Nothing irritates me more than being told that there are “3 Secrets” to great copy. Worst still are those marketing promises that say something like, “3 Secrets that the copy gurus don't want you to know.”

Here's an example I received just the other day:

“Just imagine..a report with the *exact* words to use to maximize your influence and communication effectiveness....”

For me to believe that I could write good copy simply by having access to these *exact* words, I would also have to believe that if I had access to the *exact* set of brushes and paints used by Picasso, I could become a great painter.

It's all nonsense.

However, there are some simple steps you can take which, when taken in the right sequence, can improve your copy.

Step 1: Figure Out What to Say

A great deal of copy, for site pages, emails and newsletters, fails simply because the writers didn't pause long enough to figure out what they should be saying.

When you miss the "what to say" stage and jump straight to the "how to say it" stage, you usually end up with very vendor-centric text. You end up re-wording the brief, highlighting the great features and benefits of your client's products and services, and telling your audience that they really should buy everything right now.

Adding rouge and powder to the brief doesn't result in great copy.

When you make yourself spend time on "what to say," you'll find yourself thinking more about the people to whom you are writing. Your copy becomes more reader-centric. What do they bring with them when they open that page or email? What are their expectations? What do they want from you? What are they hoping for? What can you say that will make them think, “Yes, I'm in the right place. These guys might be able to help me?”

Achieve that, and everything else becomes a great deal easier.

For myself, I try to spend as much time figuring out what to say as I do on the actual writing of the copy. I have a scrap of paper on the wall in front of me, on which I have written, “What is it that I am really trying to say?”

Step 2: Write Well

Again, don't get all bent out of shape over "how" to write great copy, or which "power words" to use. Simply focus on taking "what to say," and saying it well.

Here's a simple tip that you might find useful.

When you are writing the first drafts of your copy, write it in a program like Notepad, which has no formatting features--no bold, no underline, no color.

All too often, we format our copy to make up for poor writing.

For instance, if you write a sentence and then immediately feel that you need an exclamation point at the end and a couple of words emphasized in bold...what does that tell you? Very often, what it should be telling you is that you didn't write that sentence very well in the first place.

Good writing, through its own structure and rhythm, already places emphasis in the right places. If you feel the need to format a sentence for emphasis, take that as a warning that you should, instead, be rewriting that sentence until it works a little better.

Good writing can stand alone, without the crutch of formatting to make up for the deficiencies in the writer's craft.

Step 3: Now You Can Add the Final Touches

I'm not a rabid purist when it comes to writing copy online. And because of the nature of the online experience, you will need to take note of the formatting of your copy.

Online, readers are becoming more and more impatient. So you really do have to say, “Look! Here's the copy that answers your questions.”

Work with your designer to make sure that the layout of the page throws emphasis on the key messages. Check out the column widths, and make sure none of your paragraphs look too long. Add those bold headings, and maybe some bold words within the body, here and there. And yes, even pay attention to those "power" words and phrases--like Free, Buy Now, Click Here.

One Final Thought…

I'm not preaching that you never use formatting and particular words to help your readers get the information they need.

I'm simply saying that these finishing touches should be just that, the final, finishing touches to a great message that is written well.

Good copywriters say the right thing well, and then add final touches to make the copy work online.

Mediocre copywriters skip the part about the right message and writing well. They simply jump to the part about "power" words and formatting.

Like any other form of writing, online copywriting is about connecting with your audience and expressing your message clearly.

No short cuts. No secrets. Just lots of hard work and a love for your craft.

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image of Nick Usborne

Nick Usborne has been working as a copywriter and trainer for over 35 years. He is the author of Net Words, as well as several courses for online writers and freelancers. Nick is also an advocate for Conversational Copywriting.

LinkedIn: Nick Usborne

Twitter: @nickusborne