Writing Copy For Print
In this interview, Erin and Stacy discuss the important role copy plays in creating a print asset. Erin shares 6 tips on writing copy for print.
6 Tips On Writing Copy For Print
An Interview With Copywriter Erin Casey
Erin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a professional writer and editor.
Often the first thing people ask me when I introduce myself is, “Do you write novels?” And I’m like, oh no, no, no. I’m not a fiction writer. I write and edit mostly for commercial purposes.
I work with small to medium sized businesses, higher education institutions, some nonprofits, and occasionally I help an individual with a book or personal project. There’s a ton of variety. I would say I know a little bit about a million things.
You’re like a Jack of all trades.
Thank you for that introduction, Erin. Okay. Let’s talk about the intersection of copy and print.
Can you share a bit about the role that copy plays in the customer experience?
What role doesn’t it play? Copy should never be an afterthought. And it often is.
I work in partnership with other creatives and media companies. What we often find is that the attitude towards copy is very cavalier. The client doesn’t want to see copywriting in their budget. They say, “We can take care of the copy in-house.”, or “We have content already.”
When you task copywriting to someone internally, it’s usually not their main job. So it gets put off. It can be really hard to sit down and write. Especially when it’s not something you’ve done before. And those delays can really hold up a project.
When they copy does get written, often the quality of writing isn’t great. It doesn’t serve the desired purpose. And it ends up needing to be edited or rewritten.
By someone like you.
Yes, exactly. But, I actually love it when a customer has their own copy or notes to begin with. It’s a great starting point.
I have a whole interview process I go through with clients. Especially for customer facing copy. Like web or workbook copy for instance. It’s not just about getting information. It’s about understanding someone’s value proposition, what gets them out of bed in the morning, and what value they bring to their customers.
Copy makes the difference between your customer feeling seen, heard, and understood or not. That’s the role it plays in the customer experience.
When your copy isn’t thoughtfully created, it is not going to do the job you want it to do. It’s that simple.
You really need to know your customer. You need to understand your audience, talk to them, test things on them.
There’s this example I like to give about the Charmin toilet paper bears.
The ones with the bear who has toilet paper stuck on his bum. I watch those ads and I find them off-putting. I think, “Did they talk to anyone about this idea before they made these ads?”
I don’t know. They keep making them, so maybe they work.
The point is, we often see communications that are off putting. And that’s because they haven’t been properly vetted and tested.
So my mantra with clients is: your copy is not about you.
I know my clients are excited about their work. For example, I know you’re super excited about your underwater basket weaving service. That you think they’re beautiful, that you’re an expert in it, you’re passionate about it, and you think everyone should have a basket. But tell me why that matters. Tell me why everyone should have one of these baskets? Tell me why a customer should care about your product or service. Good copy makes the customer feel seen and heard.
It makes them confident a problem they have is going to be solved. It’s about meeting someone else’s needs, not your own. So that the people reading your copy will turn around and say, “I choose you”.
Yes! I was actually explaining a similar thing to a client recently. Part of my process is digging into the purpose and functionality of each print piece. This is where we look at how the recipient will use their print asset. Where will they keep it? How will it be used? And how will the asset enhance the recipient’s experience of working with you?
This is similar to what you’re saying. Why does the client care about this?
What needs are you meeting for your customer? I know this is said often in entrepreneurial circles, but it really bears repeating. Your customer is the star.
Absolutely. Your customer is the star.
You mentioned that copy is often an afterthought, and it shouldn’t be.
When is the best time to hire a copywriter for your print assets?
I often work as part of a team with other creatives. Different teams have different approaches to this. I know you’re asking about print assets, but I’m going to start with a website example.
I’ve worked with organizations where their website is designed and built out first. In my experience, creating the copy first is better. Then the copy can inform the design.
I will often advise on the design too, as the copy is being created. I would have an idea of how it’s going to look.
The idea of the copy informing the design is also true for print assets. A print asset is a purpose driven item. And the purpose of that item is to communicate something. To create a feeling, or evoke an emotion, and hopefully to spur some kind of action. So, the written communication has to come first.
Now sometimes your client’s going to have a very strong vision. Like, I want this box to be a 10 centimeter box with these specific things in it. And that’s totally fine. But when you’re talking about a workbook or onboarding kit, which are going to be quite text heavy, having a strong jumping off point with your copy is really important. I don’t know how you could effectively design something without the copy.
