The No. 1 Overlooked Skill for Every Author

I wish they taught this skill to students in high school or college. Creative writing students especially need to spend a semester on it, but never do. You’d think publishers would deliver a 101 guide on it for their authors, though I’m not sure the publishers themselves always know anything about it.

The skill is copywriting. What is copywriting? According to Copyblogger, one of the top sites dedicated to the subject:

Copywriting is one of the most essential elements of effective online marketing. The art and science of direct-response copywriting involves strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) that get people to take some form of action.

Here are 3 primary ways that copywriting becomes essential to your success as an author.

1. Writing query letters, synopses, and other submission materials

This is the classic form of copywriting that most writers engage in. A query letter is not a straightforward description of your work. It’s a sales letter. It should be persuasive and seduce the agent into requesting your work.

And this is why writers struggle with queries, because they can’t bridge the gap between writing to entertain (or inform or inspire) and writing to persuade. It’s a different mindset, and it requires an ability to look at one’s work as a product that has a selling point. (If you need more information on how to formulate a hook, click here.)

I used to have a boyfriend who spent 10 years in sales. What I learned from him is that it’s not about succeeding on your first try or even with the majority of tries. It’s about making the highest number of tries with the best prospects, then bouncing back quickly from rejection.

Unfortunately, most writers’ egos are fragile, and they can’t see the query process as one of the oldest practices in human history—a sales practice where rejection is commonplace.

So, adopt the mindset of a copywriter. You can’t convince everybody, so just convince one person who’s a good match for what you’re offering. (But make sure you deliver the quality goods you promised!)

2. Writing copy for your website and social media profiles

This is one area where writers tend to have the most public failings. Online writing often boils down to copywriting, in these three forms.

    Site and blog headlines

    Every blog post requires a headline, and that headline demands your copywriting skills. Why? Because your post will be communicated across social networks and RSS feeds through its headline alone, without any other context. That headline must be strong and persuasive enough to garner someone’s click.

    Think about the titles of your site pages, too. Are the titles clear within a few seconds, telling visitors what content resides on your site? Don’t count on cutesy, vague, or artistic headlines to spark curiosity. It most often leads to content that goes unread.

    Effective tweets and status updates

    Same principles apply here as with blog headlines. How do you catch people’s attention in 140 words or less? Good copywriting. (See resources below to learn the ropes.)

    Your bio

    There are many ways to write a bio. and many purposes for them, which can necessitate customizing them. But your basic site bio should help you achieve your immediate goals. If your site ought to lead to more freelancing gigs or speaking gigs, then your bio needs to give us a sense, within the first few lines, that you’re an incredible freelancer or speaker. If your site ought to gather more readers around you, then speak directly to your readers in your bio. Think about who you hope will be reading your bio on a daily basis, and talk directly to them. Don’t be aloof or stand-offish—at least not if you want people to contact you with opportunities or follow your updates.

3. Writing copy for your books (or products and services)

If you’re not working with a traditional publisher—and even if you are—then you need to learn how to write effective sales copy for your book—the stuff that’s on the back cover, on your website, on Amazon, etc.

A few basics:

  • Always have a headline
  • For fiction, never outline the entire story. You tease the reader; you raise questions that you don’t answer. Here’s a famous example from Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones:

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” So begins the story of Susie Salmon, who is adjusting to her new home in heaven, a place that is not at all what she expected, even as she is watching life on earth continue without her—her friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her killer trying to cover his tracks, her grief-stricken family unraveling.

  • In the case of nonfiction, you don’t focus on yourself. Instead, detail all the ways the reader will benefit from the information in the book. For example, if I were trying to sell you a book about copywriting, I might say: Learn the 3 secrets to writing effective copy every single time!

Copywriting is a skill that you can learn and improve over time. Here are two of the best resources available:

  • Copywriting 101 by Copyblogger. They offer a free tutorial called 10 Steps to Effective Copywriting, which includes advice on writing headlines, the structure of persuasive copy, irresistible offers, and the No. 1 secret to great copy.
  • ProBlogger by Darren Rowse. Specific tips to make money blogging—which means you need to become a great copywriter.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s kyz
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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. This fall, she's proud to be offering two creative nonfiction courses from experienced university writing professorsFind out more.

