comes to the quality of copy being produced. The New York Times, Time Magazine and National Geographic have always had editors to improve the voice and professionalism of their published works. In my own industry, I don’t believe one of the top web-based publication employs an editor to catch the errors that appear pretty much daily in their articles, posts and pages. It’s a question of money, of course, and if a website is giving everything away for free and has no motives of profit to contend with, then I suppose we’ll all have to shrug as we watch literacy standards slide. But your small business website is being created to increase your earnings. Poor focus, soporific copy and simple mistakes will absolutely stand in your way of giving your business the professional presentation it deserves to have on the web.

If you are the business owner and you don’t feel comfortable writing really excellent copy for your website, make a thorough investigation of your staff to determine which member has the best qualifications for performing this totally vital task. Don’t hand the job off to your lowest-paid employee. Discover whether one of your employees writes for fun, was an English major in college, has a background in language or communications. Pick that employee and open up his hours so that he can devote serious time to crafting the best copy of which he is capable. This is not a quick task or a second class job. These are the words which are going to represent your business to the world. Your logo, your color palette, your layout…all of these elements pale in comparison to the importance of your text copy. Trust me on this.

Finally, when you have done the best you can do, hand the copy over to a pro, if you can afford it, for a final polish and edit. Work with someone who writes for the web, understands the basics of SEO, and is prepared to give that final tweak to your text that will mean the difference between passable and truly publication-ready. Twenty-four hours a day, your copy will be sitting there on a server, telling the public who you are. This matter of your reputation and presentation calls for the best, not the least, you can do. If you believe in your business, take a look at the print publications you admire most and be ready to treat your own publication – your website – with the seriousness and care it deserves. Take my advice on this and you’ll thank me for it later.


Flickr Photo Credit

5 Responses to “Hire A Copywriter…Please”

  1. on 23 Apr 2010 at 3:05 pm Jeremy Lim

    I love this post. I have seen “We have services. These are our services. Our serves are the best. We guarantee our serves. Our services have been around since your grandparents were children, and clearly by our copy, they haven’t changed much either” far too often.

    For me, if someone really needs convincing, I have them read their copy out loud. (Unless they’re a theatre major. Then everything sounds awesome.)

  2. on 23 Apr 2010 at 6:06 pm admin

    Welcome, Jeremy!

    I’m glad you liked this piece and it sounds like you’ve been there, done that. Your suggestion about reading the copy aloud is good and also very funny. I’m not sure I could sit through something like that with a straight face.

    The bottom line is that being fantastic at running a small business doesn’t require great writing skills. It just requires knowing when you need to bring someone on board to help out. Most small business owners are way too busy to spend hours working on their copy. They have the knowledge and expertise, and only require aid in expressing what they have to share in an effective way.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind praise of this post!


  3. on 24 Apr 2010 at 10:40 am Chris Silver Smith

    The example you cited is awesome!

    It was obviously written by someone with very poor English, so I’m supposing it could have been a cheap writing service overseas.

    Interesting to note that Google’s own Quality Evaluators review text when they rate pages in SERPs, and pages of poor quality can get flagged and downgraded in rankings. They’re particularly interested in identifying badly-concatenated text that is likely computer-generated, so one expects that egregious copy like your example could get rated badly as well.

    Not to mention, poorly generated text doesn’t perform well in the longterm as it can negatively impact conversion rates and bounce rates and these things will eventually result in less inbound links over time, less use of the site, less bookmarking, and lower rankings.

  4. on 24 Apr 2010 at 11:16 am admin

    What a pleasure to see you here, Chris!

    Your points are all excellent, particularly regarding Google’s own Quality Evaluators of which many people may be unaware.

    I agree, the above copy looks like it may have been an overseas job and is worse than a lot of the copy you will typically encounter on an SMB website. It is more like the copy you see on sites with hundreds or thousands of pages into which someone has shoved as much penny copy as they could get a hold of, but I’m glad you liked the example!

    Thanks for pointing out the many implications of poor copy – long term damage to conversions, linkability and rankings. All very true!

  5. on 10 May 2010 at 9:31 pm Stephen

    A possible follow-up: I’m on the other end of the coin. Being assigned a small business’s website copywriting while working at an agency. What are some good techniques for getting info on a particular business, and developing an in-depth understanding of what they offer? And convincing the owner it’s worth their time to explain this to me instead of me basing the copy on generic information about their service (e.g. dentistry.)

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