A lot of the oft-cited characteristics of a quality a copywriter are so obvious that one can’t help but wonder if they were written by writers at all. How many must begin with some variant of “strong writing skills,” “a knowledge of the English language,” or the ever-ambiguous “creativity.”
Any professional copywriter, without expectation, possesses all of them.
And if the goal of these articles is to take the obvious route, I’d at least like to see one recount the other traits most professional writers seem to have in common -- bouts of anxiety, an all-consuming drive for perfection, and a constant battle with imposter syndrome, in which each well-received piece is credited to a stroke of luck and that the next will ultimately expose you for the fraud you are. You know, the usual.
What I’m getting at here is that if we make the (correct) assumption that every copywriter already possesses the pre-requisites, what then separates the great from the so-so?
As far as we’re concerned, a good copywriter is:
1) A Top-Notch Researcher and Interviewer
In an ideal world, a copywriter would also be a subject matter expert, able to rely solely on his immense knowledge to write compelling copy. More often than not, though, copywriters will need to pivot from client to client and sometimes industry to industry. As such, they’ll need to get up to speed -- quickly.
Effective research is not limited to a few Google searches or pouring through collateral that a client may have provided. Although an important and necessary step to a job well done, truly effective copywriters know that interviewing the appropriate stakeholders is just as imperative for two reasons.
One, a conversation with a vested party provides a different point of view, which can help frame the direction of the copy. And two, interviewing an expert is a more efficient way to get to the core of what’s important, as opposed to trying to discern it from a wealth information sans context.
When it comes to why it’s important to understand your audience, legendary copywriter David Ogilvy said, “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”
Quality copy, be it ad copy, ebooks, blog posts, or headlines, is more effective when understanding what the intended audiences thinks, speaks, and searches for. Otherwise efforts can result in campaigns that totally miss the mark.
Of course, gaining an intimate knowledge of an audience is not possible without the necessary research and interview skills.
3) Thirsty to Learn, but Knows When She Is Quenched
A copywriter can conduct research and interviews, but without an innate thirst for knowledge, her efforts are unsustainable. Chances are, though, that by already working as a copywriter and reading articles about the qualities of an exceptional one, the desire to learn exists. It’s actually the inverse that persists.
Sometimes copywriters become so wrapped up in learning the minutiae of whatever it is they’re researching that they’ll delay writing, believing that there must be some component they overlooked that will strengthen their copy. In other words, they’re unable to see the forest through the trees.
Quality copywriters know their goal should be to learn as much information about the product and the audience as possible to write effective copy -- and nothing more. On tight deadlines, becoming an expert is not viable.
Here’s a secret about copywriters. At some point or another most copywriters either a) wanted to be a writer, b) are currently writers on the side, or c) are trying to become a writer. Though both creative and involving the written word, copywriting, unlike journalistic or creative writing, is about selling a good or service. Yes, well-written work obviously does a better job at that, but at the end of the day, writing isn’t the product -- it’s a tool used to sell one.
It’s an important distinction. Bad copywriters often stuff their work with purple prose or other literary devices in an attempt to make some sort of high-minded art out of an innocuous project. Or if they’re a little more sophisticated, they try to harken back to the golden age of advertising and long-form copy.
Good copywriters, on the other hand, understand the modern world. They’re knowledgeable about how consumers skim and read, understand the importance of an attention-grabbing headline, can articulate the sales and marketing objectives, and know a thing or two about SEO and keyword optimization. They save the other stuff for after work.
To write is to create something from nothing. As such, the thought of killing your darlings can be a difficult one to bear, even if in doing so the copy becomes that much stronger. But it’s the price that comes with working in such a subjective field.
Always rejecting feedback from others is never a good idea. It can lead to resentment growing and productivity suffering if colleagues feel they are walking on eggshells. Good copywriters believe in their convictions but understand that they may not always be right.
Though good copywriters should be open to feedback, he or she should also defend their ideas where appropriate. This could range from the small (word choice) to the big (overall direction of the copy). The goal is not to be combative, but to clearly explain the the thought process that led to the decision.
The truth is clients, editors, and colleagues may not always be right, so a good copywriter doesn’t need to immediately acquiesce. The effective copywriter knows the best course of action is to open to a dialogue where everyone can bring their thoughts to the table.
7) An Anti-Perfectionist
If a copywriter waited until he or she was “done” with a piece before sending it off to a client, no work would ever be accomplished. What Leonardo da Vinci once said is true, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
All serious copywriters innately approach their work hoping to create the perfect, career-defining piece. And more often than not, they’re left unsatisfied. They’ll think “If I just had a little more time,” as they try to capture what seemed so perfect in their head.
Good copywriters realize that the pursuit of perfection -- while noble -- is futile. They know that they can go on tweaking forever, but understand that “good enough” is exactly that.
8) Willing to Seek Help
Writing is a solitary activity. Sure, the planning and outlining can be collaborative, and the feedback phase will involve multiple parties, but the actual task of writing can only really be done by a singular person. As a result, many copywriters have the tendency to view themselves as a “lone wolf,” but nothing could be further from the truth.
No writer became skilled through their own efforts. Through their education and into their career, teachers, professors, editors, and colleagues provided guidance. A good copywriter knows that the mentor/mentee relationship never stops.
Copywriters should seek out mentors who can continually push them to achieve more in their career. Unlike editors that provide feedback on an individual piece of work, mentors provide “big picture” advice necessary to navigate the up-and-downs of a creative career.
No, we’re not talking about novels, though that’s good too. An exceptional copywriter is always aware of the latest industry trends, often perusing publications like AdWeek, Advertising Age, Digiday, and the ... Agency Post. They never rest on their laurels, and they cringe at coming across as out of touch.
Plus, reading helps copywriters continue mastering the English language.
Originally published Mar 15, 2016 9:00:00 AM, updated October 07 2019