Writing to sellLast month, I was flattered to be approached by an editor at the Guardian to write a “lighthearted, fun piece about how to use language in different contexts to get noticed and get the result you want”.

Unfortunately, the request got caught in my spam trap, and I didn’t notice it until too late.


I thought I’d write something anyway. This is it.

These days, we all have to sell ourselves using writing. Here are some examples and tips:

Writing a personal statement as a student

According to this article in the Guardian, UK university staff only read students’ personal statements for two minutes.

300wpm is the average reading time for adults according to a Staples speed-reading test quoted in this article on Forbes: Do you read fast enough to be successful?

Taking two minutes to read 600 words is therefore about right.

But two out of five student statements are read for just a minute or less. it seems admissions staff skim-read them.

Of course they do. We all do.

Reading on screen is harder than reading on paper. It’s light shining into our eyes, our optic nerve gets tired, and our brains consume the information more slowly.

In order to get your key points across when someone is skim-reading (especially on screen), you need to:

  • Grab their attention in your headline or opening statement
  • Use sub-headings that tell a story to help them navigate
  • Keep it interesting by selling the benefits to them
  • Tell stories and quote facts to substantiate your claims
  • Use plenty of white space to make your copy easy to read (large fonts, wide margins, short paragraphs, short sentences, short words, bullet points…)

There’s more to copywriting best practice than that, but those points will get you started.

Renting a flat

In order to rent a flat in a crowded market, tenants have to sell themselves in a letter to potential landlords.

Rather than talking about how much you love the area and the flat, or how desperate you are for a home, think what the landlord wants to know.

Probably, they only care that you’ll be a good, quiet and tidy tenant who’ll pay on time.

So tell them that, and provide evidence in the form of a recommendation from your previous landlord, housemates and employer.

Third parties ‘sell’ you better than anything you say yourself.

That’s one of the reasons we often interview the customers of our clients to write case studies and testimonials. This process also acts as useful independent research that can guide the development of your products and services.

Applying for a job

Typically, you have to submit a CV and a covering letter when you want a job. It’s wise to include an executive summary paragraph at the top. If the employer doesn’t read anything else, at least they should read that.

Google will tell you to match keywords in your application to the job description, but I’m not sure I agree.

As you may know, I work with Mitch Sullivan to train recruiters how to write better job ads. Better ads should result in better applications.

Your goal is to show that your personality, skills and ambitions are a fit with their culture and requirements.

It’s a two-way process.

One of my friends was changing jobs and wanted to ask for more money than they were offering. I knew they wanted her, so I suggested she say: “I can’t afford to move for less than £x”. They gave her the job, and the salary she asked for.

Asking for a pay-rise

Think from your boss’s point of view.

Saying: “I need more money to pay my fuel bills” is not likely to work. Saying “My workload doesn’t match the job description” might.

Even more likely is: “In return for a pay-rise, I can fit the responsibilities of Person x into my workload, so you can make them redundant and save the company money”.

Pitching for business as a freelancer

As a freelance copywriter pitching for business, saying: ‘Let me write your copy because I need the work’ isn’t likely to be effective.

What probably will is reminding potential clients that the copy you write is an investment not a cost because it should help boost their bottom line.

A new challenge is that we freelance copywriters have to convince people we’re better than robots.

Hopefully, you’ll agree that a robot couldn’t have written the article you’re reading now. It’s packed with humanity and insight that AI can’t match.

Writing effective emails

Ever noticed that you don’t always get a complete reply to your emails?

People are busy. They don’t read all the details of your carefully crafted message.

Either include one point per email, each with its own subject line, or number your points in the one message. That way, there’s less chance of anything getting missed.

If you’re trying to make an appointment, using a tool such as Calendly can be more efficient than bouncing messages back and forth.

Or you could even pick up the phone. Now there’s a novel idea!

Take a lesson from direct mail

Before email, we used print and postage. It cost money and took time, so people probably took more care over the content.

Research showed more people read the heading and the P.S. than the body copy.

This lesson can be copied across to your emails and online sales pages.

The subject line (headline) determines whether the message gets opened in the first place, but you can add a P.S. before the signature to reinforce your core point.

Unsurprisingly, Drayton Bird used this technique when marketing his recent Final Fling event. He’s a master of direct response and I deconstructed his approach here: Marketing your events

Using motivational language

Did you notice this article include language that’s both ‘towards’ and ‘away’? Some people are problem-orientated while others are more motivated to achieve a goal.

When you recognise the motivation strategy of the person you’re talking to, you can adapt your language to match.

For example, if you’re trying to sell insurance, use ‘away’ language e.g. “What would you do if your car was stolen or your house was flooded?”

If you’re trying to sell investment products use ‘towards’ language e.g. “How would you like to buy a yacht or holiday in the Maldives every year?”

That point was inspired by Shelle Rose Charvet’s book Words that Change Minds: The 14 patterns for mastering the language of influence

Writing sensory copy

You can write in a way that taps into the five senses. For job ads, that might mean opening like this:

  • For a visual role: Can you see yourself sitting in front of your shiny new iMac in an ivory tower with a view of the lake?
  • For an auditory role: How does it sound to be the one who gives a presentation to the Board every week?
  • For a kinaesthetic (feeling) role: What would it feel like to be the first person to make 96-year-old Mrs Brown smile for the first time in a fortnight?
  • For an olfactory role: Fancy waking to the scent of fresh coffee at 5 every morning?
  • For a gustatory role: Spending your weekdays in the bakery. Tastes good, doesn’t it?

That same principle can apply to brands, products and services, not just jobs.

What this means to you

In short, good copywriting is all about thinking from the point of view of the reader.

To do this, replace every instance of your company name or the words ‘I’, ‘us’, ‘we’ or ‘our’ with the words ‘you’ or ‘your’. I call this bottom-up copywriting instead of top-down.

You’ll mention the company too – of course you will – but do that in the bottom half of your copy, once you’ve already answered the question in the reader’s mind, which is ‘What’s in it for me?’

It’s a simple shift of perspective, but clients tell me this approach transforms their copy like magic!

You also need to be a picky wordsmith, who also understands marketing, psychology and SEO.

Do get in touch if you’d like more information about writing to sell… or if you’d like me or one of my team to produce effective copy for you.

P.S. Here’s the Guardian editor’s take on the topic: Selling yourself is a minefield for all of us – Not just students Here’s how to do it in 600 words

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