Reading good online copy is like observing a well-maintained bonsai.
All leaves and less significant branches have been removed from the trunk, which has been carefully tended so that it tapers logically from apex to base. All unnecessary tangents and anecdotes have been trimmed away. What’s left is lucid and, depending upon the flair of the writer, has been wired into simple, compelling shapes and directions. These branches are also trimmed for their height and width, so that they present the whole clearly and concisely, at a glance.
The biggest difference is that, unlike a bonsai, it’s possible to write online copy that is pre-trimmed. You just need to organize a couple of things before you start.
This is the ‘trunk’ of the story. Most people writing for the net don’t address this clearly enough.
To establish a good topic, you need to ask yourself three things.
Firstly, why am I writing about this topic? It may seem obvious to you, but if you don’t make it absolutely clear to your audience, they may get lost.
Secondly, ask ‘why now?’ The answer will be what makes the reader curious and compels them to get to the end of your article. It needs to be relevant to the point in time during which it will be read.
Thirdly, why are they reading you? Who are you, anyway? You need to establish your authority on the subject with the way you write. Your copy needs to convey confidence and authority. A certain degree of authority will be presupposed if you’re writing for a site that’s known for a particular topic, but that’s no excuse to neglect to write confidently and authoritatively.
2. Key points
The structure is vital to any article. There needs to be a logical progression of branches on the trunk of your bonsai. Too many, and the whole thing will end up an inelegant, shambolic mess.
So, plan it out. Make sure it flows logically. Without a sound structure, you’ll just confuse the reader.
Email marketing guru Bob Ogdon insists that anyone reading a piece of copy on the net should be able to figure out exactly what it’s about after a 30-second scan of it.
‘You can read [the article] if you want to use the energy, but it doesn’t require any energy for you to figure it out,’ says Ogdon.
A sound structure will help you achieve this. If it flows logically, the article’s purpose will be apparent from a single, cursory glance.
3. Call to action
This is the most crucial aspect of any piece of copy. Your article needs to convince the reader to do something. It doesn’t matter how well your bonsai is trimmed, if its presence doesn’t engage and compel the observer, the person who tended it has failed.
Creating a good call to action is all about context and perspective. You need to phrase your message in such a way that it’s easy for the reader to relate to but also implies they might be missing out on something desirable if they don’t act on the article.
A good example that Nett encountered recently was a press release about a restrictive change in the laws regarding mobile phone usage whilst driving. The press release was sent by a company selling car kits for iPhones. Without the context of the new legislation, the release would’ve just been a rant about how wonderful their new product was. The context not only engaged the readers’ interest (they use phones, they drive, sometimes at the same time) but also provided a solution to the issues presented by the context that led straight back to the product. Quite clever, wouldn’t you say?
A call to action needs to set up two camps in the readers’ minds. There’s the camp they’re in, which they can choose to stay in if they so desire; then, there’s the camp that belongs to those who’ve followed the call to action. The latter group is enviable because they can now use their iPhones whilst driving, whereas the rest can’t. Even the faintest implication that the reader is missing out on something highly desirable will be enough to at least pique their interest to click through and investigate what you’re talking about.
Finally, Tone. You need to be conversational.
Conversational doesn’t necessarily mean informal. Even corporate writing needs to be human. Your copy needs to read like a natural conversation with an expert.
Online, you can be much more informal. How do you do this? Use contractions (ie ‘you are’ becomes ‘you’re’). Use simple sentences. Try not to over-punctuate.
A good bonsai is defined by the impression of age and majesty that it projects, despite its relatively small size and apparently simple arrangement.
Similarly, a good piece of copy is authoritative, relevant, personable, and compels the reader to respond actively, in a positive way, all while appearing to be very simple and easy to read. Not so hard, really. #