Comments

  1. says

    Jane,
    Thanks for this great advice. Copyrighting requires a different mindset from fiction writing. It’s easy for writers to lose sight of that. A one-page query letter is more important than a 250-page manuscript. Thanks again.

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    • Jane Friedman says

      Whoa! I wouldn’t say the query is *more* important. But when it’s time to submit your work, you do put a new skill set to work.

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  2. says

    Thanks for this! :)

    While not specific to copywriting, my uni did require two semesters in composition, where the focus of our writing was learning how to be persuasive. I feel better knowing those classes have at least somewhat prepared me for marketing my fictional works.

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  3. says

    Jane,

    As a veteran of the sales trenches, I applaud you. Every business person needs certain “sales” skills to promote themselves and their businesses.

    We writers tend to forget that we’re business people and the “product” we’re selling is our work. WE are also the “service” we provide and how we market ourselves is a key element to our success … or lack thereof.

    I am in the process of having a web developer consolidate and redesign my websites, blogs, etc. and your blog couldn’t have come at a better time.

    (P.S. I really like the way your mind works and how you express your perspectives.)

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  4. says

    A hearty “amen” to this post.

    And I want to add that this IS a learnable skill. I’ve seen many writers turn up their noses at the idea of learning to write sales-oriented copy, with the implication that such “non-artistic” writing is beneath them. But think about this: who knows your book better than you do? So who would be better qualified to talk about it? If you can get past any resistance or fear, this skill will be a HUGE help to you, and give you a much higher degree of control in how your book is presented to the marketplace.

    Thanks for driving home this important point!

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    • says

      I completely agree. If we don’t decide what is known about our work, who will? And why should they have the right to decide how people perceive my writing? I would much prefer to “sell” my own writing, “artistically” or not ;)

      Thanks for the post, Jane!

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  5. says

    Copywriting is a skill that definitely gets better with practice. It feels like I’ve had multiple opportunities lately to whip this skill set into shape, making me think I’m all done, but then another one pops up! It’s exciting to have so many places online to use these abilities, now that I’ve developed them. :)

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  6. says

    I’ve been writing copy for my business for over 12 years now, and there is always room for improvement. With each piece I feel I have to go back to the basics, remember the problem, my solution, their objections, etc.

    It’s a real back-and-forth dance between what I think and what my audience thinks. Too often we forget the audience!

    Thanks for this great reminder to keep polishing my copywriting pen! This will help me as I write the copy for my novel – the blurb, the back cover copy, the web copy, etcetera, etcetera.

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  7. says

    SUCH great advice and thanks for the great pointers — and I agree that these are really important skills to have. I’ve done a little copywriting over the years; my journalism training really helped me get a foot in the door but I learned so much on the job, no question. That training and experience really helps when blog writing and with headlines and as you say with tweets too. I will be checking out your links — thank you so much!

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  8. says

    This is so true. When I began to promote my first book, I ran into so many challenges with copywriting. It is certainly a skill that requires study and practice.

    Closely related to this would be graphic design or basic website layout for online marketing. While these aren’t necessarily skills that an author needs to have, authors need to either learn how to do them well or ask people with more experience for help. There are quite a few cluttered, poorly conceived author blogs and websites out there. I’m still working out some kinks on my sites, but they would have looked a lot worse if it hadn’t been for a few friends who helped me along the way.

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  9. Vaughn Roycroft says

    I took two copywriting courses in college, spent a few years selling outdoor advertising (read: billboards, where brevity is king), love coming up with titles and headlines, and I still suck at writing query letters and synopses.

    But my experience in advertising taught me that what Keith says is true, you really can learn/hone the skill of brief, persuasive writing. And I know from my years in sales that what you say is true, Jane: it’s all a numbers game, and rejection should be an expected part of it.

