A no-nonsense copywriting checklist for clarity and impact
Your copywriting needs to engage visitors and teach them an essential lesson: How you'll offer them value. It needs to inspire them to take action. It needs to be fresh and insightful. And maybe even fun.
Your copywriting needs to do all that in a matter of seconds.
Whether you've been writing for decades or an indie hacker who's trying bootstrap a landing page as soon as possible, the process of writing impactful copy doesn't get much more natural. There are no shortcuts.
You need a reliable, repeatable process for making your copy foolproof. Enter the copywriting checklist.
But this checklist is going to do things a little differently. All the other copywriting checklists ask vague questions you probably don't even understand in the first place.
Sorry, Copyblogger, but what does "Is one dominant emotion (i.e., “mass desire”) powerfully verbalized?" mean?
In this checklist, I'm dead-set on practical steps you can apply to any piece of copywriting, no matter how much experience you have, and improve your writing. We're going to start with some of the bigger-picture items and then progress toward the more nuanced word choice and grammatical improvements.
Be sure to check items off the checklist as you go! You can find helpful checkboxes beneath each item and at the end of the article. They'll even sync up so you can have it both ways!
Ask the copy "why" 5 times
The Japanese carmaker Toyota changed the way manufacturing companies work. Part of that revolution comes straight out of a curious toddler's playbook: asking "why" until it's equal parts annoying and incredibly insightful.
Here's an example. Let's say you have a SaaS business called Proofish that helps other businesses use social proof on their websites. You just spent time copywriting your new homepage and came up with the following tagline:
Proofish creates social proof for your website.
Ask that copy "why." Rewrite the tagline to answer it.
Proofish creates social proof for your website so more visitors turn into customers.
Proofish creates social proof for your website and increases trust so more visitors turn into customers, and your revenue grows.
Proofish creates social proof for your website and increases trust with automated tools so more visitors turn into customers and your revenue grows—without any extra work on your part.
Proofish is social proof automation to boost traffic, trust, and conversions without any extra work on your part.
Proofish automates social proof to boost trust, traffic, and conversions.
Now we're talking.
There are two essential items to note in this process:
- The copy gets messier before it gets cleaner. You'll notice that the first few iterations tend to get longer and less concise because you're adding in features to answer the "why" question. Just remember that by the third or fourth iteration you should be turning toward the value this product creates rather than continuing to talk about features.
- You need to know the end before you get there. The final version should talk directly to how the product/service solves a difficult problem and creates value. In the above example, we're assuming that you've done your customer research and have discovered that trust, traffic, and conversions are the most important metrics for your target customer. If your final "why" misaligns with their needs, you won't have accomplished anything here.
Use the inverted pyramid
When writing news stories, journalists practice what's called the inverted pyramid.
The goal is to convey as much essential information about the event as quickly as possible. What happened? Where did it happen? When? Who was involved? Why did it happen? How did it happen?
Once the journalist has answered these essential questions, they can start to include contextual information or quotes from sources/witnesses.
Your copy should follow the same formula: Answer the Five Ws as quickly as possible. The less scrolling, the better.
But be realistic about how much information you can fit into a single sentence. Your tagline might only be able to answer what and why. The copy that immediately follows should take care of the rest.
Look for an overabundance of "we" or "us"
A lot of copy in the tech/SaaS space focuses too heavily on the product or its specific features. It turns attention to the company—or even individuals within the company—instead of focusing on the customer.
I call this we-centric copy.
Take a look at this theoretical example of homepage text from a web hosting company:
People host their websites with Hostio.io because we built the fastest, most resilient cloud possible with top-of-the-line hardware and super-fast networking partners. We even built our own custom dashboard with 50+ one-click installers. We have awesome engineers available 24/7 for when something goes wrong.
That's an exaggeration on many levels, but you get the point: The copy talks far too much about the company and not nearly enough about the customer. Because customers don't care about "50+ one-click installers" if they don't immediately understand the value they'd get from it.
The way I recommend fixing this issue is to take a look at any sentence containing "we" or "us." Is there a way to use "you" and focus on the customer instead?
Here's a rough translation using this principle:
Host your website on top-of-the-line hardware and super-fast networking partners to get the fastest, most resilient cloud possible. You can deploy blogs or apps in a single click with 50+ installers. If you have questions or issues, awesome engineers are available 24/7.
That copy is far from perfect, but refocusing on "you" helps show visitors the value they would get from Hostio.io's solution instead of bragging about the company's hard work. It's more clear that they get a fast/reliable service, can deploy a site without knowing a ton of code, and can reach out to support if need be.
Eliminate generalist language
It's tempting to write copy that tries to connect to as many people as possible. A business wants the most customers possible. Right?
Right. But trying to sell to the broadest net isn't going to work.
You've probably seen examples of companies that try to sell to "everyone." Take Bellco, a real credit union-style bank in Denver, Colorado.
