I’m often asked for advice by aspiring copywriters who come along to training courses. Some are young and perhaps starting out with agencies. Others are a little older and thinking about a career change. Freelance copywriting is often a good option if you have family commitments, for instance, as it’s something you can do from home.
At one level, it’s a job that doesn’t really require any qualifications. If you persuade someone to employ you to write their copy, you’re entitled to call yourself a copywriter. The guy who’s paid to drive a bus doesn’t have any qualms about calling himself a bus driver.
A word of warning though. There’s more to the job than just the writing. Believe it or not, being good with words is only one part of the copywriter’s role (albeit a rather important part). As a commercial writer, you need to be prepared to take on a number of different personas.
The copywriter as salesperson
It goes without saying that a lot of copywriting is about persuasion. That means you’re effectively acting as a salesman or woman. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing copy for an ad, an email, a web page or for social media. Ultimately, your job is to present a product or service in the best possible light.
There are two real issues here.
The first might be your natural reluctance to launch into a hard sell. (This can be a particular problem for people in the UK, who can consider sales a little vulgar.)
The second, but related, problem is a tendency towards too much warm-up or preamble in your copy. Good sales people do like to strike up a rapport, but they don’t forget that their prospect has limited time.
Remember that if you haven’t grabbed people in the first few sentences, they’re off to make a cup of tea, walk the dog or post that selfie on Snapchat.
The copywriter as psychologist
You need to get under the skin of your audience and understand what makes them tick. This means that good copywriters are amateur psychologists – digging around to understand people’s motivations, aspirations, prejudices and fears.
Some writers are instinctively better at this than others, but everyone can take the trouble to study research findings and then read a little between the lines. On training courses, I show participants examples of copy from various brands and ask them to work backwards – identifying exactly what it is the writer knows about their audience. It’s a good exercise for all aspiring writers.
The copywriter as interpreter
One way of thinking about the role of the copywriter – and indeed, more broadly, the people who work in communications, advertising and PR – is that they act as interpreters between one world and another. Imagine you’re a business responsible for, say, the supply of nuclear energy. You won’t just be communicating to technical experts, but also to a wide variety of other stakeholders – most of whom won’t know one end of an atom from another.
As a writer, especially if you work freelance or for an agency, you may have to learn about many different businesses and organisations. One day, I write about banking or accountancy. The next, I’m selling children’s adventure holidays or explaining the advantages of LED lights. This means patience, research and a willingness to ask stupid questions.
No one expects a copywriter to be an expert, but you are expected to do your homework. Your job is then to interpret your client’s world and make it accessible for the person reading. No pressure.
The copywriter as diplomat
Every time I run a copywriting course, I talk about the importance of compromise. What I teach in training sessions is what we all should do. In an ideal world. All things being equal.
But the world isn’t ideal and all things aren’t equal. Perhaps you have a client who doesn’t like what you’ve done and they want to make changes you believe to be profoundly irrational and counter-productive. Maybe they’ve taken a good idea and destroyed it.
My advice is to state your case and fight your corner. But fight over the big things, not the incidentals.
I remember working with a client whose design agency was – through sheer ineptitude – making one of my headlines impossible to understand. I stood my ground on that one. It was the difference between the client looking credible and looking profoundly stupid. In the big scheme of things though, no one is going to remember that word that got inserted in paragraph five of page four of the brochure you just wrote. So get over yourself already and act the diplomat. We can move on.
The copywriter as magician
Very often writers are asked to do the impossible. They’re given virtually no direction and are told to work some magic. Clients (both internal and external) can be busy, they can be lazy and unfortunately they sometimes don’t know their derrière from their elbow.
‘Can you come up with something?’ they plead.
Your reaction to this kind of question is, in many respects, what places you in the first team or the reserves. Weaker writers will moan and groan and say that they can’t do anything until such time as they’ve had a proper brief. Toys will be lined up along the edge of the pram, ready for service as projectiles.
More confident practitioners will ask intelligent questions and challenge their client, helping to construct some kind of brief where one previously didn’t exist. It’s the kind of skill that tends to come with experience, although there are some people who unfortunately never get it. They gripe and push back, but never take charge of the situation and behave constructively.
As a copywriting chameleon, you’ll distinguish yourself from the writers who simply practise a craft skill. You’ll be adding extra value and building constructive relationships, which will mean a lot in your long-term career.