Knowing who your reader is everything when it comes to knowing how to write for them.
Writers who want to make the most of their words are constantly looking for ways to improve them. This post will help you do that.
Every writer has their own unique needs, and there are tips here to serve everyone from copywriters to fiction writers. Use them well, and understand why each tip works, and they will be a big asset to your writing career.
Knowing who your reader is everything when it comes to knowing how to write for them. In marketing speak, you must create an “avatar” or “persona,” as a stand-in for your ideal customer or reader. Creating an avatar allows you to tailor your voice to the person your words will benefit most.
That benefit will bounce right back to you. The more directed your message, the more diluted it will be, and the more specific your language, the more it will truly resonate with your ideal reader.
Use these tips to fill your site with the type of copy that will help you grow most.
1. Write to one person.
Try giving your avatar or person a name so they become more real to you, then write everything from your web copy and tweets, to books and emails, directly to that person. When writing, imagine them sitting directly across from you.
If your ideal reader is casual, make sure your writing is relaxed. If your ideal reader wants warm, engaging language, write to them like an old friend. If they want complex ideas broken down into ABC simple sentences, give them preschool.
The key is to remember your ideal reader isn’t just a reader; they’re your friend, willing to give you their time. Whenever you sit to write, you must picture the specific, friendly face that you’ve given them. That is one of the best ways to get more mileage from every word.
2. Understand the basics of copywriting.
My time as an entrepreneur in general goes back to when I was about 10 or so, selling candy bars, comic books, and Garbage Pail Kids on my elementary school playground. I’ve had several businesses since then, but when I went online as a writer a few years back, I suddenly completely forgot my business background, wrongly believing the quality of my writing would be enough to build a lucrative online career. It wasn’t.
Your content will never be good enough to build BIG business all by its lonesome, and if you think it is, you’ll be looking at a broken road paved with shattered glass. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’ve known plenty of smart writers who’ve had to eat a lot of dirt pie because they thought the strength of their content would be enough, then went online unprepared, myself included.
No matter what business you’re in, you must also understand marketing basics, at least if you want to pull the most potential from everything you write. It took me a long time to accept this. My inner entrepreneur knew it on a practical level, but the creator in me wanted my writing to be exceptional enough to spread by quality alone.
Being a ghostwriter and writing marketing copy for others fixed my delusion.
But the awesome thing is, though resistant in the beginning, learning the basics of copywriting and persuasion gave me the psychological insight to help me grow as a writer and deliver a better reader experience.
Creating the best possible reading experience is what will ultimately help me build a large, engaged audience.
Copywriting is persuasion, and that means writing in a way that gets people to move, feel, think, or take action. In fiction, that means keeping the book in a reader’s hands, getting them to turn the pages all the way until the last one, or finishing the book and immediately telling all their friends. But it works for whatever business you’re trying to grow. And believe me, I’ve helped businesses in nearly every major niche or industry.
I thank my lucky stars every day for the road that led me to copywriting. What I once saw as an irksome diversion, I now see as one of the most valuable assets I have, and the sharpest writing tool in my box.
Copywriting has helped me instinctively lay an intelligent structure under everything I write, from fiction to sales letters to poetry. And it can help you, too.
3. Clarity over cleverness, when writing online.
The first rule of copywriting is to keep things simple. Avoid clever wordplay or cryptic phrases that could confuse your readers or send them from your page. Online, most readers won’t read every word, scanning your copy to get a general idea of what you’re saying or selling instead.
The main benefits of your post or product must be stated clearly to grab the attention of your customer, before they hit that back button. Readers make up their minds whether or not to read a page in seconds, so seconds are all you have to grab your reader and give them the primary benefit of the page: make money, save time, be entertained, or have their lives improved in some way.
Short, punchy sentences and clear language works best. Use action words to drive your copy forward, and start a new paragraph for each new idea to avoid confusing your readers. Online, readers appreciate ample white space.
Keep your copy relaxed. You don’t have to be a grammar nazi at all, and a conversational style will trump perfect mechanics every time, but a page that’s riddled with typos won’t serve you well at all.
Above all, don’t assume that because you understand it, it’s clear to your reader. Remember, you’re writing for your market, not for yourself, and the two of you are in very different places.
The simpler and more straightforward your copy is, the clearer it will be.