I’m very much of the same mind. It’s so interesting because I’ve had this conversation with different people. Some people think the design should be first, but then it’s like you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You’re essentially trying to work everything into a template. And that’s not how you want to create your copy.
Yeah. I call it shoehorning. Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
And there’s a time and a place for everything. But I would say the more copy you have, the more important it is to have your copy at least 85% established before you start the design.
Having your copy ready before starting the design also alleviates issues like having to rework the design because now we have too much or too little copy. It’s like you said, the copy informs the design. The copy is a compass for the design.
And having those conversations about copy and design are important to the overall piece. Those conversations are going to help you identify what’s the most important information, what’s the least important information, and what can we let go of? All of that informs the design. I really see copy and design as a collaborative effort between the client, the copywriter, and the designer. And it’s nice when it works out that way.
Always nice when it works that way.
Now, when I’m working with my clients, we have a strategy session. And based on what we discuss in that session, I’ll present a concept before having all the copy.
Yes, a concept. It’s not a full blown design. It’s this concept of the thing that we’re creating and how it’s going to function. Then we get the copy ready and move into the design.
And I love how you talk about functionality. Because it’s really all the same principles. What do we do? How does this work? What does it do? What action does it provoke? How is someone going to use it? These are very foundational questions that apply to both copywriting and design.
Absolutely. Thank you, Erin. I’m curious,
When you’re working on copy for a print project, is there anything that would be different for a print asset versus a digital asset?
I’m actually inclined to say, there’s not a lot of difference. The principles of good copy are pretty universal. We talked about knowing and understanding your audience. That’s always number one. Who are they? Many of us develop avatars of our potential clients. And those drill right down to some pretty minute details.
They’re very useful exercises. But once you’ve been in business for a while, you develop a gut feeling for your customers. Pay attention to those feelings as well.
I want to come back to the very basics of business. Features and benefits.
It can be really hard for us to talk about the benefits of what we do for people. We can talk about the features of what we do all day long. The actual pragmatic elements. Like I do this, this is how I do it. But to talk about the why can be challenging. Why does your service or product matter? What difference is it going to make in your client’s life?
I’m going to test this example on you. Imagine you just bought a refrigerator. Can you tell me three features of your refrigerator?
It has an ice machine, a water machine, and double doors.
Great. Those are all features. Now what’s the benefit of the fridge?
It keeps my food cold and fresh.
You’re almost there. Those are still kind of features though.
The ultimate benefit of this fridge is that it will keep your family from getting sick by keeping your food fresh. That’s the benefit. That’s what the fridge does for you. It keeps your family healthy. And that’s a benefit that elicits a strong emotion.
And I’ve asked that question to dozens of people and only one person has ever gotten it. This is the question that you have to ask yourself when you’re talking about your copy. Why does it matter?
It’s especially important when you’re dealing with limited space on a page. Be clear with your message. A page cramped with too much copy can be jarring. A print asset is something people will physically hold in their hands. You want to make sure it’s an asset they’re going to want to keep and interact with.
And that brings to mind another really pragmatic thing about copy, don’t bury the lead.
This is really important when you’re working with print assets like onboarding kits, workbooks, and any piece that’s informational.
The saying “Don’t bury the lead” comes from journalism. It means don’t put the most important information way down in the fourth paragraph. Make the point obvious. Because, the truth is, people don’t read. They’ll read the first little bit and then skim. So if you have some important information to impart, put it at the top. That way, if your client only reads one paragraph, they get the most important information first.
Absolutely. One of the things that I’m always thinking about when it comes to print assets is the hierarchy of information. It’s not just what’s in that first paragraph, but how everything is laid out on the page to emphasize the important takeaways. Where can we pull out quote or highlight key information? So as you said, the people who are skimming the page get the most important content.
Yes. And that relates very closely to my next point, which is don’t use too many words.
I’m a big fan of tight, concise, punchy copy. Keep it tight, keep it short, and still deliver what you need to deliver. That’s very closely related to the hierarchy of information you’re talking about. One question I ask clients is, “Is this nice to know or is it need to know?”