Their tagline is "Banking for Everyone," and it's untrue. I live in Arizona, and while our states kind of touch each other, I'm not going to drive 12 hours to visit one of Bellco's branches when I need some one-on-one help with my banking. And it doesn't make clear what kind of person they serve. Are they focused on individuals or businesses? Could they help me get a mortgage? What do they do differently?
The truth is that generalist language like "everyone" actually creates complexity for a visitor. It doesn't help anyone feel welcomed. All it does is create confusion.
Before you begin copywriting, you should have done your homework about who the target audience is, what they care about, and what words they use to talk about the problem they're having.
Of course, there's always an exception to prove the rule:
Most everyone doesn't have the clout to pull it off. But Spotify does.
Good for them.
Remove unnecessary jargon
Tech businesses love to talk about what's under the hood. It makes sense—they have pride in the product/solution/platform they've built.
But too much jargon will dramatically narrow the pool of visitors who will keep reading or stick around long enough to convert. If they feel out of their league or don't understand the product's value, they won't stick around.
Let's pick on a blockchain startup, because that's easy. Here's the first piece of copy on the Auditchain homepage:
Decentralized Continuous Audit & Reporting Protocol Ecosystem™
And the first piece of body copy:
The reporting and disclosure framework for twenty first century business has arrived! Auditchain is the world's first decentralized continuous audit and real time reporting ecosystem for enterprise and token statistics disclosure. The science of continuous audit has been limited to enterprise internal audit and reporting up until now.
Jargon isn't just confusing. It doesn't just significantly narrow your field of interested, understanding readers. It also masks the real value of the product or service.
That said, your copy should reflect the words, ideas, and methodologies used by your target audience. You want to assure them you speak the same language. But instead of using technical jargon to get there, talk about the business problems they're having and the business solutions you're about to solve.
Know your keywords, distribute them evenly
I'm not a big fan of prioritizing SEO optimization over readability. It doesn't matter if Google loves your copy if your customers don't understand it. But the reality is that every website needs organic search traffic.
If you don't know your keywords, you should pause your copywriting and hop into Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Moz, Ahrefs, Ubersuggest, or any other SEO tool of your choice and explore your keywords. You should be looking for keywords that your website might already rank for, what drives organic search traffic to visit your site, and phrases you'd like to capture more traffic.
Reframe and rebuilt your copy to target these keywords, but be careful and don't go overboard by jamming in too many keywords. Your priority is value- and customer-focused copy that's easy to understand.
And, depending on the length of copy you're working with, make sure you're dropping individual keywords and regular intervals. If there are eight paragraphs of text, you might want your keyword to naturally appear in paragraphs #1, #3, #6, and #8. If you're working on just a few short lines, your ability to distribute keywords multiple times will be limited.
By selecting your keywords and inserting them regularly, you 1) reinforce to Google that these terms are essential to your business, and 2) reinforce with visitors their problems, their goals, and the value of your solution.
Make your copy scannable
As tempting as long paragraphs of flowery, long, and prosaic sentences might be, they're not ideal for conversion copywriting.
As someone who loves a proper long sentence, this hurts. But a visitor's attention span is short and always looking for an excuse to hit the
You want copy that's easy enough to read that someone could scan it and still get the gist. There are a few ways to help make that happen:
Use short(ish) paragraphs. I aim for paragraphs of 2-3 sentences most of the time. Sometimes, a single-sentence paragraph can be a punchy attention-grabber, especially if the sentence is short too.
Keep paragraphs focused on one idea. Remember topic sentences? They're relevant again. Focus your paragraphs on a single value/feature/benefit, so visitors don't miss something important if they're scanning.
Vary your sentence length to create a dynamic rhythm. In songwriting, the chorus rarely sounds the same as the first verse—your writing should be the same. Give readers variety, and they'll get more engaged. Be short. In a friendly way, of course, and experiment with where and how you place your commas for an even greater dynamic range.
Use white space to make copy stand out. We're talking more design than copywriting here, but words need a little help. They're not as immediately eye-catching like an image, video, or illustration is. Give your copy a reasonable amount of white space to make sure visitors are having their eyes pulled toward it. Even if you can't create horizontal white space because of restrictions in your CMS, you can always use extra line breaks to make more breathing room in the vertical axis.
Run your work through an online spelling/grammar checker
I'm a fan of Grammarly. If you're interested in a free alternative, be sure to check out Hemingway.
That's this very checklist being run through Grammarly. How's that for checklist inception?
If you're a professional writer, Grammarly is a relatively small investment to help you put another set of "eyes" on anything you write. If you're a business, it can be a helpful final check on an email or informal blog post.
If you don't have a co-worker or friend to help edit your work—more on that in a moment—this kind of software will help upgrade the quality of your writing across the board. And that's pretty invaluable.
Send it to someone you trust
But Grammarly can't catch everything. For edge cases and feedback on the overall quality of some copywriting, you need another human being.
