Interview with Karen Zaskolny on Copywriting

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Karen Zaskolny from Copy With Cream. Read on for 'what is copywriting?,' more about the copywriting profession and some tips for your business.

What is copywriting?

This term usually refers to copy (words) that are specifically to do with advertising. I tend not to use the term because it’s jargon – the average person hears the word ‘copywriting’ and all they think of is the ‘C’ with the circle round it and they stop listening. Hopefully The Gruen Transfer and Mad Men will change this... but in the meantime, I will continue to say...”I work in advertising and I’m a writer...”

Why is good copy important?

Have you ever sent an email or text that you wish you hadn’t? Getting the words right means the person reading them gets the message you really intended. When we communicate in person, only 7% is to do with the words! 38% is tonality and the remaining 55% is your body language. But when you are writing, it’s 100% words!!! You don’t have tonality or body language to help you get your message across. Or soften the blow. That’s why the words are SO important when you are writing. I also want to say here, that I am seeing a helluva lot of emphasis on key words and SEO. That’s all very well and good, but it’s important to be able to write for people, not just bots and search engines. Otherwise the thousands that flock to your site will just go away again.

How do the skills of a copywriter differ from other professional writing disciplines?

A good copywriter is someone who has a great imagination - it’s about getting into the head of your target audience. And that usually involves simple, conversational language. I call it ‘man-in-the-street speak’. Copywriting is not just about apostrophes and grammar, it’s about getting the message across in the best way. It’s about making sure the ‘voice’ is the voice of the business owner. It’s about writing in a conversational style so that when you are reading good copy, it sounds like someone is talking to you. Effortless. As a copywriter, I first start with strategy. It’s important to understand the business I am writing for - I am not interested in just shuffling words around to make them sound good. In fact, there have been times when I have lost a job because I didn’t want to just take their money and make their words ‘pretty’. I always want to make sure we have the strategy right first.

Just because someone is a writer, does not mean they are a copywriter. I have met some extremely eloquent academics with fabulously large vocabularies who would make rubbish copywriters because they’re not able to get into the head of their target audience. If I can’t understand what they are talking about, the majority of people out there won’t either. I find writers some of my most difficult customers. For example - public servants and teachers. The public servants keep putting jargon back in, and the teachers keep getting their red pen out and correcting me when I write in phrases rather than sentences. Like this. They don’t like it.

What are some of the key differences between copy written for the web and copy written for print?

Actually, I tend to write very much the same for print or web. Obviously with writing for the web, you need to be aware of keywords. But basically, I write in a conversational style, in the voice appropriate, for anything I write for my clients. With websites, it’s not just about the words, it’s about where you put them. I find lots of my clients have great content but it’s all in the wrong place! I help them understand how people navigate their site, and make sure we put the content where it will be looked for. Because people just hate wasting time clicking through to a page expecting to find one thing and finding something completely different. They get annoyed and they go away, never to come back.

What percentage of your work is copy for the web? What is the trend?

These days, probably about 75% of my work is for the web and that’s growing. But gee, it’s taken a long time – much longer than I thought. I was working on websites in Hong Kong in the mid-90s. When I came back to Adelaide and started my business in 1997, almost all of my work was print. I would mention the web and nobody even knew what I was talking about! Today, my business has changed and much of my time is spent not writing but, rather, coaching my clients. I want to empower people to create better content for themselves.

What are 5 things anybody can do to improve their web copy?

  1. KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. An oldie but a goodie.
  2. Check grammar, punctuation and spelling. Apostrophes especially. I have a blog of great advertising and copywriting boo-boos...
  3. Avoid jargon. Every industry has jargon. Don’t use it, you will alienate your audience. If you can find a simpler word to say something, use it. For example..require = need.
  4. Break it up. Nobody wants to read reams and reams of text. It looks too hard. Break it up with subheadings, bolding, bullet points, anything you can to make it easier to absorb.
  5. Cut and polish. Ladies – think ‘diamonds’, gentlemen – think ‘cars’. Cut and polish means edit, edit and edit again. Most of us over-write, so the trick is to cut out the waffle, to polish the words, craft the phrases, get rid of anything that doesn’t help your message. Most people just write something down, then that’s it. The best copy you will read has been edited many, many times.
Are inbuilt spellcheckers sufficient for proofing? If not, what are their short comings?

HAHAHA!!! Too many to list, I can’t believe people rely just on that. It’s a good start but that’s all. Nothing can take the place of printing it off, getting out a ruler and going over it word by word, line by line. And I always advise my clients to get someone else to check their copy. It’s very hard to spot your own mistakes. Another good trick – read it out loud. And then there’s the overnight test – amazing how you can spot a typo (typographical error) instantly if you go away from your copy and come back later. The threat of being sacked for a typo also makes you very vigilant. I am not joking – at J Walter Thompson in Singapore, one of our copywriters was sacked for a typo. She was reinstated when the rest of us threatened to quit, but that’s another story we don’t have time for here...

Is good copy important for short messages such as tweets and facebook updates?

Yes. I am not a tweeter or a facebooker, but I believe the fewer words you have to get your message across, the more important they become. In this fast-paced world where everyone’s attention span is reducing rapidly, you’ve only got a couple of seconds to get it right.

