“You just don’t understand…” – the copywriter’s torment

Roadworks sign with a typoArtists like to take some sort of perverse delight in claiming that they’re misunderstood. They’re tortured. They’re frustrated. Nobody understands. At least, that’s what we expect the humble artist to lament mournfully as he or she orders another absinthe daiquiri.

As a writer, I can empathise with that feeling. I want to be understood, but we have a way to go yet with that one. It’s not that my family and friends fail to grasp the nuances of my work. It’s more basic than that. They just genuinely do not get what copywriting is.

To us, it’s pathetically simple. We are copywriters. We write copy.

To them, it’s hard to get their heads around. We are copywriters, on a career path they hadn’t even heard of before we introduced the term. We write for a living, which is weird, because everyone can write. Not entirely sure what makes us so special. And we write… well, they don’t quite know. Possibly chick lit, snarky film reviews, or half-assed biographies of Picasso ganked from Wikipedia articles.

These are our struggles.

Copywriting vs copyrighting

This right here is the bane of my life.

In many cases, we are the ‘copyrighters’ in the sense that we keep our words on the straight and narrow. And because we always love to make a cute pun. Nobody wants to be a copywronger if they can help it. (Apart from maybe this guy.)

The difference, to a non-writer, is negligible. Especially as ‘copywriter’ and ‘copyrighter’ sound identical out loud. I was once sent, with all seriousness, a ‘helpful’ link to a website on copyright law. The conversation went a little like this:

Them: Here’s a website that might be useful for getting more work.
Me: …Are you joking?
Them: No! Found it this morning.
Me: This is ‘copyrighting’, not ‘copywriting’. Completely different thing.
Them: Well, it might still be helpful! I’m being helpful. You should thank me for being helpful.

Unrepentant to the last. Names have been withheld to protect the guilty.

Copywriting vs family honour

I’ve told this story before, but my Grandma in particular was not happy when I first voiced an interest in copywriting. I was abandoning my destiny as the family accountant. The golden child to parade smugly in front of other competitive grans was no more. Her elation at the fact I was going to university was not so much dampened as plunged headfirst into an ice bucket.

Certain professions have a certain reputation – something your family can trade on to their friends.
“Oh, my son is a lawyer.”
“How nice. My daughter just graduated from medical college.”
“That’s lovely for you both. Did you know my niece works at NASA?”

Copywriting isn’t one of those jobs.
“Oh, my son is a copywriter.”
“…I see.”

This admission generally sees the conversation dwindle down to the muted swirling of dregs in Royal Doulton cups. The silence is awkward. You can almost hear the inner dilemma. Is this ‘copywriting’ lark meant to be a good thing? Do we encourage this job that (to your average tea drinker) doesn’t warrant the same respect as, say, becoming a brain surgeon?

I can’t say for sure that my work has ever saved a life. I did write some copy for St John Ambulance a few times, so maybe it has. What I can say is that I have a skill, and that it deserves to be respected. Give me at least that much.

Copywriting vs basic literacy

It’s tough getting people to grasp the concept that someone had to purposefully sit down and write what they read every day. And that they did it earnestly, with conviction. Someone went to the trouble of making that text both informative and readable. It took time. It took effort. It took so much coffee.

The people who make the ‘everyone can write’ argument are the ones who use ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’ in Facebook status updates. They would happily put an apostrophe in ‘sandwiches’ and not be able to see where they went wrong. Apostrophe sandwiches taste like abject failure.

A typo, to this sort of person, is akin to a scar. Ignore it and eventually others will stop noticing. We notice, though. It’s not a scar, this nonchalantly uncorrected typo. It’s a gaping, festering flesh wound that the nearest writer needs to suture immediately.

Copywriting vs other people’s imaginations

Whenever someone asks me what I’ve been writing about recently, and I tell them, inevitably they are disappointed. It doesn’t matter what my answer is. It’s not the one they wanted.

The universal image of ‘the writer’ is of someone drinking neat whiskey at 5am as they bash out some cheap’n’cheerful light novel fodder that could pass as borderline erotica. (Teehee, ‘bash out’.) Using a typewriter, or perhaps some papyrus and a raven feather dipped in squid ink. As is the custom. Quoth the raven: “I am cold.”

Non-writers have romanticised the idea of being a writer to the point that we can only ever let them down. When people call me and I mention that I’m working freelance, they assume I must be either outside or still in my pyjamas. I tend not to work with a drink in hand, or while reclining on a chaise longue and dictating body copy to a sexy topless man. And that’s a real shame, but it’s the truth.

Kady the copywriter vs the world

I like to think I’m helping the copywriter cause in my own way. From the experiences I’ve had, I suspect the first move towards mutual understanding is going to have to come from us.

Yes, this whole post is on being consistently misunderstood. But if I can’t explain copywriting to my mates in plain English then I should hang up my pen in shame. So I am trying.

The non-writers and the sceptical misspellers of this world still don’t completely get it, but we can change that. Let’s break down the language barrier. (It’s a cliche! Copywriter bingo. Everyone take a drink.)

Push past the unease with which you hesitantly accommodate the average Sun reader’s ability. We’ve got to use our powers of explanation for the good of us all.


19th August 2015

Andy Nattan

Preach it sister.

I’ve had enquiries about copyright law, I’ve had a lead throw a wobbly because she wanted “fresh contents no copy” [sic] and I spent half my wedding day explaining to my own family what I did for a living, let alone the new in-laws.

As an aside, I think we’re at either end of the bell-curve if someone plotted the height of PCN contributors. There’s one for the pub quiz at the next #copywritersunite

19th August 2015

Jenii Lowe

Awesome article! In telling people that my services include writing website content and copy, the response I’ve received more times than I can count is “SO YOU MAKE WEBSITES? OMG I NEED A WEBSITE! HOW MUCH FOR A WEBSITE!?” Any of my web copy brethren get this too?

21st August 2015

Jackie Barrie


Yes, me too. Typical response (with a sigh): “No, I don’t do the coding; I do the words.”

21st August 2015

Jenii Lowe

Hi Jackie – great response! Also nice to know I’m not alone!

27th August 2015

Anna Milan

I feel your pain, especially regarding the copywriting vs copyrighting issue.

Several years ago I discovered my own father had been telling everyone I was a website designer. I’d been a copywriter for four years by that stage (and have never been a web designer). Why is it so hard to understand I wonder?

27th August 2015

Kady Potter

Thanks for the replies, everyone. This has been something that’s touched a collective nerve. And the anonymous person who suggested the ‘copyrighting’ site to me has read this post, and still won’t apologise.

On the subject of websites/web design: who also gets “so, how much will it cost to write my website?” I’ve described this as the ‘piece of string’ of copywriting. It might well become my next post…

20th March 2017

Mary Whitehouse

When I first met my sister in law 30 years ago and explained what my job was, she took it literally and thought I meant that I copied writing. Perhaps she imagined I worked in a doctor’s surgery and made the prescriptions legible, I don’t know. But she did comment that it would be a god job for her husband as, “he has lovely handwriting.”

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