There are a lot of things about a new website to get excited about: Fonts! Colors! Pictures! But there’s a little something that almost always gets overlooked — the words.
Also called “copy” or “text,” the words that make up your website are most likely an afterthought. But deciding to launch a website without having a plan for copy is sort of like deciding to publish a book and spending all your time on cover design, hoping the actual words come together by magic instead of by spending hours sitting at the computer, wrestling your plot arcs and character sketches into paragraphs and chapters.
Gathering copy is almost never easy, even for a professional copywriter. You’re one part detective and one part researcher. (If you have to work with other people to gather the information, you’re also one part snoozed alarm clock, because you’ll be constantly reminding them that their copy is due.) The best way to make sure you’re getting all the information you need is to take a systematic approach to gathering copy. Here’s how we do it:
Decide How to Store and Share Copy
It’s best to choose a storage system that makes file sharing simple — you’ll most likely be working with colleagues to collect copy, and you’ll eventually be sending copy to your web development team, so saving your files to your computer and emailing different versions back and forth gets confusing and cumbersome.
We like that Google Drive makes it easy to collaborate on changes as well as share files, but Dropbox also works!
Choose a Naming Convention
A “naming convention” is just a standardized way of naming files so you can easily find what you’re looking for. Usually, a naming convention will have a prefix that provides broad information and a suffix that specifies the date or draft number.
For example, let’s say I have a file that includes a bio for Michael Stuckey, one of our web developers. Naming it “BIO Stuckey Draft” and then, when it’s finished, “BIO Stuckey Final” makes it a lot easier to know exactly what the file includes than if I’d named it just “Stuckey.”
Organize Your Files
Unless you’re writing for a very small website, creating different folders for the different file versions will help you keep track of what’s what. But creating too many different folders can be confusing, too. For most websites, I have three folders — I call them “Raw Copy,” where I put text I’ve copied directly from the website or from other sources without changing it at all, “Working Copy,” which is where I do most of my writing and drafting, and “Final Copy,” which is where I move files that are ready to send.
Remember to save your originals! Pulling content from your current website or from other sources can be time consuming, and you don’t want to have to redo that work if you change something that shouldn’t have been changed, or if you delete something that needs to be added back in. Sure, you might be able to revert to a saved version, but it’s far less confusing to be able to quickly go back and check your originals.
There’s a little writer’s joke that goes like this: “What does an author need to finish a book?” “A deadline!” (I didn’t say it was a funny joke.) It’s true that, in most cases, writing just doesn’t get done without the pressure of a deadline.
I’d recommend budgeting two weeks for content creation — it seems like a short timeline, but we’ve found that longer deadlines don’t really give people more time to write; they mostly just give them time to procrastinate. Add a week to that deadline if you need to reach out to people on your staff for specific information, but if it’s taking more than three weeks to get your copy together, it’s time to bring in help. (A copywriter, ghostwriter, or content strategist can help you out if you’re stuck.)
Collect Current Website Content
There is no “magic button” to push that will take all the words from your current website and make them into a text document so you can edit them — it has to be copy/pasted manually into a text file like a Google Doc or a Word Doc. This can go into one document or several, depending on how much you’re changing and how you want to organize it.
Copy/pasting all the content from your current site can be tedious, especially if your site is large, but it’s important. Just find a good podcast to listen to, set aside an hour or so, and work systematically so you don’t miss anything important.
Find Copy from Additional Sources
It’s a good idea to look beyond your current website to be sure you don’t miss anything that might not have been included when it was first written. Here’s where you’ll want to channel your inner detective, gathering content from as many sources as you can. Brochures, ads, marketing materials, emails (they could be official emails, like those used in marketing funnels, or they could be emails individual team members use to communicate information), blogs and press articles about your business are all places great copy could be hiding.
Don’t have a current website? Pull from marketing materials, emails and social media. If your business is brand new and you don’t have official collateral yet, look to your Mission Statement or even your business plan for copy ideas.
Consolidate and Assess What You Have
At this point, we like to create a Central Copy Doc. (If you’ve created three folders, this would go into the “Working Copy” folder until it’s approved.) Paste copies of everything useful that you’ve gathered into your Central Copy Doc, and group similar topics together — that makes it easier to choose what you need to keep, what you’ll delete, and what you’ll want to rewrite.
If you’ve already created a site map, you can rework your copy so it follows the same outline. If you don’t have a site map, your Central Copy Doc can help you make one — read it through, making a note of each new subject or section. From that list of notes, assess what should be combined, reordered or changed on your site map.
Fill in the Gaps
If you’re like most businesses, you’ll find that you’re missing information that doesn’t exist on your current website or in your promotional materials. Reach out to your colleagues to fill in the gaps in their areas of expertise. For best results, don’t ask someone to “write website copy for your department.” Instead, email them a couple of specific questions, and ask them to reply within a few days. Asking for a quick email response to a couple of questions usually feels less overwhelming than trying to summarize their entire job into website copy.
If you can, request answers from individuals instead of from the entire company or a department. We find that, when lots of people are copied on the same email, everyone assumes someone else will respond, so nobody does.
Your website shouldn’t be the “Wikipedia” of your business, addressing everything you’ve ever done or listing every attribute of every product you sell. Packing a website full of information like this can actually be a huge turn off to website users.
Not all the information you’ve gathered has to be represented on your site. You’ll sell more and attract more clients if you can edit your content down to provide a clear, direct message. Most people find they need to cut much more from their Central Copy Doc than they’d like to — but making the hard decision to cull down to the essentials can pay dividends in the performance of your site.
Send to Your Web Team and Enjoy Seeing Your Design
If you’ve hired a web development team, writing copy is probably the toughest and most time intensive thing you’ll have to do for your site. Pulling, writing and editing copy is difficult work, and pushing back against departments (and sometimes bosses) who want different things from the website can be emotionally draining.
The good news? Turning your website copy over to your website team feels like finally finishing your exams — the next step is seeing the results of your hard work presented as a beautiful website that impresses your customers and gets you new business. And because you worked so hard to get the copy right, it’ll be easy for your customers to navigate, easy for Google to index and even easy for you to update when the time comes.