What is a copy deck?

What is a copy deck?


A few years ago I wrote an article called, “How to write a copy deck in five easy steps”. It’s still a very popular post, but a recent commenter told me I hadn’t really defined what a copy deck is. And he was right!

So now I’m going to tell you all about copy decks, and how they can really help you create great copy for a website, brochure or anything else wordy.

A copy deck is a single document (usually written in Microsoft Word) that contains all the necessary bits and bobs for a given copywriting project. The term ‘copy deck’ is often used in advertising agencies, where it’s also known as a ‘copy platform’.

If you’d like to buy a copy deck template – you’ll find mine for sale here.

What’s in a copy deck?

I’m sure every writer uses a slightly different format for their deck, so I can only speak for myself here. My copy deck includes:

  • Title page: This has all the project details, including a list of contact details for those involved in the project and a versioning panel that shows the date of each version of the deck.
  • Contents page: A simple table of contents that lets the user quickly jump to the relevant piece of copy.
  • Copy format guidelines: My guidelines are quite extensive, and cover things such as:
    • How should the brand be referred to, and can it be abbreviated?
    • Are full stops required in headlines and sub-headers?
    • Should title case or sentence case be used for navigation and other elements?
    • How should bold, italic and underline be used in the copy?
  • Tone guidelines: How should the copy sound – chatty, authoritative, formal or confident?
  • SEO keyword phrases: If I’m working on a website copy deck, I’ll include a list of SEO keywords phrases that need to be used throughout the copy.
  • Strapline suggestions: If I’m working with a new brand, I’ll work up a list of possible strapline or tag line suggestions.
  • Common elements: With websites, this might include the header, navigation, and footer elements – anything that’s common to all pages. I write it here once so it doesn’t have to be repeated.
  • Page detail: This is where I move into the copy itself. Each page is written into the copy deck with its own page number that matches back to the site map.

How do you create a website copy deck?

When I’m working on a website, I’ll format the copy so it’s easy for the client, designer and coder to understand and use the content. I’ll signpost the page title and meta description, and also point out which elements are graphics and links.

I’ll provide guidance on which headers should be H1 tags, which should be H2 (and so on). And, obviously if I want copy to be bold on the page I’ll bold it in the deck.

If there’s a form on the page, I’ll detail the type of fields I think should be used, such as dropdowns for state (NSW, ACT, etc.) and checkboxes for privacy agreements. I’ll also make it very clear to the client what will (and will not) be seen on the page by greying out all the geeky tech instructions.

Should copy decks include layout?

Some writers argue you should try to lay the copy out so the client can see how it will be displayed on the website. I don’t agree. Many copywriters see designers as the enemy, conspiring to ruin their beautifully crafted words.

They create a clumsy copy layout to stop the evil designers messing things up. Copy decks are all about the words, not the design.

When it comes to information architecture, you need to create wireframes.

I’ve never had a problem with designers sabotaging my copy.

Instead they’re grateful that my copy decks are clear and that I’ve given them the freedom to do their own thing. Microsoft Word isn’t a great tool for ‘designing’ a webpage or structuring content.

So, while my little signposts help, the copy should be flexible enough to let the designer and coder work his or her magic.

Another point to note is that with developments in responsive design, the content you write could look different on different devices. Again, it’s not the copywriter’s role to define this. So I’d argue you should try to keep your copy deck as clean as possible, and not include any layout.

When should you create a copy deck?

Ideally the copy deck should be completed before you start the design. So try to find yourself a copywriter before you start designing your site. I try to get signoff on the core elements (header, footer, etc.) before handing it over to a designer.

This means he or she can start creating a framework knowing that the client has agreed to it. It’s a lot quicker and easier to tweak a Word document than it is to fiddle with a Photoshop file or (God forbid) a coded site.

The more content that can be signed off before the design process begins the better. But be aware that your copy deck also needs to be flexible enough to change as the design progresses. If a designer asks for a little less (or more) content on the Home page, that’s fine.

Often when I see my copy in the design I make a few tweaks as well. It’s all about collaboration after all.

Why use a copy deck?

The whole idea of a copy deck is to make it a single point of reference for everyone working on the project.

It acts as a template for all pages, and provides guidelines on tone, structure and consistency. Because everything is in one neat document, it’s easy for anyone to pick up the project and run with it. This happens a lot in agencies, where creatives move from project to project.

Over to you

So there it is: my simple definition of what a copy deck is, and how I use it to create content for my clients. If you’re a copywriter, how do you pull your copy together? As a client, do you have a preferred way of digesting and approving your content?

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  • Lamese Larney

    I love this, “Ideally the copy deck should be completed before you start the design.”
    Final copy provides designers with more than just text. It is a framework of themes to work within. The process is more efficient if we know the amount of copy and the desired order of communication. We can quote less if we know the job will take less time.

    • Thanks Lamese. That’s what I find. If the designer can see the copy structure of the it makes their job easier Thanks so much for sharing your comment here.

  • BEKDiscordia

    Wow, no one uses them? I feel really anal touting:
    * Copy Decks
    * Product Development Briefs
    * Marketing Plans
    * Content Schedules

    I wouldn’t survive without ’em. You need that structure in order to clarify your own points, have a central repository of reference, and so you know where you are up to (and how far off track you may have gone…ahem).

    Repurposing some of you pages and adding them to my own style guides has been the most helpful thing I have done. So yay for Kate!

    • I think it might just be a terminology thing Bek, other writers use these tools and call them something else? Maybe? Thanks for commenting and for the thumbs up!

  • I’m quite lucky to work closely with a talented web designer/developer on a number of projects, so we generally make decisions together on the design and content, and often come up with interesting ideas that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.

