A larger-than-life guide to Microcopy
I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
Blaise Pascal wrote that. Years ago. Somewhere in his coveted Lettres Provinciales. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about those letters. Hence the Wikipedia link. But that’s okay. We’re talking about microcopy today, anyway.
If you were wondering, I wasn’t the first to obsess over Pascal’s line. Much more prolific humans than I, like Benjamin Franklin, John Locke and Woodrow Wilson have slung the line around in their own letters.
But, why the obsession?
Pascal’s line sums up the battle all writers face –– how to say more with less. It’s a line more relevant today than it ever has been before, especially in a world of long-winded blog posts that seem to go on and on and on without truly saying anything at all.
Long writing, many times, is a sign of lazy writing and our world is bursting at the seams with plenty of lazy writers.
But, writing short takes work. It takes time. It takes courage.
In Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing he sums up the painful process of chopping your writing down wonderfully well, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”.
That’s something I try to remind myself often. In fact, I believe in this idea of short writing so much, I actually run an entire Medium publication called One Minute, Please? that forces me to continuously work at saying more with less words.
Now, I say all of this because the best writers in the world at following Pascal’s iconic line are UX writers. And, the best examples of Pascal’s iconic line put into action is something called microcopy.
If you’re unfamiliar with either term, don’t you worry. We’re going to dive deep. In fact, we’re going to start diving now…. hold your breath.
What is Microcopy?
Microcopy is a term made popular in the tech space and is used to define the small, tiny bits of copy that either guide a customer or user through an experience or provide a small delightful experience in of themselves.
I break microcopy down into two categories –– physical and digital. In this article, we’ll be focusing primarily on the digital kind of microcopy. But, the physical kind of microcopy shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Side note: while I recommend you read this article from top to bottom, if you would like to skip directly to examples of microcopy, feel free to scroll down towards the bottom.
Now, where were we? Oh, yes. Microcopy.
So, microcopy can be extremely challenging because it is a focused form of copywriting… which is a focused form of actual writing.
So, UX writers have an extraordinarily difficult job when writing microcopy because in just a few words… they have to trigger emotion, give direction, ask someone to buy or get someone to take action. That’s difficult.
Tiny hacks to writing better microcopy.
I have written microcopy for brands like Capital.com, Currency.com, Banuba, Facemetrics and Cove… and while I am constantly learning (and at times struggling) to say more with less words… I do feel I have a solid grasp for writing microcopy. Today, I hope to share a few tiny, very actionable hacks you can start using immediately to write better microcopy.
Cut the fat… cut the fat… cut the fat.
Pareto’s principle, also known as the Law of the Vital Few, says that for any given event 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
So, in a basketball game, 80% of the points are scored by 20% of the players.
In business, 80% of the sales are made by 20% of the salespeople.
In restaurants, 80% of the revenues come from 20% of the customers.
You look to just about any event in any industry and you’ll see that Pareto’s principle applies. Even on my site www.honeycopy.com, 80% of my website’s traffic is driven by just 20% of my website’s blog posts.
That’s fascinating. And, it’s directly applicable to writing microcopy.
In writing, I would say you can get 80%-100% of your point across in 20% of the words you use.
But, it’s one thing to say, let’s try to put Pareto’s law into action. Take another quick look at the words I just wrote under, Tiny hacks to writing better microcopy.
“I have written microcopy for brands like Capital.com, Currency.com, Banuba, Facemetrics and Cove… and while I am constantly learning (and at times struggling) to say more with less words… I do feel I have a solid grasp for writing microcopy. Today, I hope to share a few tiny, very actionable hacks you can start using immediately to write better microcopy”.
There are 60 words in the above excerpt. Let’s see if I can get my point across only using 20% of those words… so in just 12 words.
“I’m going to teach you actionable ways to write better microcopy immediately.”
As you can see, I just said the same thing with far less words… 80% less words to be exact.
When you’re writing microcopy, you don’t have to start by writing microcopy. You can be long-winded and litter the entire page full of pretty adjectives and imagery. But, once you’ve written to your heart’s content. Pull out your knife and start cutting away the fat. Apply Pareto’s Principle.
Ask yourself: what 20% of these words are saying what I’m trying to say? Then, only keep those 20%.
