How to write great copy for your online portfolio

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We've shown you how to build a successful online portfolio and covered some of the key basics, teaming up with website-building tool Squarespace to offer some helpful tips. Now it's time to take a closer look at your portfolio's copy and how you present and sell yourself with your writing.

Everyone’s heard of ‘conversational writing style’ but to sell yourself online, you need to write very differently to how you’d talk or chat over email. It’s more like acting – in an authentic true story, told brilliantly from a well-rehearsed script.

Writing is hard. To pull it off, it helps to think of writing text for your portfolio as a different skill = Wordcraft.

Your Raw Material

Avoid Writers' Block with Role Play

Staring at the screen, hoping that text will magically appear has happened to us all. To beat frustration, do a pencil and paper role-play exercise before you go anywhere near the laptop.

Pretend you are on TV, giving a press conference that is going out live to the nation. Both arts and business journalists are asking you precisely who you are, why you’re here, and badgering you to justify why each piece of displayed work is in your portfolio. What are you going to tell them?

Sketch out answers for the arts columnist and the business papers in turn. Scribble reams if you like, and use spider diagrams and mind-maps too. The more material you create here, the shorter the inevitable ‘blocked up’ moments will be later on. These sheets are the monolith you’re going to sculpt your masterpiece from.

Writing to Sell to Human Beings

The big question dominating online readers’ subconscious minds is always, “What’s in it for me?” a.k.a "how will this product/service make my life better, right now?”

That better life is what people want to buy. Which means, in sales parlance, people buy benefits, not features. Features are aspects, specifications, i.e. ten GB of RAM, a 52-inch screen.

Don’t imagine people will automatically calculate how your features will make their lives better; you need to make it understandable.

To sell the above hardware, you would need to convey:

  • How the 10 GB of RAM is so fast, you’ll never get 'buffer face' (to link to the human truth, impatience).

  • How a 52-inch screen gives an immersive entertainment experience where you can shut the world out completely (to play on the human desire for escapism).

Always think one step beyond features. Get into the cause and effect by applying the beneficial effects of features to your knowledge of human desire and emotion - then present the expected results as ‘facts’ that are difficult to argue with.

Further to the salesmanship mind-set, think hard about the questions potential buyers of your product/ service might be asking themselves. What are their pain points? How can you make yourself relevant?

You need to know because you’re pitching yourself as the elixir to their pain.

The Wordcraft Toolkit

Storytelling: still the dominant global art form in our digitally-enabled world

Storytelling is coded in our DNA; it’s how people make sense of the world and an integral part of the human experience. Therefore, to write without narrative is to go against the grain of thousands of years of human communication.

Wherever you can, thread your text into some narrative. One of the simplest ways to do this is to start with an action and build your story with 'therefore' and 'but'.

For example, on your ‘About’ page bio, you might say:

“I went to study graphic design in London but it was costly therefore I got a job at Tate Modern. Therefore, I was exposed to great art all day every day. Therefore, I have an ingrained appreciation of and flair for colour. Therefore, I am a superior graphic designer.”

‘But’ can be used to create antagonistic pressure (conflict) in the narrative, which makes the story exciting and should be used wherever feasible, e.g. to highlight your creative problem-solving skills and ability to work under pressure.

Using 'therefore' and 'but' driven narratives can result in intriguing mini case studies told in two or three lines of copy.

What’s in a Tone?

Good tone awareness means being accessible: using widely-known words in a fresh way, to deliver messages your target audience understand and empathise with. It’s essential to have a considered view on your appetite for humour and aggression, a ‘company policy’ on where you fall on the spectrum of wanting to be liked, respected or even feared.

You need to decide who you are before you know how you’ll ‘speak’. Compare and contrast the voices of Innocent Smoothie, Pret a Manger, PwC and Gov.uk, then work out where you want to position yourself along the tonal spectrum.

Sculpting Your Perfect Copy

Talk to a person: You, You, You.

Now you have your conversational tone; you must address the person you’re talking to. Using a lot of 'you' keeps the readers' subconscious listening - Who? Me? - And using 'I' or 'we' re-positions the text from an ‘abstract concept’ to a ‘story of human endeavour’ - it’s vital to show there’s a human heart behind the screen somewhere. People do, after all, buy people.

Consider SEO from the Get-Go

It’s wise to have a Google Keyword strategy to refer to, as you sculpt your copy. Use the Adword tool, decide what you’re optimising on and sprinkle keywords liberally, but not overbearingly, into your text, with emphasis on your intros and headings.

Next, you'll want to consider the kind of words that are associated with your keywords, because Google will be looking for them and will reward you if you're staying on topic. So if you're a photographer, add in a few words associated with your profession such as camera, lighting and snaps.

Front Load Your Benefits and Relevance

Structure your copy, so skim readers don’t miss the best bits. Get direct to the point. Put your benefits at the very beginning of bullet points, in headings and right beside images.

Demonstrate your knowledge of your readers’ pain points right at the beginning of any longer posts, like blogs and bios. And it always helps to start your storytelling with a bang!

Your value proposition is the distillation of all your benefits, the synopsis of your story, told as succinctly and powerfully as possible. Creating the perfect VP is an article in itself.

Brevity is Beauty

You’ve got the mindset, ideas and raw material. Now you need to find ways to tell the full story, only shorter while leaving nothing of crucial importance out:

  • Go for concise, active sentences (read a little Hemingway to get in the mood. He practically invented website copy best practice)

  • Strip out any superfluous words - be creative and ruthless

  • Try and find ways to use one word in place of 2 or 3 - a good tip is to use a thesaurus for inspiration, but never choose a word you didn’t know anyway (being overly 'wordy' makes your copy pretentious and inaccessible)

  • You can often easily shorten a sentence by reworking the word, action or notion it begins with

  • Purposely trying to make sentences shorter makes a more assured, authoritative tone: i.e. ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ can be retold as ‘daily apples promote good health.’ - you need to find your tonal balance

  • Aim for zero ambiguity. Potential double meanings distract flow.

The Final Polish

There’s a big difference between editing and proof-reading. Editing looks to improve, proof-reading seeks perfection.

Keep an open mind for the first few drafts. Allow all text to be subject to change - structure, tone, emotion, etc. The most important thing you can do is read aloud. Storytelling is an oral tradition, which means words are too. Words are musical; you’ll hear a duff note better than you could ever see one.

Once you’re sure you couldn’t possibly write a shorter, more empathetic, benefit-brimming narrative, give it one last thorough proof-read before uploading.

Be warned; repeated rewrites will leave you suffering from word-blindness, where your brain is only seeing what it wants to see. A super effective way to beat this is Font-Swapping. It’s so simple: if you’ve been drafting in Georgia pt. 11, proofread in Verdana pt36. Change the font, treble the size. You’ll be able to see it as if for the first time.

Things to Never Forget When Wordcrafting

To conclude, to write the perfect copy to support your online portfolio, bear these things in mind:

  • You can’t sell a story till you know it inside out
  • Think ‘salesmanship’ with every word you write
  • Talk to both the business brain and human heart of potential customers
  • Commit the same energy to the text as you do to your ‘main’ skill
  • Tailor your structure to suit time-poor, distracted people
  • You’re striving for it to sound good, not look ok

Enjoy this final quote from prolific horror writer Neil Gaiman:

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard, and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard.”

One Final Note

If you enjoyed these tips, then look out for the next article in this four-part series, brought to you by Creative Boom in association with Squarespace. The website publishing platform makes it easy to create beautiful websites, portfolios, blogs and online stores. For a short time only, Creative Boom readers can benefit from 10% off their first purchase using the code: CREATIVEBOOM.

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