4. Make your message easy to understand.
Regardless of where you market your books, products, or services, there is a right and a wrong way to deliver your message. Your customer has five mental steps to take between first contact and completing the sale.
1) Awareness of a need or desire.
2) Picking the thing that will satisfy that desire.
3) Picking the source for that thing.
4) Accepting the price/value argument.
5) Finding reasons to act immediately.
Let’s say your particular product is a blog post package that includes 20 blog posts, enough for every weekday in a month. A graph showing climbing subscribers might spark initial desire, while shots of the business owner relaxing could put a finer point on their need for your help. Additional information about what makes your blog posts better (stronger voice, solid SEO, link bait-friendly) will let the prospect know you’re the perfect person to satisfy their suddenly urgent need.
Copy that paints a picture of value, backed by proof (user testimonials and pictures both work great), will reassure your prospect that his money will be well-spent. A special, limited-time offer, or perhaps a bonus or upgrade, will help to get the click), rather than the never that often comes with “later.”
Whether you’re online or off, it’s your job to lead your prospect through these five points. Without clear road signs, your prospect will get lost. You’re a writer, so it should be simple enough to make your message clear. And when your message is clear, it’s that much easier for readers to respond to.
5. Get over writer’s block.
I don’t really get writer’s block, and as unpopular as it may be to say it, I don’t think anyone does. Writer’s block is procrastination, plain and simple.
Writers have an odd excuse few other professions are allowed. A surgeon can’t head into surgery crying, “I can’t do any cutting today. I have surgeon’s block!”
That wouldn’t work. Neither would lawyer’s block, plumber’s block, or teacher’s block. Writing is a job, like any other. Yes, writing is creative and you must dip your bucket into a more particular and sometimes finicky well, but writing means occasionally muscling through work that must be done when you don’t want to do it.
You may not love every word you write, but if you’re willing to bleed through the rough draft, you can always return to clean up later.
More often than not, you’ll be surprised by what you write.
There have been many times when I’ve not written what I was supposed to write, spending my minutes farting around, bouncing from Twitter to Facebook to wherever, but I can’t blame that on writer’s block.
Those were all times when I didn’t feel like writing.
Over the last three years, those times have dwindled to nearly nothing. At first I had to juggle deadlines that were so tight, I literally couldn’t afford to procrastinate. Now the writing habit is so ritualized I rarely miss my rhythm.
The trick is to write fast and often. I’m okay writing a rough draft that’s a galaxy far, far away from decent because I know I can always return and clean it up later, and that it’s more important to hit my word count for the day.
Treat writer’s block like the excuse it is and you will develop a habit that will ultimately help you make more money and earn more creative freedom for the work that you produce.
6. Learn to open with a bang.
Every great marketer understands the art of the opening sentence. And you’re a writer, so you should have a leg up on even the best of them.
A great opening grabs the reader by the eyes, then holds them by the throat, making it nearly impossible for them to quit reading before you’re through with their attention.
Your job is to make it so readers hang on your every word as you send them from one sentence to the next, from the top of one page to the bottom of the next. People like to finish what they start. If you can keep your reader reading through half the page, the odds that they’ll get to the end will skyrocket.
Your first sentence is everything. It’s the hook that will move your reader to continue down the page, so it’s essential you give it the attention it deserves. Many times, I will rewrite my first sentence a few times during the writing of a post. Sometimes you get a good one right off the bat. Other times, inspiration comes after you’ve written the entire post and then reread it. Twice.
No matter what method you use, make sure you never fall short of delivering the power your opening deserves.
7. Negativity sells (you are not alone).
The subject line, “You Are Not Alone,” has been the highest-performing subject line from any email I’ve ever sent, regardless of the niche. It acts as a positive spark to a negative thought. Because no one wants to feel alone, even if they want to be alone for a while, the “You Are Not Alone” subject line offers a positive solution to a negative truth. I’d be amazed if the subject line, “How to Be Surrounded by People” performed half as well.
People will always work harder to keep what they have than they will to gain something they want, even if it’s something they desperately crave. Crazy, but true. Negative headlines and copy alert your audience to a potentially serious problem, a problem you can then address and solve. Once you’ve helped people keep what’s important to them, you’ve gained their trust.