Great microcopy generally follows the imperative sentence structure.
If you hate English class, don’t worry. This shit will actually be interesting. So, in the English language, there are four main sentence structures.
There’s Declarative. We use these to make statements. She had pretty eyes. This product makes you happier. Cheetahs run very fast. Those are all examples of Declarative sentences.
There’s also Interrogative. We use these to ask questions. Will you kiss me? Will you give me your email? Will you eat this chocolate cake? Those are all examples of Interrogative sentences.
Then, of course, there’s Exclamatory. We use these to express an emotion in a way. I love Sheryl Crow! What a dirty mouth you have, Sam! I’m fed up with being treated like dirt! Those are all examples of Exclamatory sentences.
And, finally, there’s Imperative. And this is the most important, especially when it comes to writing copy and more specifically microcopy. Imperative sentences are used to command someone to do something. Give me your money. Download my ebook. Enter your email address. Those are all examples of imperative sentences.
Knowing whether you’ve used an imperative sentence is easy –– the verb simply comes at the beginning of the sentence.
The reason we should use imperative sentences when writing microcopy is because they’re generally shorter and they spark action.
Again, let’s try this out real quick. Take a look at how the sentence below can be improved drastically by turning it into an imperative sentence...
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Here’s that same sentence written in the imperative form...
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As you can see, the first one feels like a thought. Whereas the second sentence, written in the imperative form, entices the reader to take action.
That’s the power of imperative sentences.
When writing microcopy, we don’t have a lot of time to get the reader or user or customer to do what we want them to do. So, we need to be as efficient as possible with our language. In my opinion, imperative sentences are the most efficient sentences when it comes to writing microcopy… or copy for that matter.
Your microcopy is a living, breathing organism that’s constantly evolving.
Microcopy is never quite done. It’s constantly evolving, becoming sharper, crisper and clearer. Just a couple weeks back, I was working on a pop-up email opt-in on my site. At first, it was converting poorly, around 1%. So, I tweaked the pop-ups header from “Sales feeling a bit static?” to a sharper and crisper “Sales a bit static?”
By simply removing the word “feeling” and keeping all other copy on the pop-up the same, my conversation rate doubled from 1% to 2.4%. My goal is to keep tweaking the copy on this pop-up to eventually have it convert at 10%. We shall see.
Anyway, the point is this –– your microcopy is never quite done and that’s what makes it so damn powerful. Test and re-test your copy to see how it’s converting and use your readers and users as a means of improving copy that might be clunky and unclear.
Don’t be afraid to add some humor, oomph and pizzazz.
We’re separated by a screen. It’s the same screen that’s separating you from your customers. This screen is wonderful in many ways.
It allows a tiny shoe store in Nashville, Tennessee to sell shoes to folks all around the world. Yet, unfortunately, with this screen comes some not so great things too. It removes the really warm things that make us human –– eye contact, smiling, belly laughs, kind words and the type of human connection that can only be experienced in person.
Microcopy and copy, in general, can be used to add in these human elements that have been removed as we’ve become separated by screens –– it can be the equivalent to a wink, a snicker, a pat on the back or a clever remark. It gives your brand personality. It makes your brand feel human.
This is something I constantly think about at Honey Copy –– how can I make Honey Copy feel like a person someone is having a conversation with?
As you craft your microcopy, write it the way a human would write it or better yet… the way a human would say it. I’ve included a handful of microcopy examples down below and what you’ll notice is that they all sound human.
Examples of my favorite microcopy.
We’ve talked about it. Now, let’s take a look at some examples. Below I have compiled a curation of my favorite microcopy. These examples should serve as inspiration and hopefully, they'll spark a few ideas as you begin to write your own microcopy.
1. Basecamp –– we’ve been expecting you.
2. RX Bar –– logos we hope will impress you.
3. Gumroad –– do more of what you love.
4. The Hustle –– your smart, good looking friend.
5. Medium –– feeding minds.
6. Robinhood –– coming soon.
7. Hypergiant –– tomorrowing today.
8. Spotify –– millions of songs.
9. Honey Copy –– let her fly.
10. Very Good Copy –– learn to persuade.
That’s it for today. Give me a shout if you have any questions that come up while you’re crafting your microcopy. I’m just a call away.
By Cole Schafer.
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