The copywriting process – Getting down and dirty with the detail

An old school friend I hadn’t seen for decades asked me how I wrote commercial copy. I was a bit nervous so I just blabbed something inane about sitting at my desk and getting on with it. Doh.

But it got me thinking. How exactly do I write copy? What does the physical process involve? And what thought processes underlie the countless common sense and creative copywriting decisions I make for every piece of writing?

Several weeks later, I’ve thought it through.

The copywriting process in 11 steps

Here’s how I write copy. Say I’m writing a web page.

  1. first I set up a skeleton on which to drape the copy: main headers, sub heads and space for body copy
  2. next I create the headers and subheads, including key words and phrases when on-site SEO is included in the brief
  3. I write a sentence, fiddle with it until it says exactly what I want it to say then tackle the next sentence
  4. once I’ve completed a paragraph, I check it and tinker with it in context, taking a second look at the headers and subheads to make sure everything sits together logically and flows perfectly
  5. I take plain English into account automatically, talking the way most people speak for immediate maximum impact
  6. I follow direct marketing principles and best practice at every stage
  7. abstract emotional notions like elegance, rhythm and flow are key. Some words simply sound easier on the ear in a certain order. For example mayhem and chaos is easier on the ear than chaos and mayhem. I believe the French do a similar thing, nominating objects ‘male’ or ‘female’ simply because ‘le’ or ‘la’ sounds better. Stuff like this is odd, but makes all the difference between stilted and flowing copy. When a message flows it helps drive the reader steadily towards a buying decision
  8. proper spelling is vital. But I’m flexible under some circumstances. After discussion with a client we decided to go for ‘roofs’ because nobody spells it ‘rooves’ any more
  9. it’s always best to write the way most people speak, so I sometimes break strict grammatical rules. For example very few people say There are these days so I resort to There’s – there is, ie. There’s loads of great offers. It’s grammatically incorrect but in the context of everyday speech, it works better and doesn’t trip you up when you’re reading
  10. copywriting is creative as well as logical. There’s always a strong, instinctive emotional subtext. For me, each word has a distinct texture and meaning way beyond the obvious. A badly placed word is ugly and sometimes even distressing. When I fix it, the message shines with ‘goodness’. Tricky to describe but that’s how I experience it
  11. I check the copy several times throughout the process and save one final check for the next da,y or after lunch when my head is in a different, fresh place. It’s a great way to pick up any tiny, last minute tweaks

I do most of this on creative autopilot, occasionally surfacing into full consciousness to tackle the logical, methodical side of the job. Other freelance writers probably do things differently. But when you pick me as your freelance copywriting partner, that’s what you get for your money!