So You Wanna Be a Copywriter…

Long before blogs, before desktop publishing, before offset printing, before movable type… we communicated through manuscripts and scrolls. Back then, writing mattered. Authors were philosophers, historians, poets and scholars. Today, not so much.

Oh, there’s no denying progress. Movable type fueled the fires of literacy; offset presses made books affordable; desktop computers gave individuals the power to publish, and the internet gave everyone a voice. But no one anticipated, in all of this progress, what the impact would be on the profession of writing.

Today, young people still rush off to college to become writers (as if there were jobs waiting for them); unemployed marketers keep repositioning themselves as freelance copywriters (only to become unemployed at a lower pay scale); and entrepreneurs-turned-publishers churn out email blasts and newsletters (almost as fast as their customers can delete them).

Discouraged? Don’t be. Copywriting is still a noble (though not lucrative) career. And you can be successful, if you stick to a few basic rules…

  1. Slow down and listen. Everyone is in such a hurry to express themselves, today. Particularly the writers. Maybe we’ve drunk too much of the social Kool-Aid; maybe we’ve forgotten that writing – good writing – isn’t all about us. Certainly copywriting isn’t about us. In fact, “writing” may be the least important part of the copywriting process. The most important part would be listening. Close behind is taking notes. Copywriters don’t write about themselves; they seldom even write in their own area of expertise. That’s why good copywriters work hard to get inside their clients’ heads.
  1. Take time to understand the markets you’re writing for. Effective copywriters care less about how well they write than how their readers react. And so, they invest a serious amount of energy figuring out how their readers think and what they value. Knowing your readers makes it a lot easier to write in a voice they’re willing to listen to.
  1. Understand the buyer’s motives. Most copywriting is done in a business setting – because that’s where the money is. So lots of business writers focus on “benefits.” But people seldom make decisions based on rational motives alone. People want to believe in what they do, so an effective copywriter must appeal to the soul of the buyer.
  1. Don’t get too close to your work. I’m not suggesting that copywriters shouldn’t take their writing seriously. Professional writing is always serious, even when it’s humorous. But copywriters who get too close to their work seldom see the flaws. What’s more, they’re the first to be damaged in the cross-fire of criticism.
  1. Be honest. Seasoned copywriters avoid assignments that require them to write about something they believe has little value. When a copywriter lacks faith in the product, it shows through in his writing. Worse yet, he has to live with himself, knowing he profited from someone else’s loss. In 30 years of marketing, I’ve never known anyone who regretted taking the high road. Then again, if you’re comfortable living a life of deception, you should probably consider a higher paying job – like politics.