UX

6 writing techniques for web copy, and why they work

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It’s easy to break down coding into particular parts.

Objects. Variables. Loops.

Copy? Eh, not so much. Oh sure, there’s “sentences” and “paragraphs.” But beyond that, most people don’t really have an understanding of what makes copy “work.”

So what happens when you have non-writers actually creating copy for a website? Well, it doesn’t end well. They’re not aware of the huge number of tools at their disposal.

Related: Don’t hire a designer who will also write copy

That’s a shame! Being aware of these tools can make your writing sing, better tailor it to certain demographics, or encourage people to buy. Concepts like repetition, symmetry, and cadence form part of your arsenal. You might use them correctly on occasion by accident—but it’s always better if you wield them at the right opportunity.

Writing web copy

Photo: @criene via Twenty20

Writing is really the art of persuasion

Think about all the different things you read in a day. If something isn’t trying to inform you—like a news article—then it’s trying to persuade you.

Those persuasions might be benign:

  • “Step carefully, please.”
  • “Insert your metro ticket here.”
  • “Soda now 20% off!”

…or they might be a little more serious:

  • “Hey, I really need you to come in to work early tomorrow.”
  • “If you don’t do this, you’re fired. You don’t want to be fired, do you?”
  • “If you don’t vote for me, this state/country will fall to ruin.”

Okay, sure the last one is a little drastic. But the point is the same: We see persuasive language everywhere. In a speech, on a billboard, and on our phones. The trick is knowing the little tools that make our speech more persuasive.

“Writing is really the art of persuasion.”

So… what are they?

Well, first we should consider: What actually persuades you? There are all sorts of reasons why you might be convinced to do something. Maybe someone is nice to you. Maybe they show you empathy. Maybe they clearly list out arguments for why you need to do a certain thing.

Or maybe they’re looking for some authority—and you happen to be the one to give it to them.

It’s important to answer this question first: Who are you talking to, and what are you trying to persuade them to do?

Only when you know that can you really choose the right literary techniques for the job. No language structure is more or less persuasive than others. Good writing (especially good speech writing) uses the right tools, at the right time.

Just take a look at Barack Obama. “Yes, we can.” You know why that phrase is so persuasive? Repetition. It’s used throughout his famous speech to punctuate points, not left on its own.

“Who are you talking to, and what are you trying to persuade them to do?”

Or what about Malala Yousafzai addressing the United Nations in 2013?

“Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorists group. I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child. I want education for the sons and the daughters of all the extremists especially the Taliban.”

Cadence. She starts with short, declarative sentences and moves on to more flowing language with longer syllables.

…or what about online?

Stripe

Look at how the paragraph is structured: declarative statement, followed by a list, followed by social proof, then another declarative statement.

Also notice the link under the paragraph—it emulates the last line. Repetition.

See? These techniques are more common than you think.

The 6 writing techniques that can make your web copy sing

So what are they? And how do they work? While there are plenty of particular techniques you could use, we’re looking at 10 today. Start peppering your web copy with these, in the right places, and you’ll quickly find your copy doesn’t just read better: it may start converting better too.

Alliteration

You’ve seen this before: sentences where each word starts with the same letter:

Sam said to Sally that snakes are so suspicious.

Why does alliteration work? Not only does it focus your attention, but you can use the particular letter that starts each word to emulate the content of the words. Just like a ssssssssnake.

See?

Cadence

Most people associate cadence with spoken word. But written copy has it too.

See? Start short. Then you can get longer. Then after a while, start building up to something bigger. Once you’ve got them—and I mean really got them—you can end your point with a drastic flourish of copy that ends with a bang. Like this.

You get the point. The idea is that you start small to grab their attention, then provide the reader with more and more detail as you’ve got them. (Just be careful not to lose them along the way.)

Symmetry

If you’re a nerd like me, you like reading polling data. One of the problems to look out for with survey questions is that they can get asymmetrical. Take this:

“Does the country need to spend more, or reduce its debt?”

There’s nothing wrong with that question. But it might throw some people off because it’s asymmetrical: you’re better off asking if they think the country should spend more, or save more.

Apple does it:

Apple - web copy example

This line is just a little bit clever in that it repeats the same copy, but with a twist. The symmetry is the point of the words: and above all, easy for the ready to understand quickly.

Repetition

There’s really no deep explanation for why repetition works: the more you repeat something, the more likely it is to stick in someone’s brain. But it’s hard to use skillfully, and you need to make sure the reader isn’t consciously aware of what you’re doing. Otherwise, they’ll reject you.

But sometimes… they won’t care. Like here:

Web copy example from Acquia

This is so blatant, but it really doesn’t matter because the intent is to inform, not to just advertise blandly. So it works. Just don’t push it too much.

Chiasmus

Oh, this is a fun one. Don’t worry about the word so much, just think about the technique: putting a statement in reverse on itself.

Confused? Don’t be—you already know the most famous use for this technique:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Why does this work? Because it flips the audience’s expectations. It’s also symmetrical, which the human brain likes because we enjoy finding patterns. It’s also clever, which raises eyebrows.

It’s easy to think about how you can use this in a web context to challenge your readers. Advertisers have already done it:

Schaefer example

The science of threes

There’s something about threes. In photography there’s a rule of thirds, in statistics there’s a rule of three too—and one that applies to writing. Comedians use it all the time. The idea is that when you’re listing something, or telling a story, or describing a set of separate things, putting them in a group of three is more satisfying.

Why? Easy to remember, for one. Watch out in speeches for this technique: speakers will often describe things in threes. Martin Luther King Jr talked about “insult, injustice and exploitation”. Or how about some Shakespeare? “Friends, Romans and Countrymen…”

The rule of three works in comedy because you can flip expectations. You list something as an example, you list another that conforms to the third, and then you surprise the audience on the third. “A priest, a monk and a chicken walk into a bar.”

You don’t have to go far to see this used all the time in web copy. Look at this animated example with Evernote:

Evernote web copy example Evernote web copy example Evernote web copy example

Those short, declarative statements make the repetition even more effective.

Language is like spice

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write. You just use what’s best for the situation at hand. But there is one rule you should follow: these techniques are like spices. Use nothing? Bland and forgettable. Too much? Yuck—complex and overwhelming.

But one or two, here or there?

Delicious.

Keep reading about writing

Author

Patrick Stafford
Patrick Stafford is an experienced digital copywriter and journalist, having worked at companies including MYOB, PwC and Private Media. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Polygon, and Lifehacker, among others. His business, Stafford Content, provides copy for many businesses including KPMG, SelfWealth and Data Republic. He doesn’t like coffee—but loves video games and books.

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