This works for fiction, too. No one wants to read a story where everything is hunky-dory. No conflict leads to little interest. The first book I ever wrote (after the nightmare of my unpublishable manuscript) was shopped to a couple studios. Though promising, their complaint was the same: NOT ENOUGH CONFLICT.
I’m a positive person. My publishing partner, Dave, says I fart sunshine. Still, I understand now what I didn’t then: negativity and conflict sell, and serve to keep the reader engaged or entertained.
Know that negativity sells and you’ll have an easier time hooking your readers.
8. Write FAST.
Writing fast is the best way to capture your most natural voice. Done well, it also leaves you with copy that’s easy to edit. Manipulating your thoughts into prose takes a long time. Capturing unedited thoughts as they fly through your mind, however, can yield clean, concise copy with clarity and voice.
Imagine you’re having a conversation with someone you love. You probably wouldn’t use big words to try and impress, or pause to think about the best way to say something, right? That’s the same immediacy you want to harness with the copy you write.
The important thing is to get your copy down as quickly and naturally as possible. You’ll use your editing phase to trim away run-on sentences, unnecessary words, or anything else that dims your delivery.
If you think it will be hard to capture your natural speaking voice, or have no idea what you sound like, record yourself in conversation. You may feel silly speaking into a microphone for five minutes, but it’s worth it. Take your cell phone (or any recording device) and record a conversation between yourself and a spouse, good friend, or anyone willing to hear you yammer for a few minutes.
Listen to the recording.
- What do you sound like?
- Is it easy to understand your point?
- Are your words big, small, or medium?
- Is your tone warm, friendly, conversational?
Do this exercise a few times, trying to balance the way you speak with how you write.
Once you can make this second nature, communicating with your audience will be as simple as sitting down and telling your fingers to fly.
9. Ask your readers questions to get to know them better.
Never be afraid to ask your audience questions that will help you get to know them better. They want to be heard, and many will be happy to answer. Create a simple survey for your readers using a service like Survey Monkey, then post it to your site or send it to your subscriber list.
If you don’t yet have an audience, that’s okay. Look for another blog in your niche with a large audience, then head to their comment section and read what people are saying.
- What questions are they asking?
- What are their concerns?
- What do they want?
Once you have some basic information, you can start building a buyer profile — a specific description of your ideal buyer that will help you speak directly to her.
I’ve opted into more lists than I can count over the last three years. Some are worth my attention because the information is valuable. Sometimes, I want to see what other writers and marketers are doing. It’s amazing, the difference between a good marketer and a great one. Great marketers know how to put their prose into an engaging story. Most of all, great marketers know who they’re speaking to.
As a writer, you have an instinctive edge over the average marketer.
A marginal marketer will send an email telling you to “check something out,” that’s little more than an excuse for them to make a quick buck, with little value to reader. There’s a huge disconnect and the subscriber can feel it.
Those writers have no idea what their buyers want, or worse, they don’t care. That’s churn and burn business, and the wrong way to do it.
Do your homework. Find out what your audience wants. Know their hopes, dreams, and desires; know what they hope to achieve so you can give it to them in a way no one else can.
10. Keep your readers interested.
If you can keep your readers interested, you will be well-positioned to grow your audience, and your business. Consider how many writers are now competing for attention that weren’t around a decade ago. Sure, it’s never been more possible for a writer to get worldwide attention, but that amazing potential comes alongside some fierce competition.
The writers who keep their audiences most interested are the writers who will grow their audience fastest.
Ask your readers probing questions. You don’t want to alienate your readers by asking them Freudian questions about possible Oedipal complexes, but you do want to help them stray from their comfort zone and get them to think, question conventional wisdom, or examine their unconscious thoughts and biases.
Twist an old cliché into something fresh. Though clichés are older than dirt and should mostly be avoided, they can be a convenient shortcut to help you quickly illustrate a point. Modifying metaphors in surprising ways can offer a way for writers to take advantage of cliché shorthand while still putting their own spin on the language. Incorporate elements from the niche or genre you are working with for even greater impact.
Use interesting bits of trivia and statistics. Even when statistics aren’t trusted, most readers enjoy them. Convert raw numbers into units that help your audience visualize what you are saying. Instead of saying the average American eats 80 pounds of sugar each year, you could say 20 five-pound bags of sugar, 3,168 sugar cubes, or the equivalent weight of 10 average newborn human babies.
