Blog / Marketing tips / How to Write Well: The Basics of Content Writing
The words you’re reading right now bear a heavy burden—they’re the only way I can reach you through this screen. Yet at any moment, you may lose interest and click away.
For online businesses, knowing how to write well matters everywhere from the product descriptions and about us page to social media posts, blogs, and newsletters. Everything you write impacts the way your customer perceives you, and when it comes to sales, your writing can do either two things: drive the customer away or invite them in.
In this blog, I want to take everything I’ve learned since I started writing, editing, and translating and squeeze them into five basic steps you should take in your writing if you want your customer to keep coming back.
Writing starts with research and brainstorming. When you’ve finished your first draft, you go on to several rounds of editing. Once the text looks good, you ask for feedback, finalize it, and post it. After that, you analyze the outcome and think about what to improve next time.
All of these steps are natural and necessary, so please don’t fear or rush them. By the end of this read, you’ll see that making them a part of your life isn’t that big of a deal.
But before we get into all the copywriting tips, let’s dispel three common writing myths to take the pressure off the process.
My hope is once you’ve read these, you’ll see that learning how to improve your writing doesn’t have to be intimidating.
Nope. It’s one of the most complicated things we as a species do. Like many things worth doing well, it takes a lot of brain power and concentration.
To free yourself from the false assumption that good writing just “happens”, remember not to mix up writing, the medium of human communication, with writing, the skill, craft, and a way to make money.
Most of us can fill out paperwork and message our friends and family, but not all of us know what words to avoid when de-escalating a conflict, or how to write an engaging story.
Something as small as subscription block is an opportunity for storytelling. Brother Vellies
So there’s the ability, and then there’s the skill; and you can apply this idea to everything else humans can do. Like, sure, I can sing at a karaoke bar, but can I sing on stage? Nope. Because I don’t have the skills for that.
It’ll take way more than a “gift” to get me from the karaoke bar to Carnegie Hall, and the same goes for writing. Writing skills are skills like any other, and there’s only one way to get them: practice.
Here’s a quick list that, for me, covers the ongoing to-dos for a writer. Before you tell me you don’t have time for these—you’ll find it. Just try to be patient with yourself and remember that new habits take time.
“A blog is a great way to hone your writing skills. The pressure of having an audience is just what a hesitant writer needs to keep them writing,” says Scott Chow of The Blog Starter.
Write. The big one. This includes everything from word mapping and taking notes to drafting, editing, and finalizing. Make it a habit and make it enjoyable.
I enjoy writing by hand, so I make sure to mix up my screen time with paper time. I write in Google Docs, physical notebooks, and on random scraps of paper.
Get feedback. It’s very important and slightly uncomfortable. Practice getting feedback from everyone you can (your team, boss, family, friends), and ask them for their first impressions, gut feeling, as well as comments on wording and sentence structure.
On the Printful team, it’s crucial to get feedback not only from other copywriters and dedicated proofreaders but also teammates who are experts on the subject and can spot factual mistakes.
Read both for business and for pleasure. For business, it’s going to be news and industry updates. These will give you strategy and content ideas, and an understanding of your audience’s needs.
For pleasure, read what you love, but pick something with a rich vocabulary where it’s still interesting, but slightly outside your comfort zone. Pay attention to the stories and words that keep you reading and write them down in your notes.
In my spare time, I read about language, music, and art, and throw in a novel here and there. Sometimes I mix reading for pleasure with a bit of pain and go for challenging classics like Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things.”
Use tools, not just your head. You’re not supposed to have the entire database of world languages in your head, so use the internet as soon as you come across something you’re uncertain about. Use dictionaries, use a thesaurus, use Google, and other writing apps. Start your own notes. Before you know it, looking up things will have become an inseparable part of your writing process.
A few of my go-tos: Merriam-Webster, The Free Dictionary, Ozdic, the Grammarly blog, the Purdue OWL, and my favorite hack: Google search operators.
Google search operators are special commands that help you narrow your searches and find just the thing you’re looking for. Let’s say I’m blanking on ways to amplify the word “energy” in my copy. I can type the phrase in quotation marks, replace the word I’m looking for with an asterisk, and even specify the site where I’d like to do the search.
The search results then tell me that “new,” “raw,” and even “glorious” are all good ways to describe one’s energy.
I stand by this quote from Hemingway: “the first draft of anything is sh*t.”
From my experience, a lot of budding copywriters worry that if they can’t sit down and spit out flawless sentences, they aren’t cut out to be writers. Sure they are: all it takes is self-editing the crap out of your work and practice.
