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Are You Writing Good Copy?

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Unless you’re just starting out with freelancing, blogging, marketing, or just maintaining a personal page, it’s a safe bet that most of us have been engaged in writing of some form or another for quite some time now. You may even be getting good at it, or already have a natural talent for putting together paragraphs that don’t double as sleep aids. I’m pretty sure I’ve about reach this level myself. I’m also well aware that I have a tendency to get pretty long winded and improve Folgers’ coffee stock values now and then. Luckily though, that’s mostly confined to my informal copy like here on my blog. Well, lucky for my clients, not so lucky for my blog.

  When it comes to writing for the money though, we’re dealing with a whole different animal. One that sometimes seems about as easy to handle as a bipolar cat headed for its annual bath, and still has all his claws.

When we use words to achieve an intended goal, we are writing with a purpose. No longer are we really trying to entertain or express ourselves. We are now trying to inform, incite and motivate.

 Once you’ve put on your work hat and dusted off your desk, it’s time to write for real.

What is good copy?

 There are a few things I find stick out like sore thumbs whenever you read about copywriting. Rather than begin a series and put even more money in the coffee industry’s pockets, I’ll spend some time on what I perceive as being common copywriting problem areas.

Basics first

Good copy is text that delivers a message in a clear, concise,  engaging manner and is often, but not always, intended to incite the motivation to perform a desired action on the part of the reader. While there are plenty of different definitions of what makes for good copy, I’m reasonably satisfied that this covers the most basic premise when it comes to writing commercially. Put even more simply, how you define good copy is in large part determined by the purpose.

In order to write good copy, particularly when you are doing it as a hired pen, you must have a firm understanding of the message your client wishes to convey and the audience that will be receiving it.  One size does not fit all in the copywriting world despite the multitude of writers who insist that there is some sort of set formula to follow. Generic content produces generic results. Form writing is for forms. Good copy works because it is tailored and crafted to a subject and a purpose.

The first thing to do when putting together your copy is to ask questions and build the contents theme and character. What is the content expected to do? Does the content need to be formal or informal? What kind of appearance is the copy intended to create or adhere to? Is the audience a regular following or a wide base of unique visitors? Is the copy meant to create action or is it intended to build presence? These questions represent only part of the most basic information you must have a solid grasp of before you can begin putting together your copy. The more you know about your subject and who it is intended for, the better you will be at showing readers why it is so great.

When putting your copy together, it’s best to be concise. Get started by introducing your subject with an interesting fact, ask the reader a question that the copy will later answer, or simply define your subject immediately and clearly. The point is to not waste words and force the reader to work any harder than is necessary to understand the subject and where the copy is going with it. Tell them what the message is about and build their interest with uncommon facts or a suggestion that the answer to their problem lies in the copy that follows. It really is that simple.

Now that we’ve moved past the basics, I’d like to address a couple of the things I think are some of the biggest mistakes copywriters make.

Writing for children

After you’ve gotten your introduction out of the way, give the reader some credit and move right to the heart of your message. Writers oftentimes feel as though they have to spell out every single detail, or use ten elementary school level words when four adult sized words would do the job just fine. This often leads to plodding and boring copy that readers simply gloss over, or worse, aren’t willing to continue following. Accept that public educations afford most people better than rudimentary level reading comprehension. Sure this goes against what most suggest, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that what most suggest is simply material that’s been regurgitated because it sounds good, not because it works.

Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, consider this…

“The Ronco Pocket Diaper Steamer is very nicely put together. The seams between each component are even and fit together tightly. The finish is very smooth and shows that Ronco has put a lot of effort and time into producing an attractive product.”

Then,

“The fit and finish of Ronco’s Pocket Diaper Steamer is outstanding and clearly demonstrates Ronco’s commitment to quality.”

I know that personally, when I read something like the first three sentences, my first inclination is to scan past and look for something else simply because it plods and feels as though someone was more interested in word count than telling me what’s important.  Not to mention it feels as though it was written for a twelve year old. Twelve year olds don’t have credit cards, grownups with educations and jobs do. Should you write so a twelve year old can understand, or inform and excite a credit card holding potential customer? Decisions decisions……..