Use useless knowledge. A bit of trivia also helps audiences stay interested and focused. Do your research before parroting the first “fun fact” you find on your topic. It’s not only irresponsible to pass on incorrect information, it can damage your credibility.
And always remember, lost attention is extremely difficult to recover. So keep your readers hooked, interested, and always coming back for more.
11. Hire an editor.
We all make mistakes, but we should never make more than we have to.
Open any newspaper, magazine, or book, and I can almost guarantee you’ll find a typo or even several. I’m sure that you’ll find a fair share of them even in this post. Of course, mine are secret messages to my stalker, not mistakes.
Self-publishing has added an exponent to the proliferation of mistakes. Every writer alive can benefit from a second set of eyes on their work before it gets published. Editors make good writers great and great writers immortal, and whether you want to be immortal, or simply great, you should think of hiring an editor for your premium work (products, newsletters, books, etc.) as a non-negotiable.
Though you probably won’t be able to afford an editor to go over all your copy in your early days, and it’s certainly not worth it for every blog post, you should have someone, even if it’s just a friend, look over your most important projects to catch the little things you might have missed.
One note on editors. There is a difference between an editor and a copy editor. An editor usually makes suggestions as to the overall quality of the copy, where it can be changed, whether the ideas were well-presented, or if pieces should be changed around. A good editor is worth her weight in gold and will likely charge close to that in fees. A copy editor checks for grammar and sometimes fact checks your work, and charges far less.
You may think you don’t need an editor. So do a lot of writers. But it’s worth getting a second set of eyes to help you go from good to great, and soar past all the writers and marketers who are satisfied with “good” and will likely have a “good” career to show for it.
12. You can’t afford to be sloppy.
Hiring an editor can make your writing more powerful and increase the effectiveness of your marketing. You never want to look sloppy, and if you can afford an editor, that should be the first stop once your rough draft is completed. If you can’t find someone qualified to copyedit your work, you should at the very least read your copy aloud.
Neat copy is non-negotiable if you expect to charge top dollar as a copywriter, or develop a large audience of readers who love your books. There are too many writers self-publishing second-rate material, and writers competing for work on international job boards.
Be better than the other writers by treating your copy with the care it deserves.
I’m not concerned about my copy adhering to every rule in the AP style guide. I strongly believe that voice is more important to readers than mechanics, and when editing, I try to write in a conversational tone that puts perfect grammar in the passenger seat. But there’s a big difference between conversational and sloppy.
It’s never okay to be sloppy.
You are judged by the quality of your work. That means you must dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and make certain your sentences are singing in the right key. Place voice above mechanics, especially when it comes to sales copy and email messaging, but don’t forget about the basic grammar and syntax that will lead your reader down the right road.
You may get popular being sloppy, but it isn’t likely, nor is it scalable.
Outside of tweets or posting to social media, I never publish anything without a second set of eyes. Even so, I still end up with the occasional typo. Moving as fast as I do, with almost none of my copy going to print, this is bound to happen. Yet I want my mistakes rarer than a full moon.
If you want to establish yourself as a writer worth reading, you must be able to take your copy from good to great, and never be okay with sloppy.
13. Take your copy from good to great.
Blog posts, sales letters, marketing copy, even great fiction — none of it’s the same as writing for your eighth grade English teacher. And despite her insistence, you can start a sentence with “and” or “but.” I do it all the time, and love it. But of course, I only do so when it provides clarity, impact, or comfort to my reader.
Your English teacher was right about at least a few things, though — good writing is clean, error free, and easy-to-read.
Here’s a short list of tips for taking your writing from good to great:
- Avoid typos. Yes, we all make mistakes and you will, too. But you want to avoid them at all costs. That means combing through your copy two, three, and four times to catch any errors. Most importantly, don’t rely on your program’s spell check to find every error. There’s no way your computer can tell if you meant to, too, or two; their, they’re, or there, or any other number of homonyms.
- When using proper nouns, make sure you spell them correctly. You don’t want to face the embarrassment of misspelling someone’s name or forgetting its capital letter.
- Use active voice whenever possible. “Bob drove the car” will ALWAYS read better than, “The car was driven by Bob.”