Here are the two paragraphs you just read before I re-did them.
The quote I love to come back to is this one by Hemingway: “the first draft of everything is sh*t.” And he’s absolutely right.
I feel like most people get scared because they think that if they aren’t able to sit down and produce flawless sentences instantly, they aren’t cut out to be writers. Sure you are: you just need to work on it and self-edit the crap out of your work.
Wouldn’t you agree that the edited version is better?
If you stop reading here, I’d like you to go away with this tip: write a set of words and keep rewriting them until they sound good. Every round of editing is worth the time.
So much for the myths. Here come the five steps you need to follow in order to write well.
You’re not ready to write until you’ve done enough thinking to know why you’re writing, and who you’re writing for. If there’s no goal, there’s no writing.
To begin your research, start with these three questions.
1. Why are you writing?
Possible answers: to educate, to entertain, to get someone to do something, to communicate a problem.
Knowing the “why” will help you decide on the scope of the topic, the tone of the message, and the call to action.
Giving a clear call to action to the reader is a must; if you want them to do something (click a link, subscribe, share feedback, contact customer service), you have to tell them. Just don’t give too many instructions at once—it may overwhelm the reader and they won’t do any of it.
2. Who are you writing for?
Possible answers: existing/potential customer, existing/potential business partner, social media follower, teammate.
On top of everything you just read about the “why,” knowing the “who” will help you decide on the length, difficulty, and word choice.
3. Where are people going to read it?
Possible answers: website, social media, email, blog, team chat, Google Doc, poster; desktop vs. mobile.
Knowing the “where” will help you decide on the layout, formatting, and visuals for the text, and will make you think about readability. It will also get you thinking if you need to consider elements like SEO or the view on mobile.
To illustrate the thought process behind these research questions, why not take this very blog post as an example.
Marianna, why are you writing?
To educate and motivate. I want to help our readers achieve their writing goals. I believe having good writing skills is useful in all walks of life.
Who are you writing for?
I’m writing for beginner/intermediate writers. Firstly: Printful blog followers, especially ecommerce business owners who want to improve the copy for their brand. Secondly: anyone who might stumble on this blog looking for tips on how to write better.
Where are people going to read it?
The Printful blog. Could be on desktop, could be on mobile. I’m keeping in mind the team formatting conventions and thinking about the length of my sections and paragraphs, so the blog is easy to skim.
Easy enough, right? And once you know who you’re writing for and what you want to say, you can move on to step two.
In the draft stage, there’s no one looking. It’s just you and the void.
Write it all out. Just go ahead and word-vomit onto the document.
You can do things like:
At one point, a structure will appear. Move your sentences around until the whole thing begins to look readable, and keep reassembling until you feel that the ideas are there, but don’t sound good yet.
Once you’ve cleared your head, it’s time to do the real work.
In editing mode, the writer is in full service to the reader: everything you add, remove, or reword is to give value to them. As you’re editing, question every word you’ve written and think about how it ties in with the “why”, “who”, and “where” you defined in the research stage.
But what does it mean, to add value to the reader? I think it means removing as many reading barriers as possible so the person can focus on your ideas, and not your words. The same way you want a moviegoer to value the story onscreen, instead of spending their time pointing out continuity errors, CGI fails, or bad acting.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest barriers in writing, how they feel for the reader, and how to remove them.
How it feels for the reader: “so what?”
Writing sometimes starts on the wrong foot. The copywriter might go, “Ah, I have to write a social media post about this product launch! What should I say?”
Focused yet uninspired, the writer expresses the facts they have in a bunch of decently sounding words. The result is a presentation of boring facts the customer doesn’t react to.
To remove the barrier, shift your mindset. You’re not writing for yourself or “for social media”—you’re writing for the reader. So start with the person, not the content type. Think: “Oh cool, here’s a new product I want our followers to try. What are they into right now?”
In this splendid tweet from Burger King, you can tell it started with the writer thinking about what style of communication the customer is into, not the re-launch of Cheesy Tots.
If the writer wrote it for themselves, the tweet would probably be closer to this:
I’m aware of the fact that we’re talking Cheesy Tots here, so the tweet would probably still work—but you get the picture. To write for the customer, be the customer.
How it feels for the reader: TL;DR
If you can explain something in fewer words, do it. Because the wordier you get, the greater the chance of your reader getting tired and frustrated.
Now, removing this barrier doesn’t mean dumbing everything down. Just see if you can write a simpler alternative to what you mean to say.
