Expert Q&A – Using great copy to stand out

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This week’s Simply Smart Social Expert Q&A was all about getting attention online with words that stand out from the crowd. The fabulous Emma Louise Smith jumped into the group to share her top tips for creating copy that puts the spotlight exactly where it should be.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m Emma-Louise Smith and I’ve got 15 years experience of writing and communicating on behalf of magazines, charities, and businesses. I’ve written for the Times, The Mail On Sunday, Woman’s Own, Now magazine, You magazine and more.
I trained as a journalist and feel strongly that knowing how to use words powerfully is key in online business – I mean we all use words every day, on our website and in our social media updates right? So I want to help you kick your copy woes to the kerb by letting you in on some of the journalism world’s professional tips and tricks to help make your copy so compelling your competition may as well give up and go home.

Do you have a process when you’re writing, or do you just let it flow?

I do have a process. First, I research the topic and get all that saved in an Evernote folder. Then I write an outline, maybe just a few bullet points of what I want to get across. Then I write a first draft (see the first tip I’m going to share about that). I always leave some time before I go back and edit, and/or print out before I edit so that I look at the words with fresh eyes. And lastly, I do a proof read. ALWAYS do a proof-read.

I have Evernote notebooks set up for all the topics I write about, eg I’m writing about disruptive leadership for a recruitment consultant. So I use the Evernote clipper to save all the relevant articles in that folder.

What are your top tips?

TIP 1: is about writing the first draft. Just write.

A first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be written. So set a timer for 20 minutes , or as long as you need and write with no distractions and WITHOUT going back to edit. Why? Because every time you stop, read a sentence and change it, you’re interrupting your natural flow. Who knows what genius might spill onto the page. So set your individuality free without letting your bossy inner-editor interrupt. It’s how you let yourself sound like a human being instead an English language textbook or a corporate annual review. Everyone goes back to edit – so it takes a conscious effort to stop doing it.

TIP 2: Use the active voice.

Most of us learnt to write in a very formal passive style at school and university or for traditional businesses. But this is not the engaging style that will appeal to your readers.Passive sentences can be flat, clunky, overly wordy, confusing and let’s face it D-U-L-L. For example: ‘A blog post was written for my website by Emma.’ is passive. But if you turn that around to active : ‘Emma wrote a blog post for my website.’ Instantly clearer, concise, punchy and ENGAGING

TIP 3: Lose the adjectives!

My way of writing is very journalistic – so different to writing fiction or creatively. Journalism and online writing are all about getting attention and keeping it. So writing simply, concisely and using concrete language is most effective. Well-chosen, specific adjectives are great, but too often they are vague and lazy. I’ve said ‘lose the adjectives’ but you don’t need to cut every single one out. It’s just good to be judicious because online copy that littered with adjectives won’t work as well. Use your own judgement about whether it’s adding anything to your headlines/sentence and be selective. Make sure it’s working hard and not vague. Show don’t tell.

TIP 4: Keep it simple.

So cut the filler – any unnecessary words that don’t contribute to the meaning eg. ‘‘As a rule, it makes sense to keep sentences and paragraphs short and easy to read.’ is indirect, and makes you sound apologetic and unsure of yourself. Don’t be.Be direct. Lose the first four words and the sentence gains authority. ‘Keep sentences and paragraphs short and easy to read.’

TIP 5: Don’t be a clever clogs.

Don’t use long, fancy-pants words when simpler words will do and don’t use jargon that your average reader wouldn’t understand.Why? Because it isn’t clever, it’s just distracting and may well send your readers running for the door.

TIP 6: Be brief.

This is especially important online where attention spans are short. Keep sentences to a maximum of 25 to 30 words, and paragraphs should contain no more than two or three sentences. Why? Because short sentences and paragraphs are easier to read and easier for the mind to absorb. Readers tend to skim read articles and posts first to see if it’s worth reading the whole thing and short sentences and paragraphs make it easy to do this – as do judiciously placed sub-headings. A whole page of dense copy is a big turn-off.

Do you have any tips for navigating a subject that can potentially be negative, or heavy?

I’ve written on some heavy subjects (think child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness) and I think it’s that kind of topic that resonates the most with people. It’s so powerful to share these vulnerabilities. Are you writing about your own experiences or as advice/support – or both perhaps? Either way don’t be afraid to go there and explore that negativity, you want your readers to know you understand where they are – but tell a story. I would suggest creating a ‘formula’ for sharing these negative situations as a story – which might start in a dark place, but tells how using community and building support networks, can lift them out and take them to a better place.

Do you have any proofreading tips? I always miss typos as I go a bit word blind after a few drafts, so I use my mum as my proofreader!

It’s really hard to edit something you’ve written yourself. I always try to leave some space between writing and editing or proofing so that I’m looking at it with fresh eyes. Overnight if possible. And try to read it in a different medium eg. print it out, or if you can’t do that email it to yourself so that you’re looking at it from a different perspective.

Extra resources:

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