- Formatting is especially important with online copy. People judge your webpage at a glance. It won’t get read or shared, if your spacing, margins, or headings are off. Make sure your headline is clear and your subheads are consistent. Keep your copy easy-to-read with bullet points and short sentences. Nothing scares readers away quicker than giant blocks of endless text.
These might seem like little things, but when it comes to writing online, the little things really do matter. Writers who consistently take their copy from good to great have eager readers and growing audiences.
14. Write to your medium.
Who you are writing for will dictate not only what you write, but HOW you write it.
If you want to maximize the benefit for everything you write, you must understand the differences between writing for a time-strapped online audience used to skimming, long copy designed to drive a reader to action, page-turning fiction meant to turn readers into fans, or any other type or writing, and be forever ready to adjust your sails to the wind.
Take the time to adjust your copy to its specific audience. Even if you’re repurposing something you’ve already written, don’t settle for a lazy copy and paste. Take a few extra minutes to make sure your words are perfect for their intended audience. It’s a simple thing that will help you will get where you’re trying to go a whole lot faster, and with a lot less heartache.
No matter what type of writer or content marketer you want to be, knowing your medium and writing well inside it will endear you to your readers. If your audience feels something wasn’t written specifically for them, they will feel a disconnect. Even subtle, this can be damaging to the reader/writer relationship.
You will always gain more traction for the time you spend writing when you know where that copy will be placed, and how the anticipated audience will receive it, then are willing to take the time to get it right.
15. Proofread everything.
Although a sharp edit does little to invite party hats or balloons, it is essential to effective writing. Whether you are writing The Great American Novel or a simple sales letter, it isn’t enough to write; you must also make certain your words follow the proper signposts of well-articulated language.
Have you ever been reading a blog post or web copy so riddled with typos, grammatical errors, and faulty punctuation that you bounced from the site with barely a thought? Bloggers need their readers and few online businesses can afford to be careless with their copy. Proofreading is easier when you have a system, or at the very least a simple set of rules to follow.
Give your copy some room to breathe, then return, ready and willing to trim the fat. When you read something repeatedly in a short span of time, your eyes tend to glide over the words. Your mind fills in the blanks because it knows what you wrote and is more prone to overlook misspelled words and insert missing ones. Returning to the same piece a day or two later allows your eyes to more easily find such errors.
Allow your copy to breath between the rough draft and the edit. This can be as little as an hour, but should be longer than a day. When you return, trim as much of the fat as you possibly can. And don’t think your writing has none. All writing has fat. Stephen King’s rule, which I rather like, is Final Copy = Rough Draft — 10 percent. Or as Elmore Leonard wonderfully said, “Leave out the parts people skip.”
Because it’s so easy to publish at the click of a button, many modern writers take proofreading for granted. But even if you’re charging readers for your blog posts, you’re still asking them to pay with their attention, which means they deserve to read copy that’s been proofread.
Copy that’s riddled with errors tells the reader that the writer doesn’t care. And if a reader thinks you don’t care about them, they’re left with no reason to care about you or anything you do.
Three Tips for Fast Proofing
- Read your work out loud. Even if it’s just your solitary voice bouncing against the walls of an otherwise empty room, reading your work out loud helps to highlight errors, missing words, or any lapses in syntax you might have missed.
- Print a copy of your work to edit. Don’t get cheap when it comes to the ink. A double-spaced printed copy of your work is easier to edit, and helps you do it fast. Reading on the computer screen is tiring on the eyes, and tired eyes always make the most mistakes or take longer to catch the ones that are obvious in ink.
- Use colored ink. Your copy is in black; your corrections shouldn’t be. If you’ve printed your work, good for you. Take it one step further and use a red or green pen to highlight your corrections.
16. Embrace the quiet.
Writers require quiet.
Everything from the dialogue you write, to the promises made in your headlines, to the communication in your emails — it all requires a certain precision if you expect to achieve maximum benefit.
I can write well, even with music in the background, my children juggling toys, and the neighborhood basketball game going into overtime outside my window, but when it’s time to edit, I need time and quiet. And even managing as I do with all the noise, I know my copy will be clearer, and more effective, if I’m writing in quiet, 100 percent of the time.