To use simpler words, try these tips as formulated by George Orwell:
When following Mr. Orwell’s guidance, you’ll see your writing become more casual and less of a mental barrier. A few examples:
However, the more you write, the more you’ll see that when it comes to choosing between the “bigger” or “smaller” word, there’s no real “right” or “wrong”. There’s only the question of the reader.
For this reason, it’s OK for academic writing to include hardcore industry jargon and for TikTokers to write using slang—the audience is OK with it.
How it feels for the reader: “well this came out of nowhere” or “how did I get here”
Remember draft mode, where you reassemble words and sentences until they make sense? Question the arrangement till the end of the editing process, especially if you’re covering several ideas in your text.
Every text is a repeated pattern of the structure introduction, body, conclusion.
This blog post is no exception: my sentences, paragraphs, sections (and even words) follow the intro-body-conclusion structure to take you from the beginning to the post to the end.
If you feel like your ideas don’t click, pay close attention to the words you use to express your ideas and how they flow from one to another. To fix wobbly structure, keep shuffling your writing until idea A is built on a solid intro, body, and conclusion and takes the reader to an equally solid idea B and so on.
Or, you may need to suck it up and remove the idea that’s messing up the flow. Whenever I’m writing, the final page of the Google Doc becomes my editing graveyard. That’s where I move all the sentences that made sense to me while writing, but started making less and less sense while editing.
As I keep writing, some of the ideas I killed off make their way back into the text, but sometimes they’re lost forever. Even while editing this blog, some bits of my original intro were scrapped, only to be reborn as the conclusion.
How it feels for the reader: “hold on, I need to reread this”
Writing is based on rhythm, same as speech. If you want your message to go down smoothly, you need to create smooth rhythm patterns.
To make text easy to take in, vary long sentences/clauses/words with shorter ones. If you keep everything the same length, not only does the text become monotonous and boring, but it becomes difficult to read.
See what happens to the last paragraph when I ignore the rhythm of the words:
What that means is this. Vary long phrases with shorter ones. If you don’t, text becomes monotonous. It also becomes rather boring. And it is also difficult to read.
And now for an example on the word level (topic unrelated). Wording aside, which is visually easier to take in?
And how to remove that barrier? Read your work out loud. If it sounds bad spoken, it will “sound” bad when read.
Once you feel like your text will get the reader to do what you want them to do, give everything one final read before sending it off for feedback. If it’s just you on the team, try sending your copy to someone from your friends and family.
Make the text as final as it can be so you don’t have any hazy bits where you have to explain to your proofreader “what you meant by it”—remember that you won’t have the same liberty with the real readers!
When you get to the point of getting feedback, don’t be scared and be open. The first comments might sting, but don’t fight them or take them personally.
Use this as an opportunity to improve what you’ve written and appreciate the fact that you got a chance to test your writing in a safe space before throwing it to the lions.
After your text has made rounds in the real world, the big question is, did it achieve what you wanted it to do?
Did your teammate respond to your email? Did your Instagram followers share your post? Did your customers make use of that discount coupon?
Whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” analyze the outcome of your work and try to figure out what happened. Keeping track of the performance of your texts is the only way to make informed decisions about what to write next.
For example, if you write social media content, you could create a spreadsheet where you put down the metrics you’re interested in (conversions, engagement, etc.) and all the elements of your posts, like:
So, when faced with a post that didn’t do too well, you can look back and go “ah, maybe I was too wordy or too blunt” or “I shouldn’t have used all those fancy words” or “I easily could’ve had a bit more fun with this.”
And sometimes, it won’t be about the text, but the context. Could be that you missed the mark at the research stage. Maybe the visual sucked. Or perhaps the timing was off—something else happened in the world that was more interesting than what you were writing about.
As you can see, there’s a lot of things that can impact your writing. The more you take note of them, the easier it will be for you to troubleshoot and experiment. When experimenting, just remember to change only one element at a time so you know what you’re measuring.
Hopefully, by now you can agree that writing becomes much easier when you switch from writing for yourself to writing for the reader. And that it becomes even easier when you accept that good writing starts, unfolds, and ends with a lot of thinking.
The stages of writing that go into a good text—research, drafting, editing, finalizing, and analyzing—are there for a reason. Sure, you can skip them, but it’s very likely that the things you miss will come back to haunt you once the text is live.
What do you find the most challenging when it comes to writing? What are some of the tips you’ve picked up that you think might be useful for other writers reading this? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below; I’d love to hear your take!
Marianna Zvaigzne is the Head of Brand Language at Printful. With the help of her team, she’s pinning down what it means to “sound like Printful” and keeps Printful copywriters on their toes with animated editing sessions and writing workshops.
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