The Beginner’s Guide to Writing Long-Form Copy
Writing long-form copy can be daunting. If you suddenly find yourself in need of 4000 words by the end of the week and you know nothing or next-to-nothing about the topic, you might feel like you’re looking at a vertical wall you need to climb.
The good news is that it isn’t as vertical as it looks – like many problems in life, it can be broken down into a number of much smaller steps that are a lot easier to tackle.
- Start with Research
The easiest way to start putting together long-form copy is to gain a general understanding of the topic (if you haven’t already mastered it – and maybe even if you have. A refresher never hurt anyone) and then start looking at specifics.
What you want to do is put together a small library of information, including specialist quotes, facts, and figures. If you’re looking to build the copy from an SEO perspective, this is also the right time to do keyword research. You don’t need to worry too much about organising it all at this stage – you’re just creating a resource from which you can begin to build your piece.
Ideally, you want your resource bank (minus keyword research) to be as many words as possible without actually writing any unique copy yet. Copy and pasting interesting information is more than sufficient. If you need to write 2000 words and you have 1000 words of solid information, you’re already well on your way to finishing the piece.
- Organise your Headings
Once you have your resource bank, the next step is to arrange it. Personally, I do this using bullet points, putting a “headline” as the further left bullet and adding points to it with more information, stepping the bullet to the right for each layer of specificity and to help with grouping related ideas. If you are including keyword targeting, you may also want to start putting in bullets showing where each keyword might sit.
Again, you don’t need to be writing any significant unique copy yet, though if you think of a good turn of phrase or a way to link ideas, it’s worth including for your own reference later.
By breaking this information down into sections, you’re giving yourself a number of subheadings or headlines to fill out. Ten 600-word sections are much less scary and much easier to write than one 6000-word piece.
Once you have these groups, you can put them into an order that tells more of a continuous story. Starting with an introduction (in note form, you don’t need anything more than “Introduction” at this stage – it’ll evolve naturally once you know the rest of the story) can be very helpful for framing the structure.
Then it’s usually best to have the subheadings that introduce the topic – “What is X?”, or “Who are Y?”. Bonus points – these will help to produce Google’s featured snippets if you use the subheadings as part of the actual copy.
Develop from there into more complex or specialised topics, forming as much of a natural progression as possible.
With your resources attached to each of these sections, you’ll be starting to create a story before you even begin writing – which will give you a clearer idea of what you want to be saying throughout the copy when you start writing.
- Organise your Content
Within the sections you’ve created, you want to be organising the resources you’ve built. Certain pieces of information will work well in tandem to tell a story without any additional content – a figure-based piece of information like “10,000 people a year pay their taxes” pairs nicely with a “how people pay their taxes” keyword and “Government officials say that this is too low” quote to start saying something.
This also begins to fill out the piece using both the research and content, making it not only longer, but easier to read as a natural flow develops.
At this stage, it may also be worthwhile highlighting areas where you could add summaries or conclusions on previous information, if appropriate to the piece.
These summary sections are an opportunity to reiterate key points, as well as to draw out unique pieces of information. Even if you’re not dividing these into new sections, you can start writing down statements at the end of each point that draw the focus to the most important parts.
- Write your Content
The good news is that if you’ve followed all of the steps so far, you will have already written at least 50% of your copy. Facts, figures, and keywords will saturate your piece and give it value before you even put your own pen to paper (or more likely, fingers to keyboard).
Now that you’re actually writing, much of what you’re creating will just be there to make your resources easier to read. For example, using the resources mentioned in “Organise Your Content”, you might write: “This is how taxes should work, but this isn’t sufficient to tell you how people pay their taxes. For context, 10,000 people a year pay taxes – but Government officials say that this is too low.”
This uses all three pieces of your data to tell the reader more information than each individual part – it becomes a story (and much more pleasant to read along the way).
- Review your Work
Once you’ve filled out each section, it’s a good idea to step away from the piece for a while if you’re able to. Putting distance between yourself and the copy gives you time to muse on it – sleeping on it is ideal.
Whether you get time or not, you need to review your piece. Not just for proofreading, though that’s vital. Reading through your piece gives you more of a sense of the flow you’ve built up with your various planning stages to see if it actually reads like a continuous story.
You also want someone else to have a read of your copy if you can. Someone else’s input will be completely different from your own thoughts – and can offer an insight into which parts don’t read well or don’t make sense.
This is also a valuable stage for integrating with design if there are going to be design elements to your copy. You can use your read-through to identify the parts of the copy which need to draw the most attention, and have design highlight them in particular.
Following all of these steps should make writing long-form copy a bit less intense – but it’s likely that it still might take you several days to complete the process. You can now return to your hibernation and rest easy… At least until the next 10,000-word article rolls around.
By Robin Newnham - 19/12/2017