As one of the most prolific authors of our time, Stephen King has published more than 50 horror novels and 30 film adaptations, selling more than 350 million copies of his works.
But one of his most loved books isn’t a frightening tale of murder and mayhem. In 2000, King published a personal memoir called ‘On Writing’, where he shared a beautiful combination of technical tips and life lessons for the aspiring writer.
Although his writing advice is limited to fiction, there are some classic gems that can help you improve the copywriting on your website. Here are some of my favourites.
1. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Just as the first line is the most important in a novel, the first few lines of your website are essential for drawing the reader in, so they want to learn more about your business.
From an SEO perspective, your heading and introduction (first 150 words or so) should capture the attention of your audience, using keywords you know they’re searching for. After all, the longer readers stay on your site, the more useful and relevant Google deems it to be.
Remember, readers don’t always arrive on your homepage. They may click-through from an ad to your services page, or go directly to the blog post that was shared on social media. So make sure every page on your website has a strong opening line.
2. “Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.”
How your paragraphs are structured are not only good for SEO, but vital for mapping your customer’s journey from click-through to contact.
Research shows that readers will often read the first two paragraphs more carefully than the rest of the page, so it’s important to get to your ‘intent’ fast. Use sub-headings, short paragraphs and bullet points to guide your reader’s eye down the page, with a powerful call to action that will convert them to the next stage in your sales funnel—whether that’s connecting on social media, subscribing to your newsletter or contacting you for a quote.
3. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
Revision is an essential part of the writing process, whether you’re crafting a novel or a website. Your first draft is where you throw all the information you have on the page and try to make sense of it. Try to ‘close the door’ and focus on what you want to say.
Your next draft is for refining and clarifying and optimising, making sure the door is wide open, so you can consider how your content will be consumed by your audience.
4. “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
The most important role of your website copy is to direct the reader to take action. You need to keep the ball rolling in the right direction, otherwise your readers will get bored and leave your website.
Ditch the long-winded essay on your ‘about’ page, or vague product descriptions that don’t tell customers what they want to know. Keep the ball rolling.
5. “Bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do―to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.”
While you probably aren’t writing a website about murderers, it’s a good philosophy to keep in mind. You may believe that your product is unique and world-class and revolutionary and (heaven forbid) disruptive, but your clients don’t care. They just want to take care of their cat, or their mum, or their car or their career. They want to feel good about parting with their hard-earned money. They want to feel like they belong. And also that they’re special.
It’s always about helping people. Never, ever forget that.
6. “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
Enough said, really. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing for government or scientists or electrical engineers—ditch the complex corporate jargon and write like a human. Please.
7. “I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
“Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen,” King writes.
You should avoid the passive voice.
So instead of writing ‘the advertising campaign was developed by the team’, you should write ‘the team developed the advertising campaign’. You may feel as though the passive voice adds an air of authority, but it doesn’t. It weakens your writing and makes it harder to express your ideas.
8. “Grammar is…the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.”
You may think grammar is a method of torture, but it’s important in more ways than one. Not only does correct grammar and spelling make you and your business seem more professional and intelligent, it gives you the structure to organise your thoughts and arrange them on the page.
Of course, the objective of your website isn’t to display your perfect grammar, but to ‘welcome the reader and then tell them a story’ as King puts it so nicely. But you can’t break the rules, unless you know them.
9. “Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I’m not sure anyone wants to know how he made it.”
If you have thousands of competitors in your city, why should a customer choose your business over theirs? It’s not going to be a description of exactly how you make fried chicken, it’s going to be the story of those secret spices. Your audience will always care more about the ‘why’ than the ‘how’.
Simon Sinek says start with why, then move to how and what. The why should be your brand story—the purpose, cause or belief that cannot be replicated by anyone else.
10. ‘Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.’
You can and should get inspiration from other businesses, whether they are in your industry or not. And I don’t mean you should send your copywriter a link to a competitor with an email saying ‘do that, but better’.
I mean recognising a good idea when you see it. And asking yourself what you could do in your business to create that same feeling in someone else.