 On the internet, no one can hear you scream

Speaking of producing excitement, how many times have you been moved by calls to action that scream wild claims at you? Chances are, if you had any interest before finally making it to a piece’s call to action, it evaporated as soon as you hit the section with oversized fonts and colored text proclaiming…

“ONLY A LIMITED NUMBER OF PEOPLE WILL BE ABLE TO GET IN ON THIS INCREDIBLE LIFE CHANGING OPPORTUNITY!!! ACT NOW AND DON’T BE LEFT OUT!! BE ONE OF THE FEW WHO ACHIEVE SUCCESS AND RICHES BEYOND THEIR WILDEST DREAMS!!! THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISION YOU WILL EVER MAKE IN YOUR LIFE!!!!!! ORDER NOW!!!!!!!! HEEEEYAAAAAAA!!!!”

Ok, so I’m exaggerating a bit myself, but to be honest, not by much. The point here is that you don’t have to be dramatic or grandiose to show a reader why they should accept what you’re offering. Part of what makes copy good is that it is written conversationally and builds trust by showing appreciation for the reader’s intelligence. When you close with a call to action, you cannot simply abandon the readers trust and go for the gusto with drama. Continue giving the reader credit for being an intelligent human being and strengthen your call to action by highlighting why your subject is the best they can find and why acting now is a good idea. Of course you should use active words and urgent phrasing, but use them sparingly. Above all, use your call to action to drill down to that one thing you want the reader to do and lead them straight to it.

Copywriting in many instances seems to have devolved into an almost used car salesman type of rhetoric. So much emphasis is being put on formulas and mass distribution that it seems as though the baby is being thrown out with the bath water and the importance of integrity and trust ignored. While content geared only towards getting a click may produce, how many of those clicks really turn into customers, and how many of those turn into repeats?

 How many people does that content have to reach in order for it to get a worthwhile number of clicks to begin with? By putting more thought into how copy is perceived and addressing the readers specific interests and needs with copy that is intelligently conversational as well as informative, you build trust that will later translate into more action. In the end, it boils down to the age old adage of deciding whether you prefer quality or quantity. It’s up to you where you go from there.

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It’s the Dirty Story of a Dirty Man and His Clinging Wife Doesn’t Understand

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So you’ve decided that directly contacting publishers and pitching your work to them is the way to go. Good for you. Now you’re wondering just how the heck you’re supposed to do that.

Do you send them an e-mail begging them for a chance with a link to your blog? Unless you enjoy filling an editor’s trash bin with deleted items I wouldn’t recommend it.

Do you send them your 4,000 word article and a request for them to read it and reply with a decision of whether they want it or not? Only if they specifically request full pieces in their submission guidelines. Consider that you’re an editor and every day you have fifty potential magazine articles from aspiring writers sitting in your inbox that you didn’t ask for. Think you’ll read them all?

So what do you do?

The first thing to do when considering contacting a potential publisher is to do your research. Familiarize yourself with the type of content they usually produce. Is it something you can work with? Does it fit well with your writing style and preferred subjects, and if not, are you capable of tailoring your work to suit theirs?

The best way to gauge whether or not your work is a good fit for a publication is to visit their website if they have one and read some of their articles. If they have no web presence, be prepared to sit down with a copy of their magazine and read for awhile. Most have several categories, so take the time to read a few pieces from those that seem within your realm of expertise and abilities. Note the overall tone and direction of the publication as a whole as well. Although you may write excellent political opinion ed,  a publication that deals in clinical political analysis is not likely to accept such work.

What do they expect?

The next thing to do is find the publishers guidelines for submitting or soliciting. Most online publishers have an area dedicated to spelling out exactly what they will consider and how to present it. Some offline publications do this as well, but you may have to contact them by phone or mail if they have no obvious contact addresses or terms for proposals listed. The guidelines these publishers provide often make it very easy to determine just how you should tailor your approach and you should follow them explicitly if you want your proposal to avoid the recycle bin. If you can’t follow the rules for submitting a proposal, an editor is likely to assume you won’t be able to write according to their needs as well and immediately reject you. The guidelines are there for a reason, so follow them to the letter.