Writing and editing require diligence, attention to details, and focus, especially if you’re writing words intended to drive behavior. Unfortunately, many writers (myself included) are embarrassed to ask for this space.
But if you want to succeed, and create the assets and write the copy that will consistently drive your writing career forward, you must have the time, space, and quiet to meet your goals.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the quiet you need so you can create the quality copy you’re capable of writing and grow your audience as much as you’d like.
17. Make your characters count.
You want your readers to get swept away by your worlds, hang at the edge of your plots, and tell their friends your dialogue rocks. But more than anything else, you want them to love your characters.
When your reader loves your characters, they love your story. And they are more likely to think about your story even when they’re not reading, which is the most powerful thing you can get a reader to do.
LOST was a remarkably successful show, not because of its twisted plots and tangled mythology, though both were excellent. It was scripted television that knew how to put characters first.
Readers follow characters through a journey of your design. They are the engine that purrs throughout your entire story. Your books are simply pages populated by the experiences of the characters you write. So the best way to write remarkable fiction is to focus on creating truly great characters. They don’t have to be friendly, likable, or even articulate. But they must be worthy of your readers’ attention.
18. Write for a market.
I recently read an interview with R.L. Stine in Writer’s Digest magazine where the massively best-selling author said something I think every working writer needs to hear.
I hate it when authors come into a school and say to kids, “Write from your heart; write from your heart; only write what you know and write from your heart.” I hate that because it’s useless. I’ve written over 300 books — not one of them was from my heart. Not one. They were all written for an audience; they were all written to entertain a certain audience.
John Locke sold 1.1 million eBooks in five months, not because he was a great writer, but because he wrote specifically to a market. You must write for readers if you expect to be read. Of course, you should write the type of content that moves you. The point isn’t to sell out your muse and leave her stranded down river. The point is to take what you love and write it with a target in mind.
Storytelling is a conversation between you and your reader. But once your reader is finished with your story, the conversation changes. The dialogue is then between your reader and everyone else in the market. Write with a market in mind and you will have more readers recommending your work.
19. Use active voice when writing sales copy.
Sales copy must be written in an active voice.
Which sounds better, “Why was the road crossed by the chicken?” Or, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
The second question, written in active voice, sounds better. It is also clearer to the reader. Passive voice can serve a purpose, but it’s best to keep your sales copy sounding strong, and active voice is the best way to add the muscle.
Passive voice can be confusing, and when you’re writing sales copy, clarity is everything. Here’s another example of passive versus active:
Scientists conducted experiments — Active
Experiments have been conducted by scientists — Passive
It’s all about where the subject is placed in your sentence related to the verb. Look at who is doing the action, in this case “scientists.” “Conducted” is the action taken.
You’ll want to read your sales copy several times during your proof and edits, searching for places to rinse passive voice from your page is one of the best places to start.
It’s astonishingly easy for writers to abandon the reading habit.
Most of us become writers because of our early, voracious reading habits. We were the kids with the textbook read cover to cover by the second week of school. We were the ones begging our school librarians to please, please, please let us check out the books reserved for the kids three grades up.
When you’re writing for a living, reading is sometimes the last thing you want to do with your downtime. It’s all too easy to let the allure of mindless television and Web surfing win your time. At least until one day when you sit to write and realize your inspiration has vanished! Your mojo is missing and every word you type seems to tremble with timidity.
Reading is nutrition for your mind. Even reading the trashiest airport novel will expose you to new styles, ways of pacing, and wonderful words and expressions.
When the only things you read are borne in your own mind, your worst habits are reinforced and you fail to find new things to try.
Reading also helps you stay in the loop and discover what’s popular. Pay attention to different styles and voices. Watch how other writers handle transitions, pacing, and foreshadowing. Delight in the ways they play with language and take note of what doesn’t quite work.
Reading exposes you to new people, places, and points of view. The more information and perspectives you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to come up with unique ideas and angles in your own writing. We build on our gathered ideas. A failure to read is famine for your frame of reference.
If you’re waiting for some magical time that your life as a writer will slow down, stop. The only way to get reading time is to make reading time. The more you read, the stronger your reading habit will grow. Soon enough, you will automatically turn to a book, magazine, or other reading material when you have a spare moment.
You will find that the more you read, the easier it will be to find inspiration to write.