Recently, I was discussing website copywriting with a colleague. When I mentioned that I usually spend about three hours writing a home page, he seemed stunned. He told me that it usually takes him about half an hour to write a home page. On a good day, twenty minutes.
Interestingly, our rates were pretty much the same.
The whole conversation got me thinking: Do you really want your entire business represented by something that took all of twenty minutes to write? That’s not a whole lot of time to invest in a home page, which is basically your core marketing tool.
My colleague wanted to know how I could possibly spend three hours or more writing a single page of website copy. So I told him, and now I’m going to tell you.
What is Website Copywriting?
Website copywriting is nothing like writing articles for online distribution, blog posts, or press releases. Most other types of web writing require a basic understanding of a single topic, and many of these topics are quick and easy to research. From a writing perspective, such material merely involves imparting information in a straightforward way.
Website copywriting, on the other hand, requires a fairly diverse skill set and a considerable investment of time. The copy has to be well written in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It has to impart a lot of information in a short amount of space. It has to look good on the screen. And it has to appeal to website visitors so they’ll become customers.
All of this requires research, planning, writing, and polishing.
Website Copywriting Skills
Quality writing is comprised of various skills. You have to know the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation (and know when those rules should be broken). You need the ability to craft a compelling sentence in a voice that resonates with readers. You have to know your readers and speak to them in language that resonates. And you have to be able to hook people, to keep them turning pages to read more.
Copywriting is a very specific type of writing. It’s designed to sell. Copywriting identifies not a reader, but a customer. It can be as straightforward as listing the benefits of a product or it can get creative, telling stories and playing on emotions in order to intrigue people into buying.
Website copywriting is even more specialized. To do this type of writing, one must possess all the skills of writing and copywriting, plus understand how people use the internet, how they read web pages, and what compels the average website visitor to scroll, click, and buy. You must know the business you’re writing about, and you absolutely have to be able to play the role of that business’s customer.
Before writing a single word, a good website copywriter will establish a clear and thorough understanding of a client’s business. It’s not enough to know what the client is selling. You have to know how long they’ve been selling, how much they sell for, all the varieties of products and services they offer, and most importantly, you have to know who their target customers are.
I start with a simple questionnaire that covers my clients’ business basics. Here are just a few of the questions I ask:
- What do you sell?
- How do your products or services help people?
- Why should customers buy from you?
Once I understand what the business is offering, I need to understand the company’s brand. Some businesses project a cutting-edge image while others come across as friendly or family-oriented. One business might be sophisticated and refined while another wants to be down home. Understanding the tone that a website needs to convey is one the most basic but challenging elements of good website copywriting, and it’s crucial for making sure that the copy supports and promotes the company brand and image.
But the most important and often overlooked element of website copy is the customer.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in website copy is a home page that lists all the details about a business without ever communicating how it will benefit a client or customer. That’s why a good website copywriter sits down and takes a long, hard look at their client’s business and clearly identifies the target customer before typing a single word.
The Website Copywriting Process
I keep a questionnaire template on file and customize it for each client. Usually, the basic questions I’ve developed will suffice, but sometimes I need to gather extra details, especially when dealing with any type of business I’m not familiar with. It’s my job to learn my clients’ businesses, so I keep asking questions until I feel like I’m a member of their team.
Once I have the information I need, I start picking through it, pulling out the bits and pieces that are most essential to the page of copy that I’m writing. This differs from the home page to the about page, so I’m always focused on the objective of the page I’m writing. Is its purpose to captivate visitors on their first visit? Does it need to communicate the company’s mission and philosophy? Should it highlight the products or services, or should it describe a particular product or service in detail?
This is a great way to build an outline. Eventually, my notes get molded into a comprehensive list containing the core details that need to be addressed on the page. This might include SEO and keywords or language that I need to use to convey the right tone. It may also include link placement and making sure the text guides the visitor to take some action — usually filling out a form or making some type of purchase.
Next I go through this list and start fleshing it out, filling in words, crafting sentences, and forming paragraphs until I have a nice, sturdy first draft.
After the first draft is complete, the revision process begins. This, for me, is an exciting step because it’s when I start to see what the final copy will look like. It involves checking for grammar, spelling, and punctuation to ensure the text is mechanically correct. I also have to make sure the copy looks good; website presentation is highly visual, so the copy has to present in an aesthetically pleasing way.
At last the revisions are complete. To finalize the copy, I read it aloud, slowly, several times, so I can absorb the tone and readability. Each time I proof it, I make minor changes and corrections until it’s completely polished and ready for publication.
That’s Why It’s Not a Twenty-Minute Job
As it turns out, my friend who writes a page of website copy in twenty minutes was timing his writing, and only his writing. Once I started talking about the research, outlining, and polishing, he nodded along enthusiastically and said that he does all that stuff too, but the actual writing only takes twenty minutes.
Here’s where writers start to debate. Is the research included in the writing process? I say so, since it’s an integral part of getting the job done. If you do all your your prep work, take notes, and spend enough time sitting there thinking about what you need to write and how it needs to sound, you could probably type out the copy in fifteen minutes or less.
But website copywriting is not the same as typing. It involves asking questions, conducting research, developing a plan of action, and then executing that plan. It has to be topped off with revisions, editing, proofreading, and polishing.
With every project, you go in with a blank page and come out with carefully crafted copy that compels website visitors. That takes a lot more than twenty minutes.
At least it should.
Melissa Donovan is a website consultant and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward and the author of over seven books.