Digital Marketing

A Copy Intern’s First Thoughts: Learning to Write for Web

Enlighten was acquired by Perficient Digital in December 2015
A month and a half ago, I walked up to the big glass door of Enlights (now Perficient Digital) and as I would continue to do, didn’t realize it was a pull instead of a push. I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed intern. I felt ready to write for web – after all, I’ve been writing all my life so how different could web writing actually be? In the time I’ve spent here, I’ve picked up a few things about the copywriting world. This list won’t necessarily secure you a seat in the Secret Society of Distinguished Copywriters (don’t bother looking it up; it’s secret) but it will help you understand my initial difficulties transitioning from academic to web writing:
 
1)     Make sure your copy fits
I quit twitter a few years back because I couldn’t limit myself to those meager 140 characters. I had ideas to share with the world, musings about my day to day – my followers needed to know what I had for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the exact times I used the bathroom and the color of the bird outside my window (turns out it wasn’t actually a bird, it was just a leaf – in my defense, I didn’t have my glasses on and I might be a bit colorblind).
Oftentimes, my copy is constrained to the site’s framework. In some places, I’ll have 70 characters to write an enticing teaser or 150 to write a story about an exhibit. While those may seem like a lot, this short paragraph has 243 characters.
As such, a Google search for “character counter” quickly became my best friend. I learned a bit of Excel to check character counts in there (=LEN(cell)) and explored focusing on length as well as content.
In school, papers usually have word minimums rather than maximums. We’re taught to circle around our thesis, using elaborate examples to prove a point. Gone are the Dickensian days where writers are paid by the word – now we’re actually judged on the quality of our writing rather than the quantity. Web copy demands compelling, articulate writing in a limited space.
The trick I’ve found most useful is to write out exactly what I want to say in the simplest terms and then see what I can cut and change.
2)     Research, research, research! (and then research some more)
As I quickly learned, copywriters are expected to be experts on everything. I could easily jump from writing about window shadings to internal combustion engines to healthcare and more, and I have to be precise, articulate and factual. That’s quite a daunting task, especially for an English major (we tend to write in the lofty abstract).
Whereas the most research I’d have to do for an academic paper is flip through my notes and find important quotes, research here is substantially more demanding. I need to understand what I’m writing about and be able to translate it to the masses.
I can’t just dive in and begin writing copy. I need to think, search, see what others are doing and decide where to go from there. I need a desk full of scribbled post-it notes, printed pages with six different color highlighters – and somewhere out of that mess comes an outline, a draft and a final pass.
To use the clichéd iceberg metaphor (it seems to work for everything, doesn’t it?), the tip of the iceberg – that small visible 10% – is the copy and the 90% under the water is research.

penguin

 
3) Think like a site visitor
Knowing your audience is absolutely critical in this business. Academic papers need to take on an academic tone, they need to use important words like “thus,” “therefore,” “albeit,” “however,” and “yestreen” (adverb, means ‘during yesterday evening’). However with copywriting, the audience is not necessarily the academic crowd.
Before I begin writing, I have to ask myself, “Who is the audience? What do they want to see? What questions do they want answered by this site? How will I answer those?”
It’s critical for me to adapt my voice for my audience. I’ve learned (in my 6 weeks here) that my voice can’t be static; it needs to shape to the expectations of my readers.
Additionally, most people are skimmers. I’m guessing that the first thing you did upon seeing this post is skipped my intro, skimmed my numbered points, and decided you’d only read the ones that seemed interesting. Maybe you realized there were still a few more drops of coffee in your mug so you decided you might as well read the whole post over again.
Research suggests that people typically read online articles in an F pattern. They read the headline, and then they skim down the left margin, reading the lines that jump out at them.
That brings me to a new point: Make your work jump out.
At my uncle’s wedding, my dad’s speech began like this: “Jeff, there are three little words to always remember for a successful marriage.”
Everyone in the room was ready to hear the obvious: ‘I love you.’ However, my dad played on this expectation and flipped it, ending with: “and those words are ‘You’re right, dear.’”
It’s important to employ suspense and humor to keep your reader engaged. Anyone can write copy – what separates a good copywriter from a great one is content that sticks.
4)     Write less!
Think Hemingway without the alcoholic tendencies. Web content should be short and sweet.
Writing academia means bending your words to fill a page, writing lofty paragraphs that sound intelligent, verbose and uh… intelligent. Web copy is much different. It should be as simple as possible. Take this website by uber-successful designer, Rob Young.

website

There’s just one single page. Just six sentences, including the header and the CTA. Why is this website so successful? Even the most distracted readers will read everything on the page. At 333 characters, you can’t help but read everything on there. The only links send you to his design page (which is just as simple) and a link to email him. Short, succinct and to the point. Lovely, ain’t it?
5) Learn industry jargon
Kids these days make everything into an acronym. From “OMG” to “TTYL,” it’s hard for us older folk to keep up (they say 20 is the new 70). I remember my first meeting here. Half of it was spoken in nothing but acronyms. I was lost, confused – I thought I had entered a Twilight Zone episode where people can’t use full sentences. I started making up my own, assuming that was the industry standard. ‘I won’t be at work on Monday because my ferret has the flu’ became IWBAWOMBMFHTF. ‘How long will this meeting go? Should I grab a snack beforehand?’ was HLWTMGSIGASB. I was really starting to feel like I was part of the in-crowd (IWRSTFLIWPOTI-C), until people told me, “IDK wut ur saying.” For anyone new to the industry, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a list of the most commonly used acronyms so you’ll know to actually spell out your words when your ferret has the flu:
API: Application Programming Interface
CEO: Chief Executive Officer (the big cheese)
CMS: Content Management System
CPA: Cost per Action (At first, I thought it meant “Certified Public Accountant” if that gives any insight into where I grew up)
CPC: Cost per Click
CFC: Chlorofluorocarbon (This doesn’t have to do with the digital industry, but it’s always good to remember to recycle!)
CSS: Cascading Style Sheets
CSI: You’ll only see them when your Project Manager grows “impatient” with the team
CTA: Call to Action
FPO: For Print Only (When the designers need a placeholder)
HTML: Hyper-Text Markup Language
IA: Information Architect (Are they designers? Are they engineers? The world may never know.)
ISP: Internet Service Provider
NSA: ‘They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake, they know if you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake!’ (JK, NSA!)
PM: Project Manager (the little cheese)
SEO: Search Engine Optimization
UI: User Interface
UX: User Experience
 
Final Thoughts
Each day here I’m faced with new challenges – from the morning the Keurig stopped working to the afternoon where the entire office vanished (turns out it was an ‘entire office without the interns because they’re just lowly interns’ meeting).

finalthoughts

Technology changes fast and we’re expected to change with it. And here at Enlighten, you always have to be on your toes. Some have taken this quite literally – currently, there’s a pretty heated dispute between the standing desk crowd and the sitting desk crowd (we sit united!).
In the time I’ve spent at Enlighten so far, I’ve seen myself grow not only as a writer, but also as an adult (and I’m not just talking about the wealth of snacks provided). This office breathes a collaborative, creative and educational workspace. Everyone brings something unique to the company to make for a truly enlightened internship.
* Side note and important consideration: I don’t know if it’s a problem with Enlighten’s carpet, my shoelaces or my inherent lack of coordination, but I trip over my own feet at least two or three times a day here. So yeah, be careful when transporting hot beverages around the office.
 

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