    Great post. Guess I better get back to honing my skills and bracing for the numbers game.

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  10. says

    I like how you stress that our public writing–say for building a platform or querying–is sales directed. We need to think like advertisers.

    Often, I write a blog post with a so-so title and brainstorm ways to make it sound more like a magazine article. Since I subscribe to a ridiculous amount of mags (and yeah, I read them all!), it’s not hard to do. Thanks for another great article!

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  11. says

    Jane, this is exactly where I am right now: tightening up my query and proposal for my nonfiction book.

    I spent many years in fundraising, mostly writing grant proposals. Others would make theirs an emotional appeal, when I knew I had to SELL my clients to the funders (emotional perhaps, but full of stats).

    I’m new to writing (books, that is), though I’ve been self-employed for well over 20 years. I’ve always had to sell myself, so the query/proposal process is not alien to me. I’m surprised by the number of writers who resist it. It is a different part of your brain, but it’s necessary.

    Thanks for the reminder!

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  12. says

    I agree SO very much with this. Copy for cover flaps, press releases, website summaries, etc etc always needs to be done, and while you might be tempted just to let the publisher handle it, I always recommend authors take an active hand in all aspects of their marketing/publicity materials. There is never an end to being able to answer the question “Why should I read this book?” Answer it for agents, answer it for publishers, answer it for readers. Only the audience changes. Never the question, and never the goal.

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  13. says

    I have learned that the key question to keep in mind when gearing up to write ‘persuasive’ is the reader’s judgement of ‘what’s in it for me?’ If you can’t answer that, let someone else do your copywriting.

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  14. says

    Jane,

    Time after time, you provide advice that is SO useful to me. This is yet another example! I just wanted to drop a note to say THANK YOU for all that you do.

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  15. says

    Very interesting (and persuasive) article but I wouldn’t employ the copywriter who wrote the words in the picture at the top. Isn’t that a huge grammatical mistake. I can’t think of a way that phrase works the way it’s written.

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  16. Gina McCrae says

    I tried to skim through the posts, but did anyone happen to notice that sign says “Your Getting Warmer” not “You’re”? Nothing drives me crazier.

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  17. Morgan says

    That advertisement could have used a good copyeditor as well – “your getting closer”… my getting closer is doing what exactly??

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  18. says

    Jane, I linked your article in our WLW Facebook to help writers see that we must develop many skills to do well in the current publishing environment. Copywriting, one area writers often avoid, is a definite asset… and can be learned (you even gave some great resources to do this!)

    Thanks again for your healthy post. You are the best.

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  19. says

    Jane,the above post states my last blog was Four Surprising Lessons. That is written by Dr Dennis Hensley and is one our Write Life Workshops website. Not sure how that was picked up but it is not my post. Credit to Dr. Dennis Hensley please.

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  20. says

    Great post! This is a hard thing for many of us fiction writers to wrap our minds around, and from what I’ve heard from friends in writing programs, not something that is given much attention. The nice thing about the Internet is that it has become much easier to learn about these issues and how to address them, even if it’s just learning by looking at examples. Still, having you say it explicitly will solidify the concept as important in many writers’ heads.

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  21. Mark says

    It’s interesting to note that James Patterson, one of the most prolific authors out there, was a Creative Director in advertising for many years.

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  22. says

    It amazes me that fiction writers are people who can learn to make brioche, sail a ketch, do ashtanga yoga, give marriage a second try, start a business, write a whole manuscript…yet are helplessly lost when it comes to copywriting?

    Please. Many fiction writers also avoid the parts of fiction writing that they’re not good at. It’s why they stay stuck in the midlist or even on no list.

    To be effective at fiction writing requires stretching yourself. Copywriting is just another way to strech. No more excuses. Jane tells you how to do it. So just do it.