What do I send?

Once you’ve gotten a handle on who you’re going to contact and armed yourself with some knowledge of their publication and their submittal guidelines, it’s time to put something together.

If they require you to submit a complete article or piece, then you may need to include a cover letter. A cover letter allows you to provide the information necessary to inform the editor of your intentions, how to return contact, what you are submitting, and some information about yourself and why you should be accepted. Cover letters should be short, to the point, and demonstrate professionalism. Leave demonstrating creativity to your writing and focus on getting the important information across. At the top of your cover letter include your name, contact information and the date. Follow that with the specific information for the person you are addressing; their name, title, name of their publication and the contact address.

Start off your letter with Mr. or Ms. and use their name to address them and not some generic greeting like “Dear Sirs”, or “To whom it may concern”.  Include your reasons for contacting them, what they can expect to find enclosed with the cover letter, and a brief example or explanation of your qualifications or why they should consider publishing your work. This can be something like a list of your prior successfully published works, who you have written for in the past, your education, and anything related to your writing experience. The main thing to do is keep it brief and easily digestible while still giving the editor an idea of who you are and what to expect.  Close the letter with an expression of thanks and avoid anything that may sound insincere or like pleading. Your cover letter is little more than an introduction really and it is your writing that follows the cover letter that will make the sale.

Some publishers do not want to receive entire manuscripts or articles and prefer you send them a query. A query is much more involved and is an actual sales pitch that is intended to sell an editor on purchasing your work, or hiring you to write. A query will include as well as the basic information contained in a cover letter, an explanation of what it is that you are submitting and a synopsis of the work you are pitching. The idea is to entice an editor into requesting the full body of your work for review. You can see some examples of query letters here that will give you a good idea of what one should look like and how it should read. Although you still need to keep a professional approach with your query, make it conversational as well. You want an editor to become interested in what you are offering, so imagine you are trying to explain to a friend what a story is about and why they should read it. You don’t want to come across as trying to make a sale, but instead as trying to show why your story is interesting and worth reading.

Ok, I’m going in. Any last words?

 Never tell an editor you are new to writing for publication. Likewise, never be self deprecating or apologetic. Don’t be a suck up either. Editors are not going to be impressed that you think their magazine is the best ever published, or that writing for them has always been your dream. Stick to a confident, conversational and informational tone, and keep the letter to one page in length. If you’ve been previously published, include one or two clips with your query as well but do not direct editors to a website or give them pieces of unpublished work.

As you can imagine, queries aren’t easy and are something of an art to craft. Expect writing one to drive you nuts the first few times you take a stab at it. Also expect the first few you send to be rejected. If they aren’t you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if they are you’ll already be set to make the next attempt.

The most important thing here is to maintain your motivation and determination. Publications actually make it easy most of the time and tell you exactly what they expect from a contact and how to do it. It’s up to you to follow their rules and determine the best approach to use with each publication. That, and to submit your work and queries to as many publications as you can. Stick with it, learn from any feedback you get from either approvals or rejections and modify your tactics accordingly, and eventually you’ll find that combination that works best for you.

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Updating Themes and Site Improvements

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After a week of work the dust is finally settling and some semblance of order is being restored here on Writingfourmylife*. Although I’m not quite ready to lift martial law just yet, I’ve determined that it is safe to once again post and allow visitors to peruse through the rubble. Please make sure your tetanus shots are up to date and avoid the rest rooms if possible. The footer area is still in flux and there may be some exposed wiring in the sidebar, so keep an eye on those areas if you choose to enter. Oh, and there are a couple empty rooms like the Samples page; I’m still getting all the furniture moved in you see.

