Fine art of copywriting: write active copy, not passive

In this blog post series I consider some of the finer points of copywriting – the little things that make a big difference; the tricks and touches that lift copy and make it more persuasive, better at selling and more likely to create a good impression.

How to write active copy

Great copy is active, not passive. Good copy is about doing things, and the strongest, clearest way to explain an action is to put the actor centre-stage.

Here are some examples of the passive voice getting in the way:

“There are first-class web design skills at Digital Solutions”

“More surfaces can be covered in less time with Whoople Paints”

“We were awarded the FML Award for 2011 by Spoxk Magazine”

Put the actor first, at the focal point of the action, to create sharper sentences. Here are the same sentences in the active voice:

“Digital Solutions offer first-class web design skills”

“Whoople Paints cover more surfaces in less time”

“Spoxk Magazine awarded us the 2011 FML Award”

Active vs passive

Writing in the passive voice isn’t always wrong, but the active voice can make your copy more direct and clear.

Content strategy advice: focus on the tasks

Love this talk from Gerry McGovern at Content Strategy Forum 2011.

Gerry advocates focussing on our user’s tasks rather than thinking about content. Gerry gives good examples of websites bulging with unnecessary content that doesn’t help users achieve goals.

Gerry’s suggestion is worth noting, partly because there’s a danger that writers see words as the solution to every problem. But there are often cases where content is critical to the task. For example, if you’re in the market for a new web designer you’ll probably want to read a little bit about them, and see examples of their work (the content), before you try to contact them (the task).

Copywriters and content strategists are often at the front line of content decisions, and by thinking carefully about the purpose of every piece of content, we might be able to reduce the amount of clutter online.

Groupon copywriting: half-wit and misguided humour

Groupon has a distinctive way of communicating. Their copy is often discussed in favourable terms and the business seems to be doing well. However, I think their copy could be better.

Here’s an email I received recently:

Groupon emailMy main objection with Groupon’s attempts at humour is that (in addition to being lame) they get in the way of communication. A space that might have told me where the gym is, or what equipment they have, is given over to wordplay. A space that might have told me about the treatments offered by the spa is full of rambling nonsense.

Groupon’s copy is not copy, it’s a surreal dump of teenage wit. To find out the details on those deals you have to click the link and visit the website. But I shouldn’t have to – it could have all been there in my inbox.

Humour is welcome, but it should have some connection to the offer – and it should not take the place of informative content.

How tone of voice and brand language workshops can simplify content production

2011 Port Strategic Planning Forum

When writing copy for businesses, it can be difficult to get everyone to agree on what is ‘right’. As a copywriter, your words may be reviewed by several stakeholders, all with slightly different ideas of how their company communicates.

Copywriters can either muddle on, hoping to assuage multiple stakeholders and get their copy signed off after a bit of a slog, or you can unify your reviewers by getting them to agree a canonical tone of voice for their brand.

Bring together representatives from every department and get them talking about brand language. Get them to share their view of the company’s voice. And then write it all down, and get them to sign it off.

A short workshop can be enough to make everyone feel heard, and can be enough to produce a tone of voice document that everyone can agree to. Once the tone of voice is in black and white, and no longer an ephemeral mish-mash of beliefs, you can get writing. Not only will you encounter less resistance from your reviewers, but you will also have a framework to fall back on, should anyone challenge or question your copy.

Indeed, you’ll no longer be arguing about the tone of voice, though you may find yourself discussing whether your copy is in keeping with the documented brand voice – which is a far easier conversation to have!

When to use brand language or tone of voice workshops

Not every business needs to run a workshop. For small clients and startups it’s often quicker and easier (and cheaper for the client) to decide a tone of voice by simply talking about it.

However, brand language or tone of voice workshops are great for…

Companies that have grown

Many of my clients need help because they’ve grown from a small company doing one thing to a larger company doing several things, and during that growth they lose the ability to clearly explain what they do. Different ideas about the business compete for prominence, and often it’s easier for an external agency to bring some clarity.

