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

About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman is the co-founder and publisher of Scratch, a quarterly magazine focused on the intersection of writing and money. She teaches digital publishing and media at the University of Virginia and is a full-time publishing consultant. Find out more at her website.