As you can probably tell, I’ve done some restructuring and a complete theme change. While some of the purists may find it annoying, I’ve decided to include advertizing spots. Nothing serious, just some banners, and I’ve no intention of selling out and turning every post into a promotion for the latest and greatest money making ploy. Besides, in order to be a sellout I’d have to be getting paid, and at this point in time getting paid is a rare animal indeed. No,my status as paid shill is still relegated to writing honest copy so you can relax.

With all the changes I’ve been making it occurred to me that there’s a post to be had from all this confusion. Most of us see only the pretty face put on the blogs we visit and rarely get to glimpse the greasy machinery and rusty gears churning in the background making everything grind along so smoothly. With that in mind, I’ve decided to shill, er, reveal some of the plugins I’ve been using for the past 6 months or so that I think you readers may find of use on your own blogs. I’m sticking with listing what has been working and demonstrating effectiveness, so if you decide to give any of them a try it’s a fairly safe bet you’ll get the desired results if you’ve done everything correctly.

Perhaps one of the best and least obvious plugins I have been using is the All in One SEO Pack. This nifty little gadget is great for the blogger who isn’t interested in a lot of manual SEO work and would like an edge they don’t have to think too much about. With this plugin you can easily set your blog title to hold your blog name and a few important keywords with it, just don’t be silly and load it with gibberish.

You can also set your blogs meta description which although not a lot of help with SEO per se, is good for enticing those finding your site in the search results to click on your link. It also has some features that can keep things like archives and categories from appearing to search engines as duplicate content which although arguable in importance, is probably at the least a sensible idea. You can also set it to automatically generate keywords from post content and existing tags, a plus when you’re pressed for time.

Here is one serious All In One Pack tip for those less familiar with manipulating your content for SEO purposes. This plugin has an option at the bottom of each add/edit post page in your admin area for adding keywords and titles. This can be quite effective for getting the pages you really want to push to rank well for specific keywords. The All in One SEO Pack is a very good plugin, but it does require you to change a few of its settings to get the most benefit from it. An excellent tutorial can be found here and I highly recommend reading it before making any changes to the plugin’s settings.

The Easy Contact plugin does pretty much what it says with a minimum of hassle, which if you’re like me and easily hassled due to having only one heavily frayed nerve left, is a blessing. Some of you are loathe to put your e-mail address on your site thanks to spammers (see above and “frayed nerve”) and others of us believe that it simply cannot hurt to have as many forms of contact on our site as possible. Easy Contact simply adds a very clean form to your site that allows visitors to contact you without the need to send e-mail or leave the site. All you need to do is download the plugin, create a new page called “Contact”, add the easy-contact short-code to the page and then any text you want to include below it. Voila, instant contact form. You can see it in action here on my site if you’d like.

One last plugin I use that some of you may like is WP-Ban. This nifty little gadget is great for those days when the poopheads just can’t seem to have anything nice to say to you and you’re tired of that one spammer who insists on leaving 125 spam comments every day. Simply install the plugin and activate it, go to your dashboard and record the ip numbers of the offending or offensive parties to be kicked out of the party, then go to the plugin settings and add their ip# to the ban list and update. In addition to being of some help in reducing spam, it also provides some feeling of satisfaction in knowing that you’ve managed to slam the virtual door shut in the face of those who have maligned you for the last time. BTW, if you’re feeling really frisky this plugin allows you to create a custom message for the banned party to read when they try leaving their usual offal at your blogs door. Just sayin is all.

Each one of these plug ins has been a great addition to my WP based blog and proven its worth. All In One SEO in particular I highly recommend, especially if you’re not that well versed in SEO and need all the help you can get. I hope they prove as useful on your own blogs as well.

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Improving Alexa Rank: Should You and How

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Improve Alexa ranking

As a writer who produces text intended mainly for use on the web, I am always trying to learn more about how I can improve my work’s web effectiveness. Since text is content, and an obviously content related concern is SEO and everything that has to do with how well a site performs, I spend a deliberately undocumented amount of time figuring out how to gauge overall performance itself. I say deliberately undocumented because to tell the truth, I’m too scared to actually set down in hours how much time I’ve spent doing anything besides actual paying work.

