Warning: Are Your Words Helping or Hurting Your Business?

Warning: Are Your Words Helping or Hurting Your Business?

Reader Comments (58)

  1. Jim: “How was it?”

    Natasha: “Well, it, um… well, words can’t really describe it!”

    Jim: “Really? Because that’s what they’re for.”

    Hey Sean,

    Substance over style leads to the most effective writing. Like James mentioned, clarity is the most important. You specifically state what value you provide and who it’s for.

    Even for artists, what good do fancy words do if they don’t attract listeners/viewers/etc? If anything, we artists could stand to learn a thing or two from you copywriters.

    This is something I’m working on for my own music that I’m injecting more and more into my site Lifebeat.

    What’s interesting, however, is that Apple proves you can have your cake and eat it too. They laser-focus their words to what value they have and who it’s for. They get the sales, the clicks. But boy are their words artful as well.

    Here’s to focusing on the functionality of the words (more than the form),


  2. Good work Sean-

    I too have found out the hard way that you can spend all day on the most amazing piece of prose, all to find out that the stuff people are buying is what gives them bigger, faster, more, cheaper, or prettier of anything.

    No longer can we just sit back and take a big label like “business” or “copywriting.” It’s all about the inch-wide, mile deep niche of a position that will take your business to the next level and keep the competitors at bay. It even leaves a little time write “pretty” every once in awhile.

  3. @Joshua Black: “the inch-wide, mile deep niche” is what we’re all looking to discover and conquer. Unless you have an established following, your personal style won’t pay the bills in the beginning.

    @Sean, I feel your frustration with clarity over cleverness. My “clever” ideas come to me at warp speed, but readers’ attention spans disappear even faster.

  4. You’re right.

    Sales copy is all about words that make “them” feel better, not the writer.

    Your label switch, though, allows “you” the writer to feel better.

  5. The part about distinguishing what it is you actually do resonates really well. “Helping with websites” isn’t quite specific enough. Back to the salt mine…

  6. Great article, and very true. It’s all too easy to see writing as art, and in some cases (long-form stuff like novel writing, for example) it should be. But when it comes down to the issue of paying the rent, there are much more pragmatic issues in play. Getting past the need to be validated by clever prose and being reward by measurable results must have been an illuminating experience! Thanks for the insights.

  7. It’s the fine line between findability and creativity. You have to appeal to both, while sacrificing the perfection of just one style. Blend them in such a way that it’s not galringly obvious, and you reach a broad market with well written copy.

  8. Oleg: Fancy words do nothing if you don’t have an audience. This last year has taught me an enormous amount about being a writer, an artist, a businessman and all the intersections between them. I’m fortunate that ghostwriting offers a diversity of writing jobs. I get to write fiction among the SEO copy, which means that not only do I get to feed the art, I also get to refine my skills.

    Apple, they nail it. I love their advertising.

    The best thing, I believe, is just to keep doing it. Over the last year I have found myself constantly cringing at copy I’ve written a month or two before, which means (I hope) that I’m continuously growing.

    Thank you for always leaving such thoughtful comments, Oleg.

    Joshua: Thanks Joshua. Yes, I believe finding our position is essential to taking giant steps forward, rather than the crawling around the track that is all too easy to fall into when trying to make it online. Once your voice is established, you can run with it, but when you’re playing for tips you gotta play to the crowd.

    Jodi: Exacalacaly. As my grandma used to say, “There’s a place for everything, with everything in its place.” Actually, everyones grandma probably used to say that. LOL. You can write that way, just don’t expect it to lead to conversions.

    Pete: Totally true, but once we have firm footing, it’s way easier to take the jump. Just be glad that the clever ideas come at warp speed!

    Matches: You’re welcome. Don’t worry, the pill isn’t nearly as bitter as you think it will be. It does pay the bills and will allow you to grow, whatever your business may be.

    Shane: The label switch allows me to feel better because the client feels better. It makes them more confident before our first exchange ever takes place. That’s key. “Freelance writer” is nebulous. Direct response copy is not. This revelation alone was worth every penny of Freelance X Factor.

    Dave: So, so true. How do you help? What are you best at? How can hiring you make their website killer? Take a margarita with you to the salt mine, it will make it better.
    : )

    Rob: I totally agree. Also, that balance is a lot of fun once you find it. There are times I’m writing SEO with a smile on my face because I can feel the rhythm. I know I’m satisfying Google, but at the same time I know that the copy is engaging and fun to read. That’s a fully satisfying experience.

