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15 Ways to Win at Writing Email

There is nowhere on the internet more intimate than our inboxes. In talking with Copy Hackers co‑founder Joanna Wiebe, this truth revealed itself again and again.

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There is nowhere on the internet more intimate than our inboxes. In talking with Copy Hackers co-founder Joanna Wiebe, this truth revealed itself again and again.

“Email is such a personal way of communicating,” Wiebe says. “You have to respect that and consider who you’re writing to, and why you’re writing to them in the first place. You’re building a relationship. You have to build your reputation, and don’t ever break their trust.”

Wiebe has spent nearly a decade nurturing relationships with readers. Here, she shares 15 lessons she learned the hard way, which you can put into practice today.

On writing with voice

Have someone in mind.

If you’re trying to please a mob, there’s a good chance your writing will be pretty bland. That’s why Wiebe suggests doing the opposite. “I think of a specific person to write to, and then write to them. Always remember email is meant to be one-on-one.”

Think of someone you know who fits your vision of an ideal prospect, then start typing away.

Start simple…

One mistake inexperienced writers make is prizing attitude over substance. In trying to write a “fun” message, they forget the actual message. “Start by writing something in a blank or unfeeling way,” Wiebe says. “Begin with clarity, and then bring it to life.” Think of it like building a house: A solid frame will support an eye-catching exterior, but a flimsy one is just going to collapse.

…then add a little style.

Wiebe is a fan of Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, former hosts of TLC’s What Not to Wear. The duo championed a principle they called CPTS: color, pattern, texture, shine. According to Wiebe, it can be applied to copywriting, too.

“The idea on that show is that outfits should have a couple of these elements, right? So apply that to your writing. You can dress it up with visual color, or by adding pattern through sentence and paragraph lengths — or add a little shine through interesting language choices.” In other words, play with every element of your copy to see where it can come to life.

Make it fun, but not cheesy.

It’s important to bring personality into your copy. But there’s a thin line between being playful and coming off like a cornball. To keep from crossing it, trust your instincts. “If you think it’s too heavy, it is,” Wiebe says. “Don’t force it. There’s nothing worse than when people awkwardly throw in a word like ‘shizzle’ to fake being personable.”

Read. A lot.

Writers have to read to improve their craft, and that applies as much to email copywriters as it does to Jonathan Franzen.

“As you’re trying to find your voice, it helps to read a lot and pay attention to the authors’ voices you’re responding to,” Wiebe says. Consider reading part of your job.

On getting noticed

Hook your readers with matching.

Wiebe is a big believer in making each email relevant to its recipients. “If you know the problem your readers are having and can match it with your message, you can’t lose them,” Wiebe says. Think about the problem you’re solving, and how your readers experience it in their daily lives. When you write email that syncs with your reader’s pain and perspective, they’ll feel understood and want to know more.

Achieve inner PAS.

It’s a simple roadmap for writing emails, but it’s one that gets attention. “PAS stands for Problem, Agitation, Solution, and it’s my favorite format for writing email,” Wiebe says. “If your audience is problem-aware, this template will make them act.” For more info on this little nugget, we’re going to send you to the source herself for a worthwhile read.

What is the "why" of your subject line?

Time to get philosophical: Does your subject line have a purpose or meaning? Or is it just kind of…there?

Wiebe has a hint for you: “The goal of the subject line is to get noticed. Your brand name might lend credibility, but the subject line is what should earn the open.” Don’t write some quick descriptive text and be done with it. Make it matter.

Study the crowd. Then do the opposite.

Think of the context in which the reader will experience your email. It will be seen — or ignored — surrounded by a bunch of other emails vying for her attention.

How can you make her pick you? “Look at the promotions tab of your inbox right now,” Wiebe says. “Most of those emails will be doing the exact same thing. The subject lines will be the same length, the same casing, the same kind of tone.” If other people are going long, go short. If they’re going sentence case, go title case. You get the idea.

Try writing backward.

First sentences are hard, but you don’t have to begin with them. “When I write, I start with the call to action, then work back from there,” Wiebe says. That way when you get stuck or run out of steam, writing from a new direction can help you get your mojo back.

On honoring thy reader

Respect the inbox.

Getting invited into someone’s inbox isn’t a free pass to act like a jerk. That might sound obvious, but think about how many emails you’ve unsubscribed from because they were irritating. “Don’t abuse your position in their inbox,” Wiebe says. It’s like being a houseguest: If you want an invitation back, be polite.

Don’t bait and switch.

Getting your readers to take action is a big deal. Don’t blow it by failing to deliver the goods. “The biggest mess-ups I see are with the calls to action,” Wiebe says. “If an email or landing page doesn’t deliver on the promise of the [call to action], your reader feels tricked.” That also means updating your landing page to match your email campaign. Linking to dusty old copy from years ago just won’t cut it.

Give some satisfaction.

Intrigue can be a great strategy to draw in readers. But too much of it just frustrates your audience. “Clickbaity subject lines work, but you have to close the loop in the email,” Wiebe says. “The subject line creates curiosity. The email should satisfy it.” It shows your readers that you can deliver — and makes them more likely to take action.

"The subject line creates curiosity. The email should satisfy it."

Write for your ideal prospect. Always.

Inevitably, some people who sign up for your list won’t be a good fit for your brand or product. If those people bail, don’t sweat it. Your chief concern should be the people who are a perfect fit. “If you’re turning away your ideal prospect at any point, you’ve failed,” Wiebe says. So if your numbers take a dip, don’t go off-strategy in an effort to win them back. Stay on message, and your ideal prospect will stay with you.

Be exceedingly human.

The best way to show your readers that you respect them as a human being is to write like a human being. “The biggest mistake I see is when a business comes off at arm’s length in their emails,” Wiebe says. “You don’t have to sound like a big corporate something. Be a person talking to a person.” It can be scary to be a little vulnerable when you write, but that’s also how every great relationship begins.

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