 While most of us are concerned with how well our sites perform in the search engines, and rightly so, there are other indicators of site performance that also carry some degree of weight. One of the most well known of these indicators is Alexa rank, and that is the bear I am going to grab by the tail here tonight and hope doesn’t eat me when all is said and done.

To start, Alexa ranking is simply the ranking of a site compared to all the other sites on the internet as determined by Alexa.com.  The lower your site’s ranking number on Alexa, the better it is performing compared to other Alexa ranked sites. If your site is ranked at 1 million, then it means your site is the 1 millionth most popular site according to Alexa’s ranking algorithm.

The first thing to realize about Alexa ranking is that it is not determined simply by the amount of traffic your site is bringing in. Alexa rank is based on the traffic to all sites, and sites are then ranked relative to each other. This means that even if your site experiences a significant increase in traffic, there is no guarantee it will also experience an improvement in Alexa ranking. If the sites above or below you also experience an increase in traffic, since Alexa ranking is determined by ratio of traffic between sites, your own site could experience a drop in Alexa ranking despite showing an increase in overall traffic.

Alexa ranking also has very little to do with how well your site ranks in the search engines, how many links are flowing in to your site, or how much content you have spread around. Alexa is geared primarily towards reflecting site popularity based on Alexa’s own data, and so is based for the most part on how often the site is visited by users who have the Alexa toolbar installed along with other undisclosed measures of traffic and unique views. In 2008 Alexa changed its ranking parameters to include more indices outside of the Alexa toolbar data so it is important to understand it is no longer true that the Alex toolbar is the only source providing data.

Now, at this point you might be wondering why Alexa rank even matters if it has nothing to do with search rank and is a poor indicator of overall traffic. That’s a good question, and one that stopped my jumping around like Steve Martin in The Jerk when the new phonebooks arrived after I noticed my Alexa ranking finally dropping below 1 million.

Well, how important Alexa ranking is really depends on what your goals are. Probably the most common reason for trying to improve Alexa rank is the fact that many pay per review or ad sites like ReviewMe, Text Link Ads, and Sponsored Reviews decide how much you’ll be paid according to your Alexa rank. Some of these sites also use Alexa rank to determine how much a link will cost you, or how much one to your site is worth. There are also many companies and businesses that use Alexa rank to determine if purchasing advertising or promotional space on your site is worthwhile or not. Although it’s a poor way to gauge the true value of a site, many places still insist on using Alexa ranking in this manner so it’s not a bad idea to keep this in mind when trying to sell some virtual real estate.

As you can imagine, because Alexa ranking is used this way, it is popular with Marketers, Webmasters, Bloggers, and those people leaning more towards the monetary aspect of the internet. So, if you are a Marketer or a Blogger, develop or manage websites, or in some other way depend on the perceived value of web real estate, improving your Alexa ranking is probably a very worthwhile endeavor.

 You’ll notice that I say “perceived” value and not simply value. Well, although Alexa is used by some as a tool to determine and assign monetary values, the reality is that it is not very accurate when it comes to how effectively a site reaches an audience or how large that audience really is. Since Alexa draws data from what can only be described as a limited cross section of internet users, and this cross section is heavily skewed towards those who have the Alexa Toolbar installed, Alexa doesn’t really represent the true reach a site has or its traffic volumes. If you are looking for real performance from your marketing or advertising programs Alexa is not the way to go. If you are looking to market your site or services however, Alexa can be very helpful indeed.

Rather than continue into all the nuances of Alexa ranking and how it works, let’s go instead with assuming it fits in with our goals and that we want to improve how our site is performing.

There really doesn’t appear to be many proven ways to improve your Alexa rank. Although there are quite a few shady tactics involving script and bogus traffic generators geared towards artificially improving the numbers, I strongly recommend against these. Some are only temporary at best, and there are some instances where users have claimed to have experienced serious negative results after an initial boost. Just like with SEO, if it’s shady, don’t do it. So, what can we do then?

