As web designers and developers, you may not view writing as an essential tool for your business. You’re busy focusing on the specialized skills that make you valuable to your clients.
The reality, however, is that every part of your life and business requires communication.
The reality, however, is that every part of your life and business requires communication — pitching eloquently to clients, contributing to copy for their websites, and creating content to promote yourself online.
That’s why I’m going to share multiple strategies you can use to improve your writing skills, and maximize your communication with everyone around you. I’ll break my suggestions down into three sub-sections so that you can apply them to multiple areas of your writing life:
- Copywriting: Website content for your clients and/or yourself.
- Correspondence: Emails, project briefs, and contracts.
- Content marketing: Blog articles or social media posts for your clients and/or yourself.
Perhaps you’re still wondering whether becoming a better writer is really a priority for you and your business. Let’s start there.
You might also like: Paul Boag on Content Marketing & How to Start Your Blog.
Why it matters
Why bother spending time and attention on writing? Aren’t we in a culture of instant messaging, where we care little about traditional writing conventions? I would argue that your grammar, spelling, and style errors poke holes in your credibility, rightly or wrongly. You should take the time to focus on presenting the most polished, professional written version of yourself, and here’s why.
- Products and services don’t sell themselves — that job falls to us. Compelling and competent copywriting is what convinces people to convert.
- You need to tell your readers a story that resonates, and convince them that one of their real needs will be satisfied by what you (or your client) has to offer.
- One study looking at an online surf gear store found that shoppers who visited the “About Us” page converted 30 percent higher than shoppers who didn’t. Another study found that visitors to an “About Us” page were five times more likely to purchase a product, spending an average of 22.5 percent more on their purchases.
- A CampaignMonitor study found that for every $1 spent, email delivers a $38 return on investment. Your email list is one of your most valuable assets as a business owner. It’s an opportunity to arrive directly into their inbox — a place they’re familiar with and check nearly constantly. Don’t botch that opportunity with poorly-written content.
- When you’re pitching to a prospective client, you’re asking them to put their business into your hands. Any document you produce for them should give them confidence that you’re the right person for the job. On top of your industry experience, your ability to communicate clearly what you can offer is the difference between a contract won or lost.
- More than 200 million people are now using ad blockers, so traditional in-your-face advertisements just aren’t working anymore.
- People spend more time than ever reading content in line with their beliefs and interests. Present people with content they deem valuable, and you’ve got a captive audience ready to convert.
- Content marketing leaders get nearly eight times more site traffic than those who aren’t using current content-marketing strategies, according to industry expert Neil Patel. Plus, even though it costs 62 percent less than outbound marketing, content marketing generates more than three times as many leads.
Content marketing leaders get nearly eight times more site traffic than those who aren’t using current content-marketing strategies.
Planning: Know your objective
Before setting out on any writing project, it’s important to come up with a framework of what you’d like the piece to accomplish. Who will read your writing, and how do they like to be communicated to? Where will they read it: on a phone, on a desktop, or in a printed document? How can you make it easier for them to consume it? At the end of it all, what do you hope they take away? What do you hope they will do next? Providing yourself with the ground rules in advance will make it much easier when you actually start writing — all you’ll have to do is fill in the blanks.
- Doing keyword research will greatly improve your chances of people actually reading your writing. Shopify Partner Josh Highland shares a lot of great insights in his article, Understanding SEO: An Excerpt from Shopify Empire.
- Typing may be the most efficient way to write, but there’s nothing quite like connecting pen to paper. If you’re trying to brainstorm attention-grabbing headlines or catch phrases, grab a notebook. Write down anything that comes to you, even the ideas that you pray no one ever sees. From there, you can refine what is working, and chip away at it until you have something great.
Write down anything that comes to you, even the ideas that you pray no one ever sees.
- Each email should have one clearly defined call to action. Don’t confuse people with multiple messages or offers at once.
- Write as though you were speaking to a close acquaintance. It’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation — write too casually (“Hey, man”) and you border on being inappropriate; write too stiffly (“To whom it may concern”) and you come off as a prude. Find the sweet spot where your friendly banter is juuuuuust right (“Hi, <first name>!”).
- Only send emails when you have something to say. Make sure you have a new incentive; a useful resource; a helpful piece of advice that will be worthwhile for the person reading the email.
- Start a folder of emails you love. They can be one-to-one emails, marketing emails, or anything that really resonates with you. Find out what it is that you like — was it the subject line that convinced you to open? Was the template super appealing to your eye? Did you feel heard or recognized within the content? Keep a list of these winning elements so you can incorporate them into your own communications down the road.
- Consistency is key. Our team has a Shopify Web Design and Development Blog style guide that outlines conventions and rules for our content to follow. Consider this for your own content. For example, will you spell it “e-commerce” or “ecommerce”? Will you capitalize “internet”? Only having to make the decision once in an easily-accessible guide will make your life much easier.
- Developing a thorough content strategy is essential. How often will you publish? What types of content will you publish, and what topics will they cover? Will they be written in the first-person (“I” and “me”) or third-person (“he” and “she”)? Do you have topic tags so people can easily find specific content on your site?
- Readers spend an average of 37 seconds on an article, according to NewsCred Insights. Make sure your article is skimmable, with bolded headlines and smaller sections that people can read in chunks if they wish.
