Do you ever read someone’s work and wonder …
I wish I could write like that.
So engaging. So persuasive. So full of personality.
How does she do it?
All writing gurus tell you: read a lot and write a lot, and you’ll become a better writer.
But does that advice make you shake your head in frustration?
Is your writing not improving fast enough?
Perhaps you’d love to hire a coach or join a writing course. But what if that seems too expensive?
Creating a swipe file is the learning method most pro writers use to improve their writing. They study other people’s content and create a collection with proven examples.
Taking a course or hiring a coach is a faster way to improve your writing skills, but creating a swipe file is free, and it’s a good method for fine-tuning your skills.
The idea of “swiping” is well known across different creative pursuits
In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon shares the following examples:
- The Beatles started as a cover band
- Kobe Bryant watched tapes of his heroes and copied their moves
- Comedian Conan O’Brien tried to copy David Letterman
And I’ve written before how Picasso studied a 17th century painting by Diego Velázquez and created 44 new paintings based on that one painting.
Swiping doesn’t mean plagiarizing
You don’t copy other people’s writing. You use their content to understand how to apply different writing techniques. Swiping is a legitimate method to improve your writing skills, and to become a more persuasive and engaging writer.
A swipe file is a collection of writing examples. These examples can be anything from headlines to blog post openings, and from sales emails to landing pages. Pro writers use swipe files to inspire their content and improve their skills.
Evernote is an excellent tool to set up a swipe file. Organize your swipe file with tags or categories, such as about pages, sales emails, landing pages, blog post openings, headlines, and metaphor examples. Add new content to your swipe file from your smartphone, tablet, or computer.
How does a swipe file help improve your writing skills?
A swipe file helps you understand writing techniques as you can see how others write. It also provides templates for your own writing. A swipe file can even help you overcome writer’s block and save time, as it provides suggestions for headlines, email subject lines, content structures, and more.
How to use a swipe file without plagiarizing
The purpose of a swipe file is to study techniques and templates. Never use it to copy sentences or ideas word by word. To avoid plagiarizing, you may prefer studying texts outside your niche.
How to develop your swipe file
To build a swipe file you have to stop reading and start analyzing content.
The examples in your swipe file are only useful if you understand why a piece of content was written in a certain way.
So, try to figure out why a piece of content is engaging or not, why content is persuasive or not, why content is inspirational or not. When does your mind wander off when reading? Why? What is the purpose of content?
Improve your web writing skills
Looking for inspiration to write a web page?
Study pages with a similar purpose. An about page, for instance, has a different purpose than a product description or home page. An about page highlights why your company is different from others; a product description should sell a product; and a home page should guide different visitors to the most relevant pages on your website.
- What is the purpose of this page? What action should the reader take? Is that action clear?
- What arguments are provided for taking that action?
- How are features and benefits communicated?
- How does the page build credibility and trust? Why do you believe the content?
- How is the information arranged? Is the most important information communicated first? And the least important information last?
An example of how to analyze a web page:
How to Write Seductive Sales Copy Like Apple
Boost your email writing skills
Want to get more opens and clicks?
Start studying emails and add them to your swipe file.
- Why does the subject line entice you to open the email?
- What is the purpose of the email?
- Is all the information relevant or can the email be shortened?
- What is the first line? How does it engage you so you want to read on?
- How does the writer entice you to click through? Do they make you curious? Do they promise you’ll learn something?
Become a better blogger
A blog post consists of several elements: a headline, an opening paragraph, subheads, the main body of the post, and a closing paragraph. You may want to study each of these elements separately.
- What is the big idea in the article? Which problem does it try to solve?
- How does the author try to persuade you to adopt his views or implement his advice?
- Does the structure of the article work? How would you improve it?
- When do you get bored while reading? Is this because of the writing style or unnecessary information?
- Why does the headline grab your attention? Why does it make you curious?
- Why does the opening paragraph pull you into the article? Or why doesn’t it?
- How does the closing paragraph inspire you? Or does the article fizzle out?
- Do the subheads make you read on? Why or why not?
- How have they integrated stories, metaphors, and examples in their writing?
Examples of how to study blog post elements:
Blog post openings: A 3-Step Formula for Captivating Your Audience with a Few Opening Lines
Closing paragraphs: A Rabble-Rouser’s Rules for Writing Kick-Ass Closing Paragraphs
Use a swipe file to discover your voice
A swipe file can even help you understand the different elements that influence your writing voice.
Developing your voice takes time. Don’t fuss about it. Instead, focus on creating content that resonates with your audience.
Experiment and play
The fun of learning a skill is that we can always get better.
Whether we’re learning to write, dance, play the piano, or illustrate, we can experiment with our style. We can observe how others work and integrate their techniques into our work.
We can play with different words. We can explore writing techniques. We can experiment.
This is the beauty of creativity.
Take charge of your learning
I’ve read piles of books about copywriting.
Books are useful to help understand writing techniques.
But books are often not practical enough. So, complement your learning by studying content because this allows you to understand how techniques are applied in practice. This is the exact method I followed to become a better writer: First, understand the techniques by reading text books. Then, understand the practical application by studying real life content.
Don’t try to study everything in one go. It’s overwhelming. Where do you think you can improve most? Which type of content is most important for your business now? Focus on one type of content at a time.