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  23. says

    Thanks for your post – extremely sensible. To me copywriting is part of the essential skill set for any writer. Put another way, ‘writing’, to me, means being able to assemble the necessary words to meet the need. Whether that is fiction writing, letter writing, feature writing or putting together a blog entry or comment. All demand different styles and approaches, and it is important, I think, for writers to be able to understand and thus master them.

    I put this into practice myself; I write non-fiction mostly – but I also write my own book blurbs (and my publishers use ’em), I write newspaper features, book review, I write my own blog, and I write comments for others. All are media that demand different approaches, different styles and ultimately different words.

    Thanks again for your thoughts – good stuff!

    Matthew Wright
    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

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  24. says

    Thanks for the advice, Jane, this is so enlightening, tightly written and to the point. Very useful and I immediately tweeted about it!

    I’d just like to add how WELL the headline to your post exemplifies what you are talking about: fantastic! I was immediately enticed by the title. Then you were careful to drop in a whole introductory paragraph preparing me for the “secret skill” but without telling me what it was! So I was forced to click the “read more” button!

    Very, very clever. And effective! Brava!

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  25. says

    Thanks for a great post, Jane. I hadn’t thought of query letters in the same vein as copywriting, but so true.

    Question, though. I seem to have two choices when titling a blog post: intriguing or SEO-oriented. I’ve mostly kept them good for SEO (Great Gifts for Writers, Point of View Definitions, etc) so they’ll pop up on searches, but when I tweet about them, I’ll make it more interesting (or at least try).

    So which is best, or is there a way to combine them?

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    • says

      I recommend combining approaches and using a WordPress theme that is SEO optimized.

      Add categories and tags to the post (which are visible to readers), and also add keywords (invisible, on the backend, as part of the post in WordPress). That should cover your bases.

      Of course, it’s also great if the blog or pate title can make sense (enough) when it turns up in search, and certainly for nuts-and-bolts stuff, you don’t want to be coy. That’s why Copyblogger has a section on their site labeled “Copywriting 101.” !

      A good compromise, as you’ve identified, is to have a clear page/blog post title with appropriate keywords, then use Twitter and other avenues to craft something more sexy.

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  26. says

    It would be wonderful if all we had to do was write immortal prose and our fans would flock to their bookstores. Alas, even the most brilliant story needs all of the above to have it be noticed, read and promoted. Thank you for putting it all down so succinctly. It makes sense!

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  27. says

    Problogger and Copyblogger are two of my favorite websites for blogging advice. I have completely revamped my approach to platform after reading their blog posts for a few weeks. I even splurged and purchased the Genesis Framework for my WordPress site – one of the best investments I have yet to make in my platform.

    Thanks for the great post, Jane!

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  28. says

    This is honestly one of the best posts I’ve read in quite a long while. You have a laid all the points you need to be know in a very clear form.

    I’ve been following Copyblogger’s daily posts for a couple of years and it deals exactly with what you are talking about here: the art of copywriting and writing to connect with that one person who counts for getting the word out about your book.

    Thanks.

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  29. says

    When I read the headline, I assumed the number one skill for an author was humility, to accept feedback and prove one’s craft. Granted, copy writing is good, too. ;)

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  30. says

    There’s hope yet. Now if only I were able to effectively push my skill of getting people to pay attention in short form, to long form. That’s the trick.

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  31. says

    That article is absolute gold!

    I’ve been feeling torn between making a very respectable living copywriting and wanting to write stories and articles. I felt like I had to make a choice between the two, but after reading that I realise that the skills are COMPLETELY COMPATIBLE and make me far more diverse as a result.

    I know I have the skills to write absolute RIPPER sales letters for my clients and queries letters for myself!

    Will save to my favorites…

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  32. says

    Really excellent. I couldn’t agree more. Learning how to be a copywriter has made my writing exponentially better.

    I now think about every word, every line, as an opportunity to persuade the reader to keep going. No more fluff.

    Copyblogger was instrumental in my coming to this realization.

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  33. says

    Love your site! I agree completely; I am still learning about SEO and how all of the online marketing works. I would love it if someone gave me pointers! Thank you!

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