The amount of information you can include will depend on the kind of print asset you’re creating. If it’s a small piece, like a business card, then you’re going to include only the need to know information. Then you can use a call to action to move people to the next step or next action you want them to take.
It can be really hard to simplify your content. It comes back to being passionate about what you do. You love your work so much and you don’t want to leave out any information. You see it all as important information. But there’s always some info that’s more important. Identify that most important information and tighten it up.
You’re talking about having really concise copy.
Where does a call to action fit into your copy?
I use the words “grabbers and clinchers”. The term “grabbers and clinchers” comes from essay writing, and it’s relevant to writing copy for your print assets. Whatever you say off the top needs to grab people. Then at the end, you want to clinch it. Seal the deal. That’s your call to action.
Grabbers and clinchers is a nice concept to have in your head. Ask yourself: Am I grabbing the reader’s attention at the beginning? Am I clenching or sealing the deal at the end? This will help you write more clear and concise copy.
Another important component of copywriting is accessibility.
I’ve done a lot of work in the past couple of years around document accessibility and the accessibility of information.
When your copy is clear, concise, and easy to engage with, it’s more accessible to more people. It invites more people to engage with you. Whereas if your copy is full of long, overly complicated, jargony, or disordered it’s harder for people to interact with.
Let’s talk about jargon too. Jargon is like insider language. Language that only a certain sector, people, or age group would understand. It’s okay to be fun and cute and conversational, depending on what you’re writing. But it’s important to maintain a writing level that allows all levels of your audience to understand what you’re trying to communicate.
For example, not everyone’s first language is english, not everyone is at the same reading level. And that doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. People have different learning challenges like dyslexia. There are many different reasons why reading might not be someone’s favorite thing to do. So again, making your copy interesting, accessible, conversational, and clear really benefits everybody.
Most definitely. You want to write copy that is clear over clever.
One of the things that comes to mind when you talk about accessibility is white space. This comes up in print all the time. Often people want to jam as much as they can on a page. But it’s important to leave space for your copy to breathe so you don’t overwhelm your readers.
And white space doesn’t have to be white. It can be any colour or texture. It’s simply space on your page without copy or images.
White space is a key principle of plain language. You want to avoid being over-designed. Your design should be clean. The design and copy should work together to make your print asset pleasant. How often do you pick up a print asset that’s not pleasant to engage with?
I’m sure it’s somewhat because of my background, but I always notice if something is crammed or forced into a template. It doesn’t feel good.
When it comes to creating a print asset with longevity and functionality you have to start with your goals in mind. How is this serving the client? Don’t grab whatever template you can find, jam it with copy, and send it out the door. That won’t have the same effect as a strategic print asset making use of proper copy and design principles.
I want to come back to a point you made earlier about a pre-designed website.
What’s your take on design templates and fitting copy into them?
Templates have their place. But, when you use a template, you’re really letting the template control you. You’re not letting your ideas lead. You’re not letting the content lead. The purpose gets lost because you’re bending to fit the template. Not creating something that is written and designed specifically for your purpose.
One hundred percent. Templates can make the whole asset feel off. Your clients won’t necessarily be able to pinpoint exactly why the piece feels off. They won’t say to you, this feels off because of X, Y, Z. But subconsciously templated content lands differently.
You, and I, we’re nerdy about the ink, the paper, we want to know what the print asset feels like. And all those pieces matter. Especially when you’re creating a physical printed asset.
Quality really matters. You can’t undo in print. If you’re building a website, you can go in every day and tweak your copy if you want. But not with print. Once it’s printed, it’s done. So you want to be strategic about everything. Your copy and your design. You want to make sure it’s an asset that will last.
You’re creating that surprise and delight for your clients. Your print assets are about them. Enhancing their experience and deepening your connection.
Surprise and delight. That’s one of my favorite phrases of yours. You want people to be happy when they open that box or open that envelope.You want to create that positive emotional response.
That’s exactly the goal. Creating that positive emotional response.
Well, thank you so much, Erin for sharing your tips on copywriting for print. Where is the best place for people to connect with you?
I’m always happy to have a chat with anyone who’s trying to figure out what they need for copy.
Erin is a copywriter based in Nova Scotia, Canada. With more than twenty years of experience writing and editing, she helps her clients show their expertise while respecting their audience’s need for clarity, simplicity, and problem solving. You are smart! She makes sure it shows.
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