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Anyone can be a writer these days. All you need is a computer with an internet connection and a tenner to spend on a domain name.

The problem is: anyone can be a writer these days.

But digital writing requires a unique approach that caters for the way people read online, i.e. through scanning the page for information that is relevant to them. 

In this post I’m going to cover 10 common online copywriting mistakes I come across regularly when reading content. 

1. Bad headlines

Headlines are hard. It can take a relatively long time to come up with what is essentially just a few words, but it is important to get your headline right. 

It is the first thing people will see, and makes the difference between them clicking to read more or scrolling on by. 

Your headline should be eye-catching, not overly long, and descriptive enough that people will know what to expect from the post without seeing any of the content. 

This latter point is vital because the headline will often appear in isolation on social media or within an email newsletter, etc.  

2. No subheadings

This is a sin punishable by the worst kind of tutting and head-shaking, not to mention a speedy click back to Google. 

If you don’t include multiple subheadings you make it very difficult for readers to scan through your content and pick out the information that is relevant to them. 

Each subheading should be descriptive enough to stand on its own, giving the reader a very clear idea of what is included in that section. 

3. The ‘wall of text’

Arguably the most offensive of all online copywriting faux pas. 

Upon being faced with an enormous block of uninterrupted text on a web page, most people will swiftly search for an escape route. Why? Because it is a violent sin against the eyes. 

Break your copy up into short paragraphs, two or three sentences each. This creates plenty of white space and makes your writing much easier to read.

It also means you can focus on one key point or idea per paragraph, which makes it much easier for somebody to scan your post and quickly find the information they’re looking for. 

4. Overly complex language

If you can’t explain something in simple terms then it’s likely you don’t fully understand it yourself. 

Use simple language and avoid needlessly obscure words or phrases. You’re not trying to win the Booker Prize here, you just want to deliver information to people as quickly and effectively as possible. 

5. Not putting the best bits first

The way people consume online content is different to how they would read a newspaper or novel. 

People are generally searching for the answer to a question. They’ve likely found your article via a search engine and they want to find the relevant information as quickly and easily as possible. 

The main point of your article should feature in the first two or three paragraphs.

You can then expand throughout the rest of the article, but people should be able to get the general gist of what you’re saying in those initial paragraphs. 

6. Overuse of buzzwords

Buzzwords

Nothing turns copy ugly faster than the presence of meaningless words, and marketers are arguably the worst offenders. 

We actually have a list of banned words and phrases on the Econsultancy blog, including ‘leverage’, ‘best in class’, and the ever-cringe-inducing ‘learnings’.

For any buzzword you can think of there is a perfectly normal and infinitely less stupid alternative. Use it.

7. Not spelling out acronyms

You may know what CTR, CRM and UTO mean, but don’t assume your readers will, particularly if they’re researching a topic for the first time. 

Spell the acronym out the first time you mention it, like this: Search engine results page (SERP).

Then use the acronym for the rest of the post.

8. Not proof reading

Online publishing is wonderful in the fact that things can be edited after they’ve gone live, but this comfort blanket has a tendency to induce a degree of laziness in writers.

Make sure you leave enough time after writing an article to go through and proof read thoroughly.

People will spot mistakes. It doesn’t reflect well on your brand and could detract from any genuinely good points you’ve made.

9. Poor formatting

I’ve covered various elements of formatting under a number of the subheadings here, but let’s reiterate some key points:

  • Use lots of subheadings.
  • Create plenty of white space through short paragraphs.
  • Use bullet points like I’m doing now. 
  • Include imagery to put points into context and make the content more visually pleasing.
  • Use internal links, but not too many. 

10. The comma splice

This is perhaps more of a personal gripe than anything, but I often see people using commas where they shouldn’t be. 

Online copywriting is complicated, there are lots of things to remember and many rules to bear in mind. = WRONG

Online copywriting is complicated. There are lots of things to remember and many rules to bear in mind. = BETTER

It seems like a small thing, but when a writer uses a comma incorrectly in this way it can be very jarring for the reader and it instantly makes the writing seem less professional.

Jack Simpson

Published 6 April, 2016 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

252 more posts from this author

Comments (18)

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Stephen Fair

Stephen Fair, Managing Partner at Sponge New Business

Very nice. My blog seems to pass muster, but there are some cracking reminders in there. Thanks Jack.

about 1 year ago

Katy Pollard

Katy Pollard, Founder at Listening Pig: no nonsense, down to earth PR support for SMEs

Another great article, Jack. Happily shared.

about 1 year ago

Richard Hussey

Richard Hussey, Owner at RSH Copywriting

I agree with all the points you make. BUT, you could do all of this and still end up with a lifeless blog or website that does nothing for your business.