  9. Very good points you make, Sean. It is a fine line that we have to walk between the artist and business person. The bottom line is that we have to do what’s best for driving traffic to our work. Unless that work is not intended to help pay the bills… but who would we really be fooling if that were the case?

  10. Labeling, as it pertains to information architecture is also an important part of SEO. Periodically delving into the depths of SEO keywords can actually help you gain a higher-level perspective on your business in terms of your understanding of a) what prospects are looking for and b) how they internally organize and identify with content based on particular labels…

    Thanks for the article, great insights.

  11. I love SEO, but only when it comes after the human stuff. I’m thinking about delving into “freelancing” myself so this reminds me to keep focused and specialize. Or am I understanding this wrong? Maybe not specialize in that sense, but tighten the way you portray yourself?

  12. It’s amazing how much influence just a word can have.

    Like you, Sean, I dropped “freelance writer” a long time ago – that got me more blank stares than I cared to have. “Writer?” Well, that did okay except…

    “Oh? What books have you written?”

    Alright, onwards we go… copywriter, then? That works – depending on who you’re talking to. A peer in the know? A marketing agency? No problem. A potential small business owner and customer on the street?

    “What’s that?”

    Right. Business owner? Too vague. Entrepreneur? Well, maybe for Donald Trump. Finally I decided enough’s enough.

    “Hi, I’m James. I write words that help you sell.”

  13. I’m still scratching my head. I think I follow your theme of simplicity and functionality, but you don’t seem to follow that in your article. You tend to use words or phrases that are over the top. Morpheus’s Red Pill, Pavlov’s dog, hallowed grounds, to name a few. You also seem to have a difficult time getting to the point. I was determined to get to the bottom of the article, so I could understand what point you were making. Aha! There it was. Labels matter, so tell people who you are…not who you’d like to be. I think much of that information should have been in the first paragraph or two. Then, the background info to flesh the article out. No offense intended. I just had a hard time seeing where you were going with this.

  14. Great post Sean, I know exactly what you mean.

    I write copy for my own stuff, but it is so exhausting that I can’t imagine doing a lot of it.

    It is definitely easy to over analyze writing and get off course.

  15. You tend to use words or phrases that are over the top. Morpheus’s Red Pill, Pavlov’s dog, hallowed grounds, to name a few.

    Steve, for the Copyblogger audience, those references are not over the top. In fact, they’re somewhat of a requirement. 😉

    Write for the audience is rule number one. With a different audience, those references might be inappropriate, so you’ve got to know who you’re talking to.

  16. This is interesting; I’ve been wondering for a while if the word ‘freelance’ really did me any favours and have been experimenting with other ways of doing what I do. Thanks also for the recommendation of Freelance X Factor; I’ve just downloaded it and find some inspiration there.

  17. @Sharon, my biggest problem with “freelance writer” is it seems to equal “how little could I pay for this on Elance?”

    Almost anyone who reads Copyblogger is going to be a social media marketing rockstar compared with 99% of people who will hire us to write. So we talk a lot about how to use that expertise and develop the right label to get the right treatment from clients.

    (We also teach you how to be a social media marketing rockstar, if you don’t know how today.)

  18. The Internet has changed the way we have been taught to write many years ago. On the web, people will scan your page for those labels and only read your copy if they see enough of what they are looking for.

  19. Your terrific post reminds me of writing advice from William Zinnsser (On Writing well): “Ask yourself during revision: What am I trying to say? Have I said it clearly? Would my argument be understandable to someone encountering it for the first time?”

    Clear, purposeful writing requires clear, purposeful thinking. I have to remind myself of this axiom to avoid indulging a narcissist love affair with words.

    Thanks, Sean.

  20. Great article, Sean. Clarity over Cleverness.

    Brian also raised a great point – Write how your audience talks to connect with them.

    E.g. An ad written to radio listeners started with – “Dear savvy media consumer”. Immediate disconnect…

    The copywriter should have just written “Dear fellow music lover”.

  21. Jon: That need for validation is a nasty little drug. I think any artist has it in some measure, but if you put it before your bottom line needs, you aren’t doing yourself or those who depend on you most any favors. My pleasure, I’m glad you liked it.

    Todd: It’s a simple trigger, really. Easy to pull once you know. Problem was, for far too long I actually believed it was the language that would drive the traffic. Naive sure, but constant learning makes us better every day.

    John: No doubt. That’s one of the things that Brian and Sonia talk about in Freelance Factor. Basic keyword research is an amazing way to figure out the exact language your prospects are using. And it’s free!