As a fiction writer, one of my most valuable assets is a small community of fellow writers whose opinions I trust wholeheartedly. I probably wouldn't have published a single story without them.
No matter your role or your goals, I recommend building a small network of people who can reliably deliver constructive criticism. You might find that in a colleague, a parent, an old college roommate, or a pre-built community like Indie Hackers.
Send your work to these people. Ask them for their honest, productive feedback. Offer up your time to help them with the same. You'll both go further this way.
When to ask for feedback
Send too early, and their feedback will only get you halfway there. Send too late, and they might give you feedback that completely invalidates all the hard work you put into any the nitpicky stuff to come.
I typically send a piece at this point in the editing process. I've refined, I've asked "why," and I've cleaned up (most of) my typos. I want these trusted colleagues to help me over the final hurdle, not give me a lesson on something I already know.
How to ask for feedback
You should guide your editor into giving you the type of feedback that's most useful for you. Otherwise, they might spend time nitpicking your grammar when you want to know if your value proposition is clear.
Try "seeding" the feedback with a few questions. Your editor will better understand where your priorities lie. Here are some questions you can (and probably should) ask to seed the conversation:
- Can you summarize what I'm selling or talking about?
- If you became a customer, what would be in it for you? What value would you get?
- How am I building trust? How will I live up to my promises?
- Are there any sentences or phrases that aren't 100% clear?
- What is the value proposition?
Don't ask leading (yes/no) questions. Hearing "no" isn't useful feedback. Instead, press your editor to relay information back to you. If you ask them to confirm your value proposition and they give an unexpected answer, you know it's time to refine that part of your copy.
Focus on action!
This isn't going to be yet another argument against using passive voice. You've probably heard that one before.
Instead, I want you to focus on using verbs and phrases that make the reader feel as though they're taking action and getting things done. You want to present to them a vision of a future in which they're making real progress because of what you offer.
Your product is the paint. Your customer isn't the canvas—they're the painter. They're the do-er.
Here's an example of a non-active benefit:
Our AI-powered email campaign software will get you 20% higher click-through rates!
See how it feels like the product is acting on the customer? Time to flip it around:
Boost engagement by 20% on your next email campaign by employing our AI toolkit!
Remove wordiness that reduces conciseness or over-qualifies
Copywriting should be bold and confident.
There's no room for words that do the opposite.
Scan your work for words like "really," "actually," and "very." They're filler and make you appear less confident in the message you're trying to convey.
Look for redundancies or tautologies, too:
- period of time -> period
- almost never -> rarely
- a number of -> many/some
- first/#1 priority -> priority
- over the course of -> over
- oftentimes -> often
All in all, find places where your copy snags the reader. Rewrite until it's seamless.
And, yes, "all in all" is a prime example of the type of wordiness you should cut from your copy.
Axe the superlatives
Every business wants to claim they're the cheapest, fastest, simplest, or safest.
Few people get into running a business if they don't wholeheartedly believe they can be at least one of those things.
Unless you can definitively prove that you meet the standard for one of these superlative descriptions, it's best to stay away. People don't care if you're the cheapest or the simplest. They care if you can give them the most return for every dollar they send your way.
Don't rely on over-used phrases like "raising the bar" to communicate the value of your product or service. Mix it up. Stay fresh. Be clear about what you do and why it matters.
Remember our fake company Proofish? They don't "raise the bar on social proof." They "automate social proof to boost trust, traffic, and conversions."
I even wrote an entire piece about tech clichés new and old.
Read the work out loud
Reading a piece of writing out loud reveals its tiniest flaws, and that's what you want at this final stage. You're almost to the finish line, but you need that last bit of precision.
Does it sound weird? If so, then it reads weird, too. Mark those places and return to them during a revision. Use what you learned above to simplify and clarify those odd-sounding phrases.
Does it sound like a human? If it doesn't, you might need to circle back to asking the copy "why" and/or removing jargon.
You might need to repeat this process a few times before your writing is at its best.
Copywriting isn't about selling—it's about clarity and impact
No one loves the hard sell. No one loves gimmicky or sleazy sales tactics.
You can do better.
You should first focus on writing clear and transparent copy. Explain what you do and why it's great. Be concise and make a specific offer. Inspire the reader to take action.
This copywriting checklist will help you get there.
You'll find that your copywriting is more impactful because you didn't just quickly type it out and move on. No—you nurtured your copy. And it shows.
The no-nonsense copywriting checklist
Ask the copy "why" 5 times:
Use the inverted pyramid:
Look for an overabundance of "we" or "us":
Eliminate generalist language:
Remove unnecessary jargon:
Know your keywords, distribute them evenly:
Make your copy scannable:
Run your work through an online spelling/grammar checker:
Send it to someone you trust:
Focus on action!
Remove wordiness that reduces conciseness or over-qualifies
Axe the superlatives
Read the work out loud