Companies with several strong departments

Copy can easily become the battleground for corporate turf wars. Warring factions fight for control of areas of strategic importance (like the home page). Engender a spirit of cooperation and peace by bringing the warmongers together, and getting them to play nice.

If you’re interested to know how a brand language workshop could help your organisation speak with a clear, consistent voice, get in touch!

The art of copywriting: be positive and optimistic


Copywriters have a job to do. We have to write the words that do the business. In this blog post series I’ll consider some of the finer points of copywriting – the little things that make a big difference; the tricks and touches that lift copy and make it more persuasive, better at selling and more likely to create a good impression.

Here’s the first part of this series:

Be positive and optimistic

Good copy carries energy and makes statements with positivity and certainty. Bad copy stumbles the reader over hiccups and hillocks, depositing turds of negativity along the way, subliminally suggesting disaster while promising unearthly delights.

Let’s look at some examples of how to fill your copy with energy.

Don’t write:

This training programme is designed to teach you everything you need to know about psychiatry. After three years of hard work you should be equipped to treat the worst conditions of the human mind. There’s no doubt that you will be able to command a killer salary after completing this training.

The example above contains hesitancy (designed, should) and negative words (hard, worst, doubt, killer) which, when assembled together, leave the reader with a vague feeling of failure. Even when the overall message is positive, these bitter tastes of negativity remain. So when you want to sell something, and create a positive feeling in your reader, chose your words carefully.

Do write:

This training programme teaches you everything you need to know about psychiatry. Completing this course will qualify you to treat a wide variety of psychological conditions.

You’ll also notice that replacing ‘designed to teach’ with ‘teaches’ creates a much more compact and direct sentence. As a writer you should be on guard for phrases like ‘designed to’ or ‘gives you the ability to’ because there’s a good chance they are slowing down your sentences and dulling your copy.

Where do copywriters go for inspiration?

Web designers love to show off, and they love to share inspiring design. There are many sites that help designers share the good stuff, and I’m jealous!

When I want inspiration as a copywriter, where can I look? When I find fantastic copy, where can I share it?

Nowhere. Or so it seems.

So how about I set up a simple site, give you (as a copywriter) your own login details, and then we can fill the site with great copy!

Let’s spend more time complimenting great copy and less time criticising the bad stuff.

What do you think?

ADDENDENDENDUM: Following such a positive reaction to the idea, I set to work and created – a place to share and discover inspiring copy and content

Content strategy applied: creating better web content with page tables



Content creation can be an impossible task. After a content strategist has sketched out the grand plan, a copywriter must eventually write something.

Pen hits paper. Keys rattle. Words emerge. And it’s all wrong. Horribly wrong. Marketing hates it, sales despise it, it makes the MD feel physically sick and someone in HR cried after reading it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s too much wiffle, and not enough waffle. It doesn’t mention the G-Fex haemoglobber, or the Windlespan Chingnits. It doesn’t appeal to Middle England, and the language is too salesy, or not salesy enough, depending on who you ask, and the time of day you ask them.

To sum up, nobody can agree on what the content should be like. And in part that’s because every person reviewing the content is considering too many things. They’re not just considering what is written, but also how it’s written.

Divide and conquistador!

Getting copy approved by multiple corporate gatekeepers is easier when you split the task into two stages= content + style.

And page tables are the perfect container for pure content. Page tables are just a document you use to record the content requirements for pages of your website. You can specify the key messages, the audience, the calls to action, how the page fits with other sections and so on. Content strategists use page tables as a way to pass explicit instructions to content creators, so the wider strategy is implemented as intended.

The cunning copywriter’s secret weapon

Copywriters can also use page tables purely as a device to ease the difficult journey to FINAL copy. Rather than overwhelming reviewers with full-on copy, you can get acquainted over a page table. Tease them with content requirements. Tantalise them with your thoroughness and consideration of their key messages. Subdue them with content, because only then can you woo them with style.

Once reviewers have seen and signed off the page tables, agreeing the precise content for each page, you can write copy. And because stakeholders have been involved, they’re much more likely to love it.

Page table example (Google Doc template)

Let’s chat about your projectContact us