    Henri: Tightening the way you portray yourself is a good way to say it. Basically, tell the prospect what you can do for them. Saying you write direct response copy tells a potential client that you will write words that get people to click. Saying you are a freelancer, as Sonia perfectly puts it below, is the equivalent of, “How little could I pay for this on elance?”

    James: LOL, “Oh? What books have you written?” Yep, I’m asked that every time I say I’m a writer. Leave it to you, James. “I write words that help you sell.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

    Jodi: Big smiles. I love it. I’ve been edumacated all over the place this past year. : )

  22. Steve: No offense taken. The perspective of others is a valuable way to see angles of my writing that I cannot. However, I will say, this article was not a sales page. It wasn’t SEO copy and it wasn’t for a client. One of the joys of writing for Copyblogger is access to a large audience where Morpheus’s red pill and Pavlov’s dog are seen as shortcuts rather than something that is over the top. Those five words invoke a lot of imagery if you are familiar with their origin. Something I don’t have to worry about with the Copyblogger audience. If I had been writing a sales page for a client, different language would have been appropriate.

    As to your point about placing the information at the time and then fleshing it out, there could be some validity to that argument, but I wasn’t having a difficult time getting to the point, I was telling a story on my way there. That is something that helps people to remember what they read, after they shut the lids of their laptops for the day and the million other things they “read” that day begin to fade away.

    Nathan: Thanks, Nathan. I’ve actually grown quite fond of writing copy. I like writing arguments, and really, that’s what a lot of copy is: a gentleman’s argument. I will say I’d like it a lot less if it was all I ever did, though. : )

    Brian: Thanks!

    Erica: LOL, thanks. I like commercial art a lot. I’m excited to pack 2010 with all I can.

    Sharon: You will LOVE Freelance X Factor. Sonia and Brian do a wonderful job. They are tremendous teachers with pitch perfect respect for their audience. The product is underpriced for what it delivers. Enjoy!

    Don: That is true most of the time. However, I’ve found that it’s possible to nurture a loyal audience without scannable copy, but it is a much, much slower process. It is also far more difficult to spread the content without the use of subheads and such. Yet some of that audience you do connect with will possibly connect to your work on a deeper level as well.

    Lorraine: It is narcissistic, LOL. Really, it’s about paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. I definitely have a love affair with words, but I also think I’m allowing my writing to grow up; mature toward Hemingway and less like Faulkner. Sometimes the cost of using the fifty-cent words rather than the nickel ones is higher than we realize.

    Charles: Yes, and that is one of the wonderful things about writing for Copyblogger. I read it, I love it, and feel like I can write something that I would want to read. It’s one of the things Copyblogger is always preaching – be a part of your market and you will have a much easier time connecting to them.

  23. Dear Sean:

    Being specific is what matters. Most people have a vague understand of life. When they go looking for information online, they want specifics.

    That is a great way to improve your writing, picking the right words to describe the situation instead of using vague and overused terms.

    That should help not only the SEO, but with conveying message to your readers and providing them with more value. Using vague terms will only leave them confused.

    A great way to stand out – be specific and know what you want to say.

    Thank you for a great tip!


  24. Great post Sean! I know exactly what you mean by labels make all the difference. Before, I was calling myself a freelance writer but my main focus was in copywriting.

    Who would you rather hire for your next copy project…A freelance writer or a copywriter? The copywriter of course! I’m still waiting for the changes to work themselves out but I’ve noticed by changing my label and redirecting my focus, it’s helped me develop and clearer, bigger, and more profitable for my clients and I, picture.

  25. Your post reminded me a lot of a Liz Phair interview I read awhile ago. She was criticized by her punk fans for going pop and “selling out.” Her response? “I needed to pay my rent.” She just sang for what works – and you write for what works. In the end, a result-oriented mindset is never a bad thing.

    Thanks for providing good insight. And I like how your Web site breaks down specific services you offer – right down to the wedding speeches.

  26. Sean, I wanted to thank you for the time you put into Copyblogger. Your content is great and always helpful. Thanks for doing a great job!

  27. Tomas: Overused terms are my enemy! That’s where reading helps a lot. The more you read, the easier it is to spot cliches. The more original your language is, the easier it is to stand out. Thanks, Tomas, for your always thoughtful comments.

    Mike: It was amazing how immediate it was. I was on the phone with clients that weekend where the label had already made the difference. I have a new project I’m working on and I’m grateful I bought Freelance X Factor before I started production. It has made a definite impact on the language we are using.

    Doreen: Ha, great analogy. I was one of those to complain about the transition in her music. Though a part of me fully understood what she was doing and why she was doing it, it was nearly impossible to connect with”White Chocolate Space Egg’ the same way it was with “Exile in Guyville.”