Install the Alexa Toolbar

For starters, install the Alexa Toolbar. All you need are the basics. If you don’t want any extras or add-ons, simply choose not to include them in your installation. I’ve had the toolbar for several weeks now and can tell you that I have not experienced any problems whatsoever with its incorporation into my browser. In fact, it’s one of the least obtrusive toolbars I’ve ever used and there is no hidden adware.

 By installing the toolbar you are doing a couple things.

You will get credit for your own visits to your own site. The toolbar will also automatically show you the Alexa rank of every site you visit and makes easily available all the info Alexa has compiled, which is great when comparing your own performance to that of your competitors. However, ignore the yahoos who try to tell you to install it on a group of networked systems in the office or at home, and then to set them all to your site as the homepage or any such tomfoolery. Alexa only counts one visit per day, and multiple hits from the same location will add up to zilch. Also avoid advice to use redirects or buy visits. Neither results in honest numbers, and redirects can cost you greatly when it comes to SEO.

Encourage Others to Use the Toolbar

The next thing to do, and perhaps the most effective and important way to dramatically improve your Alexa rank, is to get your friends, visitors, forum members, group members, and any other network you belong to that adds to your site traffic to install the Alexa Toolbar as well. This is probably the only thing that is guaranteed to produce an immediate improvement in your Alexa rank. The more regular visitors you can get to install the toolbar the better, and they will benefit as well with improvements in their own Alexa rank.

Invite reviews

Alexa has an option for viewers of your site’s stats to write reviews of your page. Now, I have to be honest and tell you that I really can’t say if reviews will do much to help your site or not, but, I do believe there is a lot of potential for reviews in conjunction with improved Alexa rank to increase your actual traffic. Some of the sources I’ve come across suggest reviews do help improve your rank, but in my own opinion based on what I understand of Alexa’s workings, there would have to a somewhat arbitrary index included by Alexa for that to be the case. Alexa does state that they include other indicators so it is entirely possible that reviews can help, I just can’t promise you they will. At any rate, I would get the review widget like the one in my lower left footer and begin inviting reviews from your visitors in order to at the least give it a chance. Yes, that’s a hint dear reader. Also, when you copy the widget code or use your own, modify it to open in a new window to keep visitors on your site since it doesn’t have that option by default.

Target Alexa Toolbar Users

One other tip that I find makes sense is to frequent Webmaster, Tech, Marketing, and SEO related forums and begin including your link in signatures and posts where appropriate. Since the bulk of Alexa’s toolbar users are in these areas, it makes sense to have some presence there as well. You can get started with sites like Warrior Forums, Digital Point, Webmaster World, and Sitepoint. If you handle the nuts and bolts of your own site or are engaged in serious marketing you should be a member of these forums anyways as the knowledge and resources they offer are oftentimes invaluable.

Post About Alexa

One last way to improve Alexa Rank would be to write about it just as I have done here. Those interested in Alexa will be using the toolbar and looking for any good solid information about Alexa they can use, and if you can add something of benefit then you stand to gain both Alexa rank and organic traffic from their visits.

This pretty well concludes what I have to offer on improving your Alexa rank. I’ve tried to stick with only those methods I can reasonably endorse as effective while still answering some of the usual questions that come with discussing the subject. 

I’ve deliberately ignored a lot of suggestions I’ve come across because they simply aren’t practical or ethical. For instance; if you write about Marketing Strategies, it would make little sense to suggest you write about webmaster tools. Nor would it be ethical to suggest you pay people to promote your link in tech forums or write reviews.

 I would really like to hear any suggestions you folks might have, and even better, some summaries of your results after trying what I’ve suggested. As always, thanks for stopping in and good luck.

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Professional Writing Services

Smart business owners know there is no such thing as overnight success. They also know that today's marketplace is online. If you're in it for the long haul and are success minded, you need an online presence. I have helped many businesses increase their exposure, develop their branding, and grow their customer base through website design and content development.

Whether it's an online presence, or direct e-commerce application, I can help you make it happen. Best of all, I can do it cheaper and better than most.

Visit my business page Writingfourmylife.com to learn more.

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