I have a weird hobby. When I’m waiting at the grocery store, or the pharmacy, or any retail establishment where the checkout lines are festooned with magazines, I like to pick them up and go hunting. Not for interesting articles on how I, too, can lose 50lbs by eating only chocolate, or pictures of the latest explosive Hollywood divorce. I’m looking for ads. Specifically, adds with nice, dense blocks of copy text.

Now, I’m not a shopper, or a big spender. I’m not even the target audience for most of the ads I read. I am a different beast all together, for I am a copy coinsure. Take, for instance, a two page spread for Revlon. An impossibly beautiful woman tosses her impossibly glossy hair across the fold, her eyes alight with the promise that all this bounty could be mine if only I would stop being such a cheapskate who buys store brands.

I skip over Miss Glossylocks and zero in on my real target, the small paragraph of text just below her perfectly poised hand. It is below the photo-shopped curls that we find the real reason ad agencies get away with the fees they charge – the copy. Here, the writer must distill the research of hundreds of scientists, unfold the secrets of the complex chemical interactions that make Revelon hair bouncy in simple yet catchy language tailored to the needs of a jaded reader, all in 75 words or less.

Forget modern poetry, this is the greatest writing of our age. Thousands of miniature masterworks buried in magazine pages, slathered on the walls of subways and the sides of buses. They fill our newspapers and our mailboxes, often overshadowed by rambunctious art direction, and frequently retired to the trashcan unread and unappreciated. Yet still, one hundred words of good copy for a major brand can fetch the author more than most writers get for their first novel. Why? Because writing good copy is really, really hard.

Writing for the web shares many of the same challenges as writing copy. When you get a website from a web design company (say, for example, J House), it’s often full of Latin text. “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet!” Your beautiful new header proudly proclaims. “Consectetur adipiscing elit!” Your first job as the proud owner is to change out the gibberish for snappy, meaningful words, and this is where even the most beautiful, most cleverly designed website can rapidly go downhill.

Now, we’ve already established that writing good copy is really, really hard. It’s hard to convey meaning when the people you’re trying to convey it to are in a hurry. It is not, however, impossible, provided you approach it with a plan.

Step 1: Know what you want to say

This sounds obvious, but think about it for a moment. If you had only one minute with a person, could you tell them everything they needed to know about what you do, or what you can do for them? The average web browser spends far less time scanning your homepage. Lovely design can catch the viewer; once they’re caught, it’s the words that keep them. That’s why you have to hone your message, and think, really think, about the core of what you are trying to convey. What are the most important points, and how can I explain them quickly?

The paragraph above was 100 words. That’s about how much time you have before people get tired and move on. Make them count.

Step 2: Know how you want to say it

Who is reading your website? Is it the same people you do business with every day, or are you attracting new customers? Are these new customers the same as your old customers?

In person, you can change your tone to suit your audience. On the web, you have to choose a tone that appeals to the widest slice of readers, one that can catch new customers but not alienate old ones. Hitting this tone is the first challenge, but to truly master web content, do can not stray from it. Every word, from the greeting to the most buried profile page, should reflect a unity of tone, even if you’ve got multiple authors working on the site. This is because you reader sees the website as a unit, not a collaborative effort.

Reading a web site that shifts tone, tense, and person from page to page is like listening to a sales pitch from a salesman who keeps changing his accent: distracting and disconcerting. Even you have multiple authors, you should take a moment to set out a style guide where you state what tense you’re all going to write in, what person, and, most importantly, what tone. Doing this, and then having one editor, preferably someone who hasn’t worked on the site before, go through the whole site again to check for variance, will take your web copy high above and beyond your average internet site.

Why Bother?

Really good copy doesn’t draw attention to itself. The words blend seamlessly with the design, and with each other, page after page. It’s a subtle effect, and easy to gloss over. Do it wrong, however, and it’ll soon become the Achilles heel of your site. Small mistakes that break reader immersion – switching between first and third person, for example, or switching from a formal tone to slang – all of these are bumps that catch your reader. Bump them too much, and they’ll start watching the road instead of the scenery.

This might seem like a lot of work for a handful of words, but for a website, the words are the main event. They are the road to understanding the conveyers of meaning. All the flashy graphics and killer design in the world won’t help a website if the words are wrong. So don’t scrimp on the verbiage, and always read your copy!

So, the next time you’re standing in line, pick up a magazine (the glossier the better) and start developing an appreciation for good copy. Find out what you like, what speaks to you and what doesn’t, and, most importantly, why. The more you read, the clearer you’ll be able to uncover the secrets the high paid copy writers have spent years perfecting. It’s all right there, laid out in black and white (or purple, or red, or gold, depending on the ad), and if the line is long, you can get a great lesson without even paying for the magazine.