    Thanks for the compliment on the site. It’s a constant work in progress, but it’s good to know it’s getting there.
    : )

    Denise: That is a very kind compliment, Denise. Truly, thank you. : )

  28. It seems that much of what is done on the internet is too artsy and doesn’t convey the correct message or lacks clarity. As a web design and SEO company it is of the utmost importance to strike a balance in both design and copywriting. Online you have three audiences, the readers, the search engines, and the conveyance of the client’s goals. I inform my clients as long as you remember this balance you’ll do great things.

  29. Yet another great insight from another great writer–err entrepreneur–err.. person 🙂 The right words mean everything in our “gotta have it NOW” society. They won’t stick around while you fumble for the RIGHT one!

  30. So sad that we writers have to abandon all those lovely long words we’ve picked up along the way. Sad but necessary if you want your readers to be able to relate to you and what you say!

  31. Shanel: Thanks, Shanel. I appreciate that. It’s cathartic for me as well. Once I articulate something, I understand it much better. It helps me to move on and do better. I am fortunate I am able to write for a crowd. : )

    Craig: Well said on the three audiences, Craig. I agree, the convergence of those three can lead to great things.

    Sherice: Thanks, Sherice, for all three compliments. People are impatient for sure, I myself am terribly guilty of it. Fortunately, a year online has taught me a lot, both about the precision of words and the patience needed to persist.

    Annabel: You know, it’s not the lack of individual words for me so much as the way I like to string them together. I think language has a natural music to it, and the way I most like to write is to find the right tune to match the lyrics. Writing for the web, at times, is like being told you can only play with certain chords, in a certain key, and around a certain time length or you won’t get any radio play. Fair enough. There have been a million musicians who have made such concessions. I am right now a studio musician, but I do look forward to the day when I get to cut the album on my terms. : )

  32. I’ve been curious with how people will be discovered in the internet age. A surprising number of artists and writers became mega-popular after their deaths–I’m thinking of Melville and Kafka–and I was curious how this would happen on the internet.

    You explain how. People who stick to writing the best writing will be ignored by the search engines. Other people wil become popular. Or you need to become popular, and then go back to your craft.

    Anyways, it’s an interesting dichotomy. Quality of writing or quality of “sells the product,” I’m glad Joyce choose the former.

  33. Andrew: I’d say that’s mostly true. It always depends on the audience. Steve Pavlina, as one example, goes on for a year without stopping, yet that’s what his audience is used to. The key is in knowing your audience.

    Eric: Despite the tools and massive opportunity, I don’t think there’s too much difference between yesterday and today in that regard. If an artist doesn’t have someone to champion them, and they are unwilling to champion themselves, then they will more than likely be left to obscurity.

    The difference now is that anyone can use inexpensive or free platforms to build an audience. I used to believe that if I was a good enough writer, everything else would click into place. Really though, that’s a bit naive and a little bit lazy. Truth is, being a good enough writer, or even a great one, is only the beginning. There are rules to play by and songs you’ve gotta dance to, but a lot of them are fun and you get to meet a lot of cool people along the way.

    Gordon: What can I say, Gordon? We all have our days. If I knew it all I’d have nothing left to learn. You’re right though, I should’ve caught it. Thanks.

  34. It was nice reading that “simple and clear” writing might be more effective than the “complex and clever” one.
    In some ways though I battle my own insecurities of English being by 2-3 language and regularly read over my blog feeling like they are too simple and therefore non-interesting.
    Your article will decrease my worries, so thanks for that.

    Oh, and of course I subscribed to your newsletter!

  35. A very helpful post here. I feel that I spend too much time picking and choosing my words, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Going back to rethink my words.

  36. Hi Sean – I know what you mean. A few years ago, a friend told me she’ read an article of mine and thought it was really well written.

    I realized it must have been shit, cos of it was that good, she would have enjoyed what I was writing about – not the way it was written.

  37. Sam: Simple doesn’t necessarily mean non-interesting. Brian has had some really awesome posts that are basic in both concept and delivery, yet have immense impact in their execution. Check out his post on the Power of Less last week. It’s made up entirely of single sentences, yet is highly effective.

    Heather: Me too, though it does get easier the more you do it. Keep looking at stuff you’ve written a month or two before. As long as there’s growth, you’re on the right track. Good luck!

