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Trial and Error: A Copywriter’s Journey

Julia McCoy, founder and CEO of Express Writers, shares her story and provides tips for writing effective, informative emails.

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Julia McCoy is the founder and CEO of Express Writers, a team of online content experts. She hosts The Write Podcast, a series about copywriting and content marketing. She’s also the brains behind #ContentWritingChat, a weekly Twitter chat.

And last year, she wrote a book.

So You Think You Can Write: A Definitive Guide to Online Writing is a comprehensive guide to every kind of web writing — including, of course, email. So how did McCoy become qualified to write a manual?

The answer: Lots of trial. And a good bit of error.

From the doctor’s office to the driver’s seat

McCoy started her career not as a writer, but training to be a nurse.

But while she should have been learning human anatomy and how to change surgical dressings, McCoy taught herself copywriting. She started taking on freelance writing jobs, and the more she wrote, the more she knew nursing wasn’t her calling. At times, she worked on as many as 100 assignments per week. “I was 19 years old, and my business was growing like crazy.”

McCoy decided to trade in her scrubs for a keyboard, and she never looked back.

Hopping on the entrepreneurial express

McCoy launched Express Writers in 2011, connecting copywriters from around the country to clients in need of professional writing services for the web. “We create content that goes on the web for blogs, web pages, sales pages, and even ad copy, and we also manage content for clients,” McCoy says.

“We aren’t a writer marketplace,” she emphasizes. “I handpick every single one of our writers, and they have to go through a certain set of materials to make it onto our team.”

Instead of “marketplace,” McCoy prefers the term “boutique.” “It really portrays the idea of a pretty storefront where everything inside is curated, there is a sole owner behind it, and those who work there really love and care about the customized products inside.”

"You have to give email the same attention and care you would any other important marketing piece."

The fruit of experience

Email is particularly important to McCoy. She writes every single Express Writers e-newsletter herself. And she advises others not to foist off the job of writing email on someone who isn’t qualified and invested in the work.

“You have to give email the same attention and care you would any other important marketing piece,” she says. “Every word can drive a sale or drive someone back to your company.”

But giving email its proper due shouldn’t translate into writing essay-length pieces. Shorter is almost always better, she says. “Some marketers try to cram tons of content into a single email, and that’s a really bad idea. People have the attention span of a goldfish. That’s about 12 seconds.”

Instead, McCoy advises writing concise emails that focus on one big idea. If you have a lot of information to convey, write more than one email. Higher frequency is better than an over-long message that risks losing your readers.

McCoy also champions short paragraphs. Like really short. “In my emails, a paragraph won’t be more than one sentence.”

Staccato-style writing will give your email an appealing rhythm, she says. Add informal language, and you have a recipe for drawing readers in.

If that kind of writing isn’t your bag, you might consider taking McCoy’s final piece of advice: Get professional help, especially if you are just starting out building your list.

“Your subscribers are so valuable. So you need an email copywriter who really knows what they’re doing. You shouldn’t be guessing around blindly using tactics — you need an expert who knows the craft and understands the industry.”

10 parting tips for email copywriters

Up your game with these expert tips from Julia McCoy:

1. Always have your copy proofed. Twice. Typos make you look careless. And really bad typos make you look dumb. Treat every email like you would a corporate brochure.

2. Find a sounding board, and use it. Don’t write your emails in a vacuum: Bounce ideas off a trustworthy colleague or mentor. Let them read your copy, and take their feedback seriously.

3. Keep it breezy. Write in short sentences. Use conversational language. Open with a joke. Be self-deprecating and unfailingly friendly.

4. Schedule writing time. Don’t squeeze email-writing between other tasks. Email deserves its own block of time, so set aside a few hours each week to write it.

5. Don’t repurpose copy. Don’t lift copy from a blog or a web page and paste it into an email. This might sound like a no-brainer, but when time is in short supply, it’s easy to be tempted to steal from yourself.

6. Don’t sound like an email marketer. You know that thing where a marketing email starts out in an over-familiar voice before segueing awkwardly into a marketing pitch? Don’t do that.

7. Find flow. You want each sentence to lead seamlessly to the next, taking your reader on a pleasing trek that leads to a satisfying conclusion. In other words, you want flow. If you can achieve it, your readers won’t be able to stop reading.

8. Use “you” generously. This is an old-school copywriting rule, but still an important one. Write to the reader as if you’re talking to them.

9. Seize inspiration. If you have a brilliant idea in the shower, scribble it down as soon as possible. Great ideas are few and fleeting, so don’t take them for granted.

10. Become an expert.  And that means practice. Attend seminars and webinars. Read articles and books on the subject. Maybe even this one.

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