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Microcopy: Why do Some Tiny Pieces of Copy Matter?
What is microcopy? A definition of microcopy would be little (five to thirty words) pieces of copy that are longer than a headline but shorter than, say, a microblog.
Is microcopy worth learning for copywriters that charge by the word? It is not about profit, but writing microcopy is not a must only for copywriters.
Webmasters, publishers, and everyone else that works with words must learn to write microcopy. It has many uses, and it is always good to be able to confer power to minimal expressions of writing.
My definition of microcopy is this: microcopy is the copywriting equivalent of poetry’s epigram or literature’s aphorism. They are all similar in length, but they serve very different functions.
Comparing microcopy to poetry and other forms of writing may sound unrelated at first, but when you stop to think about it, it makes all the sense.
Microcopy might be one of the most artistic types of copywriting, after a fashion.
More precisely, rather than being an art form of copywriting, microcopy is probably the branch of copywriting in which other kinds of writers coming from other occupations might easily give their first steps as copywriters, and feel at home from the beginning.
I believe microcopy is going to be easy for you if you come from either poetry or screenplay writing. If you do, there are a few rules that you already learned that make all the sense for microcopy, and you are going to be able to write this kind of copy easily.
In poetry as in screenplay writing the writer has to fit a lot of narrative, emotions, and situational and character development into very restrictive parameters.
It is a fact that when you are restricted like this, instead of frustrating your creative power, the restrictions enhance it because you are forced to refine the ideas to their bare minimum expression while retaining the essence that you expressed with more words.
You aren’t going to mutilate the ideas, you are going to do everything that is in your power to find a way to condense them by a high percentage, and you aren’t going to stop until you are saying the same thing, and producing the same effect in the reader with 50% to 75% fewer words.
Below are a few rules from poetry and scriptwriting that apply to microcopy.
Rule One: Less is More (Screenwriting)
Screenplay writers must be alert all the time about the number of words they use in the lines of both action and dialog. The simpler and shorter a paragraph of action, the more space it leaves for describing more action or adding more dialog. The page real estate of screenplays is very limited, taking into account that most screenplays must be around 120 pages or less and that there is a lot of blank space involved due to lines of dialog.
There are many tactics to implementing a less is more strategy when writing. Examples of these tactics are:
Don’t write compound sentences. Only simple ones
Don’t use the passive voice. Be on the alert for gerunds and rewrite the passages where they appear.
Show, don’t tell. Write action as visually and realistically as possible, and never dump things that can be shown or just suggested into the dialog.
Like when writing screenplays, in microcopy the fewer words you use to connect with the reader, pitch a brand’s message, and highlight one or several benefits, the most effective and memorable the piece of microcopy is going to be.
Rule Two: Kill Your Darlings (Screenwriting)
It is said that never, but never, the first draft of a screenplay makes it to production. It’s always implied that when a screenplay writer writes a script, there is going to be at the very least a second draft.
The actual case is that almost all of the scripts that become movies did go through many rewrites and drafts. One technique that scriptwriters use when they run out of pages, or when a screenplay that’s not that good needs to be rewritten is killing your darlings.
To kill your darlings means to be ruthless with one’s writing, and deleting everything that on subsequent readings seems to be superfluous.
Killing your darlings in the case of microcopy copywriting isn’t going to be the obliteration and maiming that a perfectionist script writer might apply to a screenplay, but still is going to be a tool that you must use without any compunction.
Rule Three: Prosody (Poetry)
Prosody is the art of writing poetry that follows a metric pattern. No, this metric doesn’t have anything to do with analytics or marketing.
I’m talking about metrical feet, the quasi-mathematical way of making verses of poetry sound rhythmical. Ordering the words in such a way their stressed and unstressed syllables follow a regular pattern.
Three of the most common feet are:
Iamb: Unstressed + Stressed
Anapest: Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed
Trochee: Stressed + Unstressed
Using metrical feet in your copy and microcopy gives it a certain punch that makes it sound much better. Because the sentences sound great, the microcopy ends up becoming much more memorable.
Rule Five: Rhetorical Devices (Poetry)
Rhetorics aren’t just a weapon of oratory. They are used in poetry too, albeit sparingly. It’s a resource that poets are advised not to abuse, and not every poem needs to have a rhetorical device in it. Yet, they sometimes help in giving extra emphasis to a poetic image or idea, by causing a heightened effect in the reader.
If you are going to use a rhetorical device in your microcopy, as in poetry, is only going to be a single one because two are going to make the piece very unnatural.
Some of the commonest rhetorical devices:
Parallelism: expounding two opposed statements one after the other.
Personification: giving human qualities to something that’s not human.
Synecdoche: using a part of something to suggest the whole.
Alliteration: starting all or most of the words in a sentence with the same letter.
How To Write Microcopy
Suppose that you have to write the microcopy for a website’s landing page. You might have been waiting to do it because of a great idea you want to develop. You are inspired. You sit down and presto, your idea flows right into the word processor in one go.
Five minutes later you finish it and realize that the idea that inspired you, that you wanted to use, is there alright. Still, your idea for that microcopy piece that should have taken between five and forty words took you 150 words to express.
Don’t think you aren’t good because your first draft is a bloated microblog instead of a piece of microcopy. It is good that the first draft of it is wordy because in the next five minutes you will kill your darlings and strip the piece to actual microcopy.
How do you do that? Simply check the sentences. First, extract the several that expound the one or two benefits you want to convey. Then extract the call to action.
Once you have one, two, or at most three simple sentences that convey the idea, refine them. The call to action, skim it until it’s a very short phrase that would fit inside a button.
Count the words again. If they are below thirty or at most forty, good. Your microcopy piece is done, for now, return one or more days later and revise it before dispatching it.