Good writing uses stories, metaphors and imaginative vocabulary to tap into the psychological state of a target reader. Effective business blogs go a bit deeper and reveal insights that people can relate to their own situation and challenges.

The content makes them think and ultimately act. This, rather than the structure, is what makes writing for the web (or any other marketing medium) so challenging.

about 1 year ago

Charlie Wodehouse

Charlie Wodehouse, Account Executive at ECOM

Great article but I disagree with the last point. In that particular example I would replace the full-stop with a semi-colon, otherwise you're separating the two connected clauses.

about 1 year ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Charlie - I guess that's a personal thing. I wouldn't use a semicolon in any situation, simply because I don't like them :)

about 1 year ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Richard - True. No amount of technical ability is going to make up for dull, irrelevant content.

about 1 year ago

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Jim Anthony, Deputy Social Media Editor at Direct Line GroupEnterprise

Actually, you've replaced a comma with a full stop when it should be a semi-colon...

about 1 year ago

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Jim Anthony, Deputy Social Media Editor at Direct Line GroupEnterprise

*pushes spectacles up nose and snorts like a Simpsons nerd kid*

about 1 year ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Jim - As I said to Charlie above, that was intentional. I never use semicolons because to me they are old-fashioned and unnecessary (a full stop almost always does the job better).

Just a personal thing, but obviously anyone who disagrees is wrong ;)

about 1 year ago

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Jim Anthony, Deputy Social Media Editor at Direct Line GroupEnterprise

Ah, there were only two comments when I posted. Au contraire; I shall continue to use both. ;)

about 1 year ago

Charlie Wodehouse

Charlie Wodehouse, Account Executive at ECOM

Hey Jack, I thought you might say that!! I personally love a Victorian style of writing - the longer the sentence the better IMO! Still, this is a really useful blog post

about 1 year ago

Richard Hussey

Richard Hussey, Owner at RSH Copywriting

I probably would have inserted 'and' or 'because' and lived with the longer sentence. I use semicolons but Kurt Vonnegut hated them - so who am I to argue. As long as it's clear, who cares?

about 1 year ago

Gary Wiles

Gary Wiles, Content Executive at Rapid Electronics

Good article Jack. Ever the visionary, George Orwell knew a thing or two about internet best practice, and the rules in his essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946) stack up pretty well:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

about 1 year ago

Alice Morgan

Alice Morgan, Freelance digital marketing consultant at Freelance

Lots of Steve Krug in there and great for it. And I agree with your point about commas, the misuse of which is my bugbear too. Punctuation should only ever be used to facilitate meaning and readability. In your example, the second one is better, but it is also too disjointed and it would be better to use a connector word - and - or, as someone else pointed out a semi-colon. Nice post though. If everyone followed these principles, it would be great.

about 1 year ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Alice - Perhaps it's not the most elegantly structured sentence, but as I've said in other comments I don't personally use semicolons and nobody will ever persuade me to change my ways. At a push I might consider a dash in that situation, but ultimately I was just trying to illustrate what a comma splice is.

about 1 year ago

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Robert Moloney, De Bozz at Selling Solutions

very good, thanks.

about 1 year ago

George Caveney

George Caveney, Copywriter at Oliver

@Richard. Absolutely, re the use of metaphors, stories and imaginative vocabulary. Dare I add rhythm to the list? It's a great article for online copywriting 101, and there's nothing wrong with a reminder, but you're right - you can do all those things and your piece still be 'just another article'. Have a basic, evolving and flexible set of rules such as these, but always be yourself in your writing. Just borrow your reader's shoes, and wear them while you write for them. Ultimately, the best business writing can break all these 'rules' and have way more impact than lesser writing that follows them. I think we need to stop the pointless quest to define good writing and come up with formulas for it. Great copy has always been hard to define. That's the beauty of it. Once it's defined, it's done for. Move on. Do not replicate!

Ahem... useful article, though.

11 months ago

Gloria Kopp

Gloria Kopp, Content writer at Studydemic

1. 'Not proofreading' is the most common mistake I think. People do value well written and readable content. In case editing and proofreading is difficult for you, use online tools. I usually use hemingway app, readability score or online editors. Have anyone tried this editing tool - http://boomessays.com/ ? Let me know in comments.
2. Concerning 'the wall of text' mistake: it'll be better not only to break text into short paragraphs, but to insert visual content - images, video, gifs, etc. Maybe it doesn't really refer to copywriting, but just a reminder.
3. Be careful with formatting. Do not take 'the wall of text' advice literally and put 100+ subheadings into the text :)

9 months ago

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