5 essential skills great copywriters have in common

Anna Gunning

Gunning Marketing

There’s a whole list of funny things I could write here.

Like the ability to spot incorrect apostrophe use a mile away.

Or the ability to rectify Random Capitalisation (which is so prevalent in B2B writing, in particular).

But in all seriousness – this is something I’ve been mulling over recently as I’ve delivered training courses and spoken to secondary school pupils about marketing careers.

Besides the facetious (see above) and the generic (attention to detail, can draft a coherent sentence) – what actual skills are involved in copywriting?

I’ve built a wonderful network of copywriting friends and colleagues over the years – through ProCopywriters, #copywritersunite, agencies I’ve worked in and freelancers I’ve collaborated with.

These 5 skills are based on the less obvious common ground.

1. Processing large volumes of information – and finding the nuggets

You can’t create in a vacuum. You need to understand the product/service, target audience, where they are in the decision-making process and what the market is saying. And that means learning as much as you can, whether it’s through interviews, surveys or desk research.

Once you’ve filled your brain with information, you then need to extract the nuggets that will resonate with the audience and communicate the right message. The classic David Ogilvy Rolls-Royce ad is a perfect example. The headline:

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”

Ogilvy said he spent 3 weeks researching the client before starting to write, and that the headline was a quote from an article The Motor magazine.

He processed 3 weeks’ worth of information and found that nugget buried in an external source (not in company material). Then he used it to boost sales by 50% year on year.

This is a definite knack copywriters have.

2. Taking the subjectivity out of creative

A creative director once asked me: “How do you know when you’ve drafted a strong line or nailed value proposition copy?”

At the time, I had just watched a heist film, so burglary was on the mind – but I stand by this explanation:

“It’s like the movie character trying to break into a safe. He’s got the stethoscope pressed to the side and slowly turns the dial until he hears and feels the click. And he knows he’s cracked it.”

As a copywriter, I feel that click and know I’ve cracked it. And it’s a great feeling. But that analogy doesn’t wash with clients who have budgets and stakeholders and bottom lines. In addition to having creative instinct, copywriters need the ability to articulate the commercial rationale behind an approach.

And that goes back to the research in Skill #1 above. You made choices based on the customer and the market – and great copywriters can explain how what they’ve written uses that insight to pushing the target audience towards the appropriate action.

3. Working collaboratively – and not being precious about your writing

If you’re working in agency or in-house, this is obvious – there’s the rest of the creative team, the account manager and all the client stakeholders.

Even if you’re a freelancer, there’s still collaboration with the client other external team members. You have to get the brief, explain your work product and make amends based on feedback.

Throughout that process, you can’t be precious about your ideas or writing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 15 years of copywriting, it’s that another pair of eyes can always improve things.

That doesn’t mean taking every suggestion on board, but it means being open to other perspectives, knowing why a suggestion would or wouldn’t work, and adapting where appropriate.

4. Editing

I did a Twitter poll with this question:

“Would you ever let a client see your very first draft, before any editing or revision?”

The response was fascinating. 240 people voted (which is a much bigger sample than I was expecting – thanks, everyone!). 71% said no, 29% said yes. People who said ‘yes’ clarified with comments like:

  • “I said yes, but only because I edit as I go, so my first drafts are usually quite polished”
  • “I don’t really write drafts – I write in a doc write in a doc and move the words around and edit as I go. And I probably have a few versions going at once, so that by the time I finish, I’ve got a pretty polished bit of copy, that’s ready to share”
  • “I would and have shown a rough draft to get the concept approved. But technically it wasn’t the ‘very first draft’ as I had made some ‘editing/revision’ to it”

Even those clarifications serve to illustrate a key point – that it’s not about the first words you get on paper/screen. Rather, it’s about the skill involved in finessing structure, flow and word choice to communicate effectively.

Whether you vomit 500 words on a page and then hack away or edit as you go, the magic generally happens with a degree of finessing. Great copywriters know what to polish (and when to stop).

5. Being flexible and easy to work with

This one is comparatively boring because it’s not directly related to creativity. But it’s so important. I’ve worked with so many agency and freelance copywriters over the years, and the best ones are friendly and flexible. Prima donnas don’t generally get far in the long run.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have boundaries – because you definitely should! And it’s our responsibility to educate internal and external clients about the reality of our processes.

But the reality of copywriter life involves work dropping out, last-minute briefs and periodic tight deadlines. If you can go with the flow and keep a smile on your face (outwardly, at least), people will want to work with you.

Which means you get the best briefs. Which keeps your creative muscles in shape. Which makes you a progressively better writer.

I’m interested – how would you change this list?

Your background and experience are different to mine, which means your list of essential skills will be different. Do you agree/disagree? Are there any others you’d put in the top 5?

Please let me know in the comments below or by tweeting me @agunning.

What do you think?

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