Writing the unfamiliar: Don’t just copy writers

Opinion, Tutorials

Writing the unfamiliar: Don’t just copy writers

Rory Stobo, chief copywriter at Sookio, breaks down the challenge of writing on a diverse range of topics while still sounding like an expert.

As a copywriter for a digital content agency, I pick up fresh challenges every day. We’re lucky enough to work with a mix of clients, from healthcare brands and Government departments to retailers specialising in luxury Italian furniture or products to tame an unruly beard.

Part of that is due to our location here in historic Cambridge; the heart of Silicon Fen is home to some of the most qualified, visionary minds in the UK tech scene. For a lot of these organisations, time constraints prevent them from giving their web presence the attention it deserves. Their in-house teams might lack cutting-edge expertise in writing for the web, or else they just can't put the distance between themselves and their product required to really engage customers. So they come to us.

That’s all great, but it can pose a problem when a brief lands on my desk detailing some new innovation that makes as much sense to my Neanderthal man-mind as the inner workings of the USS Enterprise. My time is my client’s time, so how best to use it effectively and produce good work on a topic that’s entirely unfamiliar?

From dunce to don

The job is to write, not to reinvent the wheel. I always ask clients for a set of bullet points detailing what they want a given piece to cover. These are my research notes and, more often than not, they set out just what I need to say. Remember, you don’t need an opinion on this stuff, the client has that. Yours is the job of the translator.

I find that a lot of academic or technically-minded types have trouble expressing their ideas in plain English, simply because they’re so deeply immersed in a specific body of knowledge. By keeping their guidance streamlined you can cut straight to what they’re really trying to say.

Don’t consider research time to be wasted time just because you’re not actively producing the piece. If it saves you having to write something twice in future edits, it’s a valid investment. Skim some of the biggest blogs in your client’s industry for a rough idea of what kind of dialogue is current and exciting to them.

Stick with the brand

Look into your client’s branding. You can spend all day painstakingly researching any given sector, but if information is factually correct but presented off-brand, it’s still wrong. Get to know their social media presence for clues about what they might, or simply wouldn’t say.

For example, one of our clients produces a nutritional supplement; it’s important to be aware of what regulations say you can and can’t claim about the product, while still promoting it in an engaging way.

Alternatively, it could be that existing branding has built up so much over the years that it needs trimming away to get back to basics. I like to sit down with a client at the beginning of a project and have them explain their product out loud like they would to a friend. It also helps to ask them about their competitors, who they feel is doing well in the same space and what they like or don’t like about their online presence.

In many ways, writing for someone else is like playing a role. I wrote a post about how you can turn that to your advantage with ‘method copywriting,’ and being in the right frame of mind can stop you feeling intimidated by a new and complicated topic.

Take a bite-sized approach

Above all else, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Break the job down into topics and sub-topics. A good blog, for example, should address one subject in enough detail to be interesting, but with enough of the big picture to be self-contained. The same goes for each individual page on a site.

You don’t actually have to become an expert on your client’s field. You just need to sound like an expert on one tiny bit of it at a time and understand where to put the emphasis. Limit the scope of your research, how many ‘steps’ away from the subject matter you allow yourself to stray. Forget what your tutor told you in college, Wikipedia is your friend when it comes to getting a reasonable insight into industry-specific terms. Just be sure to check the references.

Let’s recap

Producing great writing, no matter who for, is a matter of technique as much as it’s about knowing your onions. With a few simple tricks up your sleeve, you can make sure you waste no time stressing over the niggling fact that you know nothing about molecular biology. Remember to:

  • get bullet points from your client to pin down what they want covered
  • skim over leading industry blogs to see what’s in vogue
  • understand your client’s branding and tone of voice
  • break down a topic into manageable chunks and address each one logically.

For the journeyman copywriter, there is no law higher than writing what people want to read, so hopefully this has given you some idea of how to address any topic with the same confidence that you’d use to write about your breakfast.

Have you got any tips of your own to share? What’s the most intimidating topic you’ve had to cover? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter and let me know.

Sookio is a digital agency based in Cambridge which helps clients communicate with confidence through quality web content and social media. Sign up to their newsletter for a monthly blast of tips and tricks.

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