    Cath: Hi, Cath. Thanks for making me laugh. I feel you. I’m finding more and more that it matters what I say so much more than how I say it. I don’t want to lose that part of myself, though, as I think that the people with whom it connects with, it does connect with deeply. The key I think is in truly knowing your audience. Writing for Copyblogger is an excellent opportunity for me to refine the craft, to pull away from my natural instincts and toward something more practical.

  38. This is an excellent article about the difference between creative writing and direct response copywriting specifically for blogs. It is incredibly different and yet both are considered forms of advertising. I’m bookmarking this one to share with my writers as I think this will help them understand the difference. Thanks much.
    Sally Witzky
    Traction Group LLC
    Richmond VA

  39. Great article Sean and comments – I don’t think it was until I read Brian’s comment that the penny dropped what you’re were really driving at with with use of terminology.

    This reminds my of my very first “blogging for business” lesson on a course I did at a local college last year. And that is we need to understand our reader and really get into their psychology. And then write as though we’re having a conversation with them using their language.

    Easier said than done – I’ve still got a long long way to go. Which brings me to a question – what to do with old blog articles that make us cringe?

    Should we leave them be or attempt to update them as we go?

  40. Sally: Thanks, Sally. I’m glad you enjoyed it. They are incredibly different for sure, though I think there is incredible power inside that small space where they intersect.

    Pat: That’s a terrific question. I’ve actually spent a lot of time looking over the stuff I’ve written over the past year. Much of it on my primary site aren’t like blog posts at all, and they will be rather easy to repurpose into creative projects down the line. There are (many) others on other blogs I started that are very much “me too” blog posts and not very good. These I try to forget. Though there are a few instances where you can go back to old posts and tweak the SEO or overall message, I believe it’s better to spend your time worrying about where you are going rather than where you have been. At the worst, your old and immature posts can be a record of your growth.

  41. Great post, Sean. And isn’t it odd when certain posts just happen to “appear” when you’ve been thinking about a particular topic? That’s what this post was for me.

    I’ve been recently digging to the core of my writing business. Probably because I’ve started writing my first-ever business plan. (Eek!) You know, musings for the end of the year, end of the decade, new beginnings, blah blah blah… But I’ve been looking at exactly where I’d like my business to go in the next year, 5 years, 10 years. And that requires some “name calling,” for lack of a better phrase.

    I’m known in the film music industry and have been writing for that industry more and more over the last 5 years. Yet I’ve always kind of shied away from truly associating myself with the industry. Maybe it’s because I live in the East Coast, maybe insecurity and fear. But I’m primarily a film music journalist and historian. Whether that can pay the bills or not, the business and marketing plans will help me to figure out. If not, I’ll be doing some more name calling to myself to figure out the next steps, and bumping up my other corporate freelance gigs. And that’s okay too. It’s all good.

    There’s just nothing worse than the glazed-over look you get from someone when I tell them I’m a “freelance writer.” Especially when everyone thinks I sit around all day goofing off in my pajamas. I wish!

  42. Thanks for the great story and post Sean
    Connecting with an audience for a particular purpose is the whole reason for communication in the first place. Words, pictures, numbers, and audio all play a part in this.
    I know in our market of small business onwers there are certain key trigger words which connect..the greatest of all being ‘Where’s the money Gone?’

  43. Intereting post Sean , thanks. I think there are many things to take away from this and I think many of us can relate to what you’re saying. It’s vital that what is being said is taken notice of not just the way it’s written. That said, copy that is full of typos is bound to get negative feedback so it’s still important to still take care with your writing style.

  44. Yet another great insight from another great writer–err entrepreneur–err.. person 🙂 The right words mean everything in our “gotta have it NOW” society. They won’t stick around while you fumble for the RIGHT one!

  45. Jim: Seriously, ditching the term “freelance writer” was one of the best things I could’ve ever done for my business. It’s such a simple shift and yet it carried such high impact. I’ve got a list of answers ready for anyone asking me what I do for a living these days. Freelance Writer isn’t on it. : )

    Andee: Ha, and yes, words aren’t always enough. Those communicators who know how to express themselves in various media will be those who travel the furthest.

    Jenny: What you write is a reflection of you. And if you make your living off your written work, then it is paramount that it is as clean as it can possibly be.

    Bamboo: No doubt about it, and something I appreciate more all the time. Happy New Year, Bamboo!

  46. Sean, I just read your response to my comment above, and I think you totally missed my point. Kafka and Melville were ignored in their hey day, and they didn’t make any money. They didn’t learn to play by the rules and died in obscurity. Their art, however, lived on.

    My point is, I was wonderign if the same thing would happen in today’s internet culture, and reading your post, I’m sayign yes.

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