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Content Writing Tips for Non-Writers

How to write effective Web copy without beating your head on the keyboard

Brad and I have been writers all of our lives. In school, that’s where we gained the most accolades. At home, it was almost a hobby.

Brad wrote his first “book” in the seventh grade, when a pamphlet he created for science class became a part of his school’s library. I spent many happy hours writing scripts for neighborhood plays. Yet, with 20 books behind us and thousands of articles, we still have those days when we struggle to face the dreaded blank page.

Every e-commerce merchant must also be a part-time Web copy writer. Whether you’re writing descriptions, creating emails or working on blog posts, you know you spend hours every week putting words together. If we still feel the struggle to create, and we have been educated in the craft and spent decades honing it, we can only imagine there are days when you’d rather do just about anything but sit down and write. We’ve decided to help you with some insiders’ advice.

In every task there is that tidbit that is not as onerous as all the rest. Whichever part of your writing task you like the best, start there.

Eat the cherry first

We’re often asked, “How do you overcome writer’s block?” Our pat answer is to pull out the mortgage bill. There’s really no better motivator.

But the secret we always turn to is that we eat the cherry first. In every task there is that tidbit that is not as onerous as all the rest. Maybe you excel at headlines. Maybe you love descriptions. Whichever part of your writing task you like the best, start there. Not only will you have completed part of the job, but you will have broken that aforementioned dreaded blank page. With some of it done, the rest of it begins to flow more easily. I can’t really say why that is true, but I’ve never found it to fail.

Organize, organize, organize

Every task requires planning. Whether you’re getting ready to cook dinner, bathe the dog or work on the car, the first step is to gather your tools and plan your way through the task. People often falter in their writing because they neglect this first (and most important) part. Create an outline for your finished content. Every trip starts with a map. Every meal starts with a recipe. Every written piece should begin with an outline.

Think about the major themes of your work. Select the most important three or four points you wish to make. These become your first-level heads on your outline. Next, look at each of these elements and decide what needs to be said about each one. These become your paragraphs. Now look at your “paragraphs” and think about what specifically you want to say about each one. This next step will help you create your sentences when you begin to write.

With this last section of your outline, remember, if you put one item down, you need to put two. If you don’t have two thoughts to put here, then take another look at the paragraphs to see if you’ve gotten too specific too quickly. Then go back and do it again.

I know this seems like a lot of work, but you’ll find your writing is more coherent this way. I didn’t believe it when my high school English teacher demanded we turn in our outlines with our final papers, but he was right. I thank him every time I sit down to write. Your outline becomes the “bones” of your content, and with those bones in place, draping them is easy.

Keep it simple

Never use three words when two will work, or four syllables when three will do.

You’re writing to share information and communicate directly with the people who shop with you. Don’t get caught up in flowery prose or description. Be careful of how many adjectives you use. They are a little like pepper. Some is good, too much is not.
Be careful of how many adjectives you use. They are a little like pepper. Some is good, too much is not.

So instead of saying this toaster oven is “brand new, in the box, never been opened, super deluxe, stainless steel, multi-purpose and space-saving,” think about which of these adjectives will really make your toaster oven stand out, and stick with that.

Likewise, use short and declarative words. Even if you’re a vocabulary whiz, tone it down. We’re not aiming to knock Hemingway off the shelf. We’re aiming at good, clean, descriptive sentences.

Spell check and grammar check—and do it yourself

Yes, it’s true, automated spell check is the ruin of many a good speller. When your computer will automatically correct your misspellings, it’s easy to become lazy with your word choices. But computers aren’t quite as smart as the humans who use them. They can’t tell if you meant “email me with further questions” when you actually typed “email me with farther questions.”

According to Mr. Computer, you’re all good, but your customer will know the difference. This is especially true in your blog postings. You want to speak with an authority’s voice, and nothing shoots that down faster than poor grammar and misspellings.

Now, one of us loved grammar in school and the other hated it. If you weren’t on the side of the grammar lover, you may never be quite sure if you’ve got this sentence or that one correct. Invest in a grammar workbook. It’s a simple and, in my opinion, fun way to brush up on your writing skills.

OK, so now you know which one of us is which. Granted, even in school I was a bit of a freak for thinking this stuff was fun, but I still brush up on the details from time to time. They are easily forgotten, but forgetting them marks your writing.

Proofread it backward

This is the best proofreading trick ever. As much as I love grammar and writing, I’m among the world’s worst proofreaders. For that, I depend on Brad. But a trick I learned years ago has really helped me make my way through this task I do so poorly: Start at the end of your finished piece and read it backward.

That way, as you read, you lose the context. Your brain can’t automatically fill in the thoughts and let you skim over the words without noticing mistakes. Each word stands on its own, and your mistakes become far easier to spot.

We hope this little bit of Web copy writing advice will make your daily tasks easier. Even if these suggestions seem awkward and time consuming at first, we’re certain they will prove useful if you just stick with them. Whether you wanted to be or not, you are a writer. Perhaps writing is part talent, but it’s certainly largely craft. Hone your craft, put your best effort out there and see what happens.

About the author

Brad & Debra Schepp
Brad and Debra Schepp are the authors of 20 books, including eBay PowerSeller Secrets and The Official Success Guide: Insider Tips and Strategies for Sourcing Products from the World's Largest B2B Marketplace. Their most recent book is How to Find a Job on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Brad is also a literary agent for Waterside Productions. For further information, visit the couple's website, Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

  • Guest

    I like your proofreading technique — I’ve gotta try the backward thing!

  • Janey_bridger

    I do like the proofreading backwards tip – what splendid advice!  I am going to go and backwards proofread some of my recent descriptions and I am certain I will make some amendments to them!  Thank you.

  • devans3517

    Love the proofreading backwards tip.  I’ve been banging my head over silly mistakes.  

  • Glad to hear everyone likes the proofreading tip!

  • Clyde Rigsby

    best proof reading method I have ever heard

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