- Do you work on a team? If so, schedule monthly or bi-weekly meetings to discuss types of content you could create. That collective brainpower can accomplish so much more than you ever could apart. Take advantage of that genius. If you’re freelancing solo, ask friends, families, and strangers what kind of content they would like to read on your area of expertise.
Writing: Harnessing the creative process
You know WHY you need to write, the planning is complete…now you actually have to write the damn thing. This can feel like the hardest part, but I’ll share some tips to help you breeze through the process of actually putting something down on paper.
- The average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000, and it’s already down to less than 8 seconds. Keep that in mind when writing your content.
- You might find it hard to believe, but Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was written at a Grade 4 reading level. That doesn’t mean he’s writing for dummies. That means he’s writing clear, succinct, and direct copy — something you should always try to do as well. Don’t say “utilize” when you can say “use” instead, for example.
- Write an “About Us” page with a story about how your (or your client’s) business came to be. Humans are storytellers — and they’re also story listeners. Many people base purchasing decisions on their connection to the brand and the people behind it, so don’t miss that opportunity.
- Think hard about micro-copy. Those tiny instructions can make or break a customer conversion. Use A/B tests to find out if you sell more when you say, “Get yours now” compared to “Buy.”
- Don’t overuse exclamation marks. In fact, try not to use them at all. If you’re particularly excited, choose a spot to add one, and limit yourself there. This might sound harsh, but if everything is exciting, nothing is exciting.
- Don’t forget to add a question mark if you’ve asked a question. I’ve seen many emails where someone will say something like, “Do you want to see the best results.” Unlike the exclamation mark, don’t worry about being as frugal with these bad boys.
- When writing documents specifically for a client (like a proposal or a design brief), make sure they know it’s for them. Even when using templates, insert their name and business where appropriate, and make suggestions to let them know you’ve thought about them as a unique individual or company.
This might sound harsh, but if everything is exciting, nothing is exciting.
- Avoid word duplication. If you’re referring to the “fashion industry,” don’t repeat that phrase again and again — use similar words like “vertical,” “business,” or “market.” Thesaurus.com will become your new best friend.
- If you’re having a hard time getting started, say out loud what you’re trying to write and record it (most phones have a recording tool, like iPhone’s “Voice Memos”). You’d be surprised at how close you can get to something good by simply transcribing your words and deleting the “umms” and “uhhs.”
- Try not to edit as you go. You can always edit later, but you might not always be able to access that creative thought flow.
- Don’t let yourself get stuck if you can’t think of the perfect opening line. That can be the very last thing you write.
You might also like: How Fiction Inspires Great Design Thinking.
Editing: It really, really matters
“Write drunk; edit sober,” Hemingway told us. If you can believe it, writing is actually the easy part. The hard part comes from deciding what you should keep, and what you will delete forever. To quote another writing genius, William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Just because you’re in love with something you wrote doesn’t mean it adds value to your reader. Remember, you’re writing for them — not for you. Here are some tips to make the editing process less painful.
- Never, ever skip the editing phase. Always have at least two different people look over anything you’ve written, and make sure one of those people is someone who hasn’t had any involvement with the project you’re working on. That fresh perspective is key to spotting gaps that your brain has filled in subconsciously.
- After you think you’re finished, take some time away from the project. Ideally, don’t come back to it until the next day — rested eyes will allow you to edit with fresh perspective.
- Roughly 43 percent of people abandon lengthy emails in the first 30 seconds, so make sure to edit down as much as possible.
- It’s unproductive to have someone edit your one-to-one your emails, but make sure you read through every word before hitting send.
- Enable the “Unsend” functionality in your email client if possible. Many times, I’ve hit send just as I spot an easy-to-fix typo — all I have to do is hit “Unsend” and it pulls the email right back to me. Phew.
- Using templates is a great way to avoid typos in client documents, but be sure to watch out for customized areas. When I was in grade school, my mom (a teacher) would hire me to edit her report cards. She often copied and pasted comments — which sometimes led to the wrong name on someone’s report card. If you don’t think something similar on a design brief could lose you a client, you’re dreamin’.
- I can’t stress enough the importance of having someone edit your writing. Even the finest of writers need editors. If you’re new to the writing game, I suggest two rounds of edits: after you finish a first draft, share your work to make sure you have coherent arguments without gaps in logic; and after your final edit, share it again for typos, grammar, and style errors.
- Read your writing out loud to dig up awkward phrasing or funky tenses. You might feel like a crazy person, but you’ll immediately hear when something needs editing, or when you’ve gotten it perfectly.
- After your first draft, make it your goal to cut at least 25 percent of what you’ve written. A quote to live by, from William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style: “When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”
After your first draft, make it your goal to cut at least 25 percent of what you’ve written.
You might also like: 20 Expert Strategies to Help Overcome Creative Blocks.
It gets better
As with all skills, you never entirely master the art of writing. But it does get easier the more you do it.
Always remember that writing isn’t a nice-to-have skill — it’s an essential tool that allows you to convert leads into clients, communicate better with your team, and ultimately win more business. Thanks for reading!
Have any writing tips that have been helpful for you? Share them in the comments below.