What makes a good copywriter?

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting

There are, of course, many different types of copywriter. Some of us spend weeks thinking up a three-word slogan for IBM. And others write a thousand words on sprocket solution services in Cardiff before breakfast. Some of us are all about creative ideas; some deal in user experience; some focus on technical accuracy. But whatever your focus in terms of markets, channels or clients, there are certain traits you can’t live without. Here’s my take on what they are.

  • Writing ability. Although self-confidence is important, you really know your writing’s good when other people start saying so. If you’re regularly thanked for improving a piece beyond recognition, or expressing something others have tried and failed with, then that’s a sign you’ve got what it takes to make it as a copywriter.
  • Listening ability. Getting the words out of your head is just the dénouement. The main drama consists of understanding the brief, the client’s business, the product and the benefits. And that means being able to listen. I don’t mean just physically, in the sense of paying active attention during a meeting or a phone conversation. ‘Listening’ in a broader sense also means being open to ideas, interests and angles. You may have to to dig deep into projects you may have no natural affinity for, or interest in. But every business, every product has a story waiting to be told; it’s the copywriter’s job to find it and make it interesting.
  • Cultural awareness. Hypocrisy here from me, because I’m extremely bad at this one. If you’re going to put together ads or other media that can cut through the cultural clutter and differentiate themselves, you need to know what’s out there. You also need to know what’s happening in terms of music, fashion, film, language, design, retail and anything else that might affect your message, however tangentially. The best copywriters have their finger on the pulse – not just of ‘youth’ markets and media, but of everything that’s going on. Watch, listen and stay attuned.
  • Humour. On one level, you’re going to need humour when the client rips into your lovingly crafted idea, or attempts to create a monstrous content Frankenstein’s monster by bolting on their own. While being uptight or precious might mark you out as a true creative in some circles, it’s not going to make anyone’s life easier, including your own. Professionals roll with it. If your main idea survives intact, you’ve won the war. On another level, you need humour if you want to bring it into your work, which is needed sometimes – though not nearly as often as some marketers believe.
  • Tact and diplomacy. Closely related to listening and humour is the ability to explain or justify your work without ranting insanely or sounding like a sulky child. Sometimes, the very best ideas don’t get into the party unless they’re chaperoned by a rock-solid explanation. Indeed, the better and more original the idea, the more likely the client is to feel uneasy about using it. At other times, you may need to respond politely to client drafts, or the request to ‘fit in’ their much-loved, but rubbish, corporate tagline. If you can get your broad brushstrokes past a client while still making them feel like they thought of everything, you’ve won.

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