    And while I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘copy deck’, I’ve developed my own version to outline the copy structure and essential elements, using MW notes to denote links and other instructions as required.

    It’s certainly been interesting chatting with other copywriters and seeing how we each manage presentation of our copy – particularly taking on-page and off-page elements into consideration.

    Now if only more clients understood why they need to consider the content considerations BEFORE the design considerations… or at least at the same time!

    • Yes I have a similar relationship with the design dude I use. It makes for a fluid process, and really great websites.

      Agreed finding out how other copywriters do things is so interesting, we are all borrowing from each other and ultimately that will result in better copy across Australia! Thanks for commenting Anna.

  • Kate, the problem I’ve got is that, with every new website copywriting project, I work with a completely new set of web developers and designers.

    So it really helps to present my ideas and my content in a way that’s similar to your copy deck model.

    However, on a very recent project – when I presented a list of keyword ideas, heading level suggestions and then later title tag and meta description content – the web developer got very uppity and accused me of trying to do his job.

    So now I phone the web developers in advance of a project to ensure that there’s no potential for demarcation disputes.

    • Really? I don’t be doin’ with no uppity web developers!

      Seriously though I think it’s a mistake to allow coders (unless they are also trained copywriters) to make decisions about the way the title tags and meta descriptions are written.
      They are part of the overall copy – and need to be written in the same style, tone etc.

      I’m all for a genius web developer giving me some suggestions for improvements. But if I ain’t telling them how to code their CSS files, they ain’t going to be telling me how to write my words.

      Most developers I work with thank me for providing the content in such a clear, straight-forward way.

      But I think your approach is very diplomatic and friendly!!

      • Kate, perhaps I’ve been unlucky in the past, as I’ve had my fair share of patronising web developers who look down upon copywriters, despite my doing everything to make their job that little bit easier.

        Funny thing is – I did once end up having to show a web developer how to code something because he didn’t know how to do it himself (he said that what I was asking for was impossible). And I ain’t joking.

        Now that must surely must give you a good idea of the tyre kickers I’ve had to deal with in my time.

        PS Still admiring the design of your site.

        • Ah you can continue to admire and I will basque in the glow.

          Yeah that is unlucky but there are gittish developers just as there are gittish designers and writers I suppose. I’ve always found the developers I’ve worked with are happy to do their thing. It does help if you know a little code so they can’t bamboozle or patronise you. So it’s lucky that we do!

          • Glad we’re not just dissing web developers and designers.

            As you and other commenters here say, there are many great ones too (such as those who’ve worked with you on your site by the looks of it).

          • Oh no us copywriters are the WORST!

            I actually built this site myself you know 🙂 But yes some recent tweaks were done by professionals.

  • Bill Harper

    “Ideally the copy deck should be completed before you start the design.”

    Iva Davies (lead singer of Icehouse) said in an interview that he always composed his music on a piano because he didn’t want the synthesizer’s sound to interfere with the writing process.

    And that’s why the copy should be written before (and separately from) the design. Despite what the designers may think, our words are the most important thing on the web page/brochure/whatever. And we shouldn’t be limited or influenced by the way they’re being presented.

    For me, even using Microsoft Word can influence my writing a little. I sometimes fiddle around with word choice so there aren’t any big gaps at the end of each line in a paragraph. Maybe those 80-column green screens we had in the early 80s weren’t such a bad idea after all.

    So apart from showing them the hierarchy of the headings, we should just focus on the copy and let the designers find the best way to present it.

    (I just typed “… the best way to resent it”. Might not be too far from the truth.)

  • Hussein Dubai web design

    Just realized this week i realized that copy decks are important

    • Hey Hussein, what made you realise that? Yep super important, don’t start a website without one! Thanks for commenting.

      • Hussein Dubai web design

        Well because i was doing design only and content was handed to me, till i decided to do a website with content I will write
        Do u have an article written about tips of writing and stuff

        • Ah I see 🙂

          There’s a link to a post above re How to write a copy deck in 5 easy steps. But for general writing tips, either click the category on the right or type copywriting into the search. There’s heaps!!

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  • Catherine Horrocks

    Hi Kate. Do you have any advice on how to organise copy when putting a site together? Also is word really the best program to use for copy decks? Was wondering if there was an online system you could recommend, eg, if content writers and loaders working in different locations for example.

    • Hey Catherine, I know that some other copywriters use Scrivener that allows you to more easily move bits of copy about in the deck, like index cards.

      I do prefer Word for decks though, I’ve tried so mahy other platforms and although it has it’s faults, it’s still my fave.

      And I use basecamp to organise my copwyriting projects, this allows other people to review and upload information.

      Of course you can also use Google docs. Hope that helps!

      • Catherine Horrocks

        Thanks Kate. I have done some further investigation and it seems that others here have used word on google drive. This will help solve problem of having writers in different locations. I did think I heard something about word being problematic at the content loading stage? We are using Squiz as a CMS.

  • James

    Hi Kate

    Is the copy deck you use (and the one you have for sale) the same ‘document’ format you use to present the final draft also.

    I just want to ensure i am not missing some other ‘software’ other than Microsoft word that is used for the final copy presentation.


    • Hey James, yes it’s the same one. I present in Word, so the client can edit and track changes.

      Then I clean up and remove all their edits/fix them etc. before I send back.

      When I’m completely finished I send the final draft along with an end of project sign off doc, which releases me from any further changes and transfers the ownership/ copyright of the copy to the client. Hope that helps

      • James

        It sure does thanks!

  • Do you simply use Microsoft Word for your copy decks? I’d love to know!