What's your opinion of text-speak, twitter-speak and other butchering of the English language brought about by new technology and media?

I actually don’t mind text-speak. I’m lazy, so I’ve been using my own shorthand since highschool HOWEVER!!! The text speak should make it EASIER to understand. And, there’s another problem - most kids can’t spell these days. Text-speak is surely not helping that...

There's a lot of crap on the internet. What are some indicators you use to separate fact from fiction when researching for an article?

I don’t actually spend a lot of time researching on the net or writing articles. I believe nobody knows their business like the business owner, so I actually rely on my clients to tell me all about it. That’s my research. In fact, the writing often takes up less than half the time I spend on a job! Much of my time is spent interviewing my clients and playing ‘20 Questions’. It’s amazing what will come up in a conversation that the client would never think to write down. In fact, that’s usually where the real gems come from. Sometimes that fabulous headline or tagline will be something I hear my client say to me – part of my job is to recognise the gems when that happens. If I do need to fact check, I use the organic search results, not the ads. And I double-check from more than one site.

How much should businesses expect to pay to hire a copywriter?

It really depends on what they need. I say, if you are going to bother with a professional, get the very best you can afford. I’m about middle-of-the-range for Adelaide at $120/hour - but what does that mean? Well, if we have a decent-sized website to overhaul, it might be $1500 or more. But if you want a couple of hours of coaching, brainstorming, web reviewing, whatever – I can help you for as little as $240. Or even for FREE!!! I am an approved consultant with NWBDC, (Pt Adelaide BEC) so they will fund 2 hours of my time to help an Adelaide small business with their advertising, copywriting, website, etc. Contact me to find out more.

What are some things to look at when looking to hire a copywriter?

I think the most important thing is to make sure the copywriter is on your wavelength. Someone could be the very best writer, but if they don’t communicate well with YOU, they are not going to produce what you want. It’s also important to check out some of their work, make sure you like their style, have a chat, and ask lots of questions. Such as...’How much will it cost?’, ‘How long will it take?’, ‘What if I don’t like it?’ etc. I work differently with different clients, based very much on their needs. Everyone has their own way of working, and it’s important to make sure you are a good match.

How can the value of copy be maximised?

Good copy should work hand in hand with good design. It’s important to think about how the words will be presented. More than once I have seen my brilliant copy squished into a brochure in teeny tiny text. In the wrong place. Or put on a website in white text on a black background, or superimposed over a photo. Impossible to read. Waste of money. Makes me feel like screaming, but what can ya do? One thing I can do is try to educate people. When I coach my clients, I also talk about design. I figure I am allowed to, because I studied graphic design before I became a copywriter.

Is there a measurable difference between the conversion rate (conversion being whatever you want the visitor to do on the page) produced by professionally written copy and copy written by an average person?

I am sure there is, but I have no proof. What I do have is feedback from my clients who tell me that they get lots of great comments about how easy it is to understand their web content. Comments they never got when their website was full of their own

What implications do you think Google's recent Farmer/Panda update will have on the web copywriting industry?

I think it will be a real boost – and it’s about time. I am constantly amazed at the poor content on the majority of websites. I am also amazed that people will spend literally thousands of dollars on the LOOK of their website and not even bother much about the WORDS. (“Oh, we’ll do the words ourselves...” Wish I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT!) I also think it might level the playing field – my vision is to teach as many SMEs as possible how to create better copy for themselves. Coaching and my e-book can help them do that.

Can you complete the hardest crossword puzzles in the Advertiser?

I hate crosswords. Always have. I don’t do them. You can’t be creative with a crossword, so they don’t appeal to my right brain. Give me Pictionary or Charades any day... I’m all about being creative first, then using words, second.

What are some useful websites/blogs/apps/tools you know of to help people improve their copywriting?

My e-book. It came about because all my clients were telling me I needed to write a book containing all the information I was giving them in our coaching sessions. The book is called ‘Better ads in 1 hour’ and I wrote it for the small business person who wants to DIY because they only have a small budget. You can read it in 1 hour, or just skip to the chapter you want. It started off being a book about writing but it evolved. I also talk a bit about design, colours, logos, branding, photography and more. My favourite section is the ‘What not to do’ section. Lots of great tips about how to avoid making mistakes on your website, brochure, business card, even vehicle signage. It’s $37 with a 100% money back guarantee and you can check it out at

Do you have any copywriter mind tricks to help when you just can't remember the right word?

Yes, I have a couple of tricks. Write down the wrong word/s and come back to it later. Because good writing is all about editing anyway. Also, water seems to help... doing the dishes, having a shower, going for a beachwalk. The right word will just pop into my head. I also make sure I keep pen and paper by my bed, because unfortunately, 5am seems to be the time my subconscious gets those great ideas...

Bonus Question: How many errors did you find in the questions? Pass.

Thanks to Karen for agreeing to be interviewed and for her insightful answers. You can find out more about Karen's business, Copy with Cream, at her company profile in our Internet Marketing Directory.

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1 Response to Interview with Karen Zaskolny on Copywriting

  1. Tamara says:

    Great comments above in relation to writing for web. It's a hard task to convince businesses to write for the people, not the search engines!

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