What is a copywriter?
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
"What is it that you do?"
Oh, what a loaded question. Take it in the literal sense and it’s tempting to answer in full:
“Well, I wake up, usually because of the alarm, the cat or the kids, I get out of the bed, stumble downstairs and make a coffee, get into the shower, get dressed, make breakfast…oh, you didn’t mean that did you? “
Of course, this question which most of us are familiar with, forms a large part of small-talk etiquette and refers to what I ‘do’ to make a living. How I pay the bills. What I work as. It’s one of those questions which isn't literal but whose meaning is largely dependent on an assumed prior knowledge of what is actually being asked. Such are the intricacies of human communication, we don’t always say exactly what we mean.
When I tell people I am a freelance copywriter, there are usually similar responses of equal haven’t-got-a-clue degrees. A few people now and then will be familiar with the work of a copywriter - usually because they themselves work in advertising or design - but most do not really know what a copywriter does. Which doesn’t really help them when they are asking what I ‘do’.
Ideas around what a copywriter is, range from:
“Is that some kind of legal thing?”
No. That would be copyright. Sounds the same but spelt differently. Easily confused. A perfect example of the importance of the written word vs. the spoken word.
“So you work for a newspaper?”
Umm…not exactly. I’m not a journalist. Or an editor.
And the perfectly honest: “I don’t know what that is, what do you actually do?”
Great! Let me tell you.
According to most dictionary definitions a copywriter is someone who writes copy – that is text, words, call it what you will – for sales and advertising. I personally find this a bit of a narrow definition.
The true definition of copywriting is simply and beautifully: the art of sales in print.
Be it direct mail - flyers, letters, brochures - or online - social media, web content, adverts - copywriting is advertising with the purpose of selling. A copywriter sells a product or service to the consumer through written word.
A copywriter needs to know how to communicate with people and capture an audience in a different way to a journalist. Instead of presenting facts and stories and usually trying to do so without an obvious bias as a reporter might do, a copywriter’s job is to be straight-up and honest: I like what I am talking about and I think you should like it too.
That is not to be say however, that this up-front nature is necessarily the best way to write copy. Some copy, be it long or short, can benefit hugely from a blunt and conspicuous approach and in fact, ‘I think you should like this’ is pretty powerful copy in its own right. However copywriting is not that simple.
Depending on the project, business or cause, sometimes a softly-softly-catchy-monkey approach can be much more effective. A good copywriter should be able to switch between raw and factual, to gentle, personal and creative story-telling. A good copywriter should be able to create copy that appeals to the mind as well as the heart. Good copy can shake the system as well as quietly cajole, persuade and court the audience. Just as much bowl-you-over as wear-you-down-slowly.
This is the art of communication – the art of the copywriter. Not just writing words and selling stuff. Deciphering the audience, who they are, what they want to hear, what appeals to them and what they can relate to. Talking to them in a way as to captivate and whisper. Translating that assumed prior knowledge. Being literal and honest. Ultimately, being effective for the client by writing for the audience, not for the client.
Communication is what a copywriter does. It’s quite a complicated thing actually.