If after skimming the copy, it is still is longer than thirty-four words, but the idea and pitch are greatly put, then try to change the longest words for synonyms and see if doing that allows you not just to decrease the total count of letters, but also to do away with a few of the words.
Types of Microcopy
If you want to learn how to write microcopy from examples, I suggest that you create a sweep file of landers. Get a program to create screen captures, and take screenshots of the best landers you come by.
Keep all the screenshots in a folder on your computer. They will come in handy when you need inspiration and guidance before writing microcopy pieces.
Most digital businesses have landing pages and these landers most of the time is just a hero image, sometimes a video, a piece of microcopy, and a call to action in the form of a button or form. Nothing else.
They generally look great, but their purpose isn’t to show the world what a cool company owns the website where you just arrived, but to capture you and suck you into their business funnels. Hence the call to action.
The CTA buttons at the end of these types of microcopy might serve different purposes like:
Subscribe to receive updates (join their mailing list)
Get a lead magnet (which, coincidentally, will also sub you to their list)
Explore their membership/service plans (pitch)
Learn more about a product or service (presell it to you)
Recommend the site to a friend (viral technique)
You Might Already Have Written Microcopy…
...and you still haven’t realized it. If you are a webmaster or a SEO copywriter, you have been writing microcopy since you became one. I mean, you wrote meta tags, didn’t you? That’s microcopy.
Trying to condense the idea of an article in 120-155 words, and at the same time, making it persuasive for it to attract searchers is pretty much the same process of creating microcopy, only with a different name.
I think that calling the title of an article, and the meta title tag, microcopy is stretching it. But if you stop to think about it for a moment you will realize that the best headlines and meta title tags are great microcopy. In less than seventy characters you must create both a condensed version of an article and a call to action.
Meta Description Tag
Meta tags are an essential type of SEO microcopy. Believe it or not, meta tags are still important. While not as important as fifteen or twenty years ago, two of the three meta tags are still required.
Except for the keywords tag, which is of dubious value, the meta title, and meta description tags serve a function in SEO. Roughly put, your title and description tags must have an appropriate copy to reinforce the website’s SEO. But that’s not all, they also have to be excellent for searchers to be attracted by them to the article.
You might have written an excellent article, but if the headline (or in this case, the meta title that appears as the title of the page in search results) is not great a tiny piece of microcopy that convinces the reader to click it to read the full article, then the effort you did invest in writing it will be wasted.
Secondary SEO Microcopy
SEO snippets of copy, like the description of pages, their title, and other snippets, like for instance rich media copy, need to be filled for each page and post of a website to be SEO-optimized. This is to say that you must have a grand SEO scheme, covering the whole of the website, and on top of that, you must have a page SEO plan.
The individual on-page SEO of your website’s content must be customized for each page and post in particular, at the same time, the on-page SEO of the individual page must fit inside the grand SEO scheme of the whole website reinforcing the SEO of the whole site.
A mistake when filling the metadata of individual pages is overlooking the conflicts that the SEO tweaks you apply to it create with the SEO optimization of other pages on your website.
Keeping secondary SEO snippets of microcopy size has a few advantages. The most important is probably how easy it’s to tweak them in the case they conflict with other silos of your website by being out of place and diluting the relevancy of the silos.
Tertiary SEO Microcopy
Copy that is meant to build the content that you’ll use with web app integrations, like rich media, is another type of SEO microcopy that you shouldn’t overlook.
While it may be less important than the two others it should be customized to be appropriate for each of the integrations in which the microcopy is going to play a part.
Take, as an example, website back-end plugins that add have fillable fields for Google’s rich snippets and/or Facebook’s OpenGraph. One of these plugins may give the option to copy the page’s metadata verbatim to use as the copy for those integrations. That is a nice feature to have, but at the same time is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Image if you have different SEO strategies employing different keywords for your website and the social media channels for which you’ll use the integrations. In that case, copying the metadata of the page to the integrations isn’t good, since you may want to employ the keywords of a different SEO strategy.
Nevertheless, it’s always a better practice to change the microcopy of these integrations for each channel, for it to be slightly or substantially different between themselves, and in turn, different from the one built into the main piece of content.
Microblogs are short pieces of copy (i.e., microcopy) or content that are meant to be shared as updates, or used as entries on microblog sites.
I haven’t found a consensus on how many words a microblog is, or after what number of words it ceases to be a microblog and becomes a blog post. I would propose these lengths as a guideline:
1. 3-40 words: Microcopy
2. ~10 to ~300 words: Microblog
3. 140-280 words: SEO-Optimized Microblog
4. 300+ words: Regular Blog Post
5. 600-1000 words: SEO-Optimized Blog Post
Probably some microblogs go way beyond the length of copy that can be classified as microcopy.
Still, like in the case of push notifications, microblogs have the potential to become difficult to produce when the space is limited and they must follow an SEO scheme. Because of that, it’s always desirable to enhance their narrative and communicative powers by adding images, photos, or another type of visual sourced media.
Photo and Image Captions
That a caption is just a supportive piece of copy that is somewhat dwarfed by the image or photo that it supports, doesn’t mean it can’t be a great copy that helps your overall SEO strategy.
If you are going to optimize your website for image SEO, then complementing great photos and images with great captions can give your image SEO a considerable boost.
If you need microcopy for push notifications, like with any other piece of microcopy, don’t believe that anyone can write them because they are not just negligible in size, but also a kind of throw-away kind of copy that has a one-time use.
The shortest the copy, the more optimized it has to be for the length in words to serve a purpose effectively. Given that push notifications are not only extremely short but also disposable content, it’s not easy to create an actionable copy in such a short space. And when you do, you may regret that it is going to be used just once.
© Martin Wensley, 2022 — Some Tiny Pieces of Copy Matter: Microcopy