The fact this question is so often asked is bizarre given professional copywriters are in the business of making things clear.
We’re plainly not doing a good enough job with our own job description.
What copywriters do is write. What they write is called ‘copy’.
Every time I tell people this is what I do for my job, they look puzzled.
When asked if they know what a copywriter is, they usually say: ‘Is it to do with copyright?’
Copywriters have nothing to do with ‘copyright’ unless they work for a copyright firm.
Copyright, without the w, is the intellectual property of an organisation or a person.
What exactly does a copywriter write?
A copywriter writes the words you see on adverts on billboards and magazines or those you hear on the TV, radio or internet.
The people who do this are called advertising copywriters.
Copywriters also write the words you read in brochures and company annual reports, like much of the work I do.
The double-page feature in a trade journal promoting a particular business has probably been written by a copywriter, paid for by the company being featured.
In the corporate world there’s plenty of material that needs to be written like press releases, newsletters, leaflets, presentations, speeches, website copy and blogs.
If there’s no capacity in-house to write it, a freelance copywriter will be brought in.
The people called on for this type of work are marketing or publicity copywriters.
Marketing and PR firms often employ a staff copywriter. If they don’t, they usually hire freelance copywriters.
The 21st century copywriter
Along with the spread of technology, the copywriter’s role has grown.
Big corporations need words to communicate to customers. In order to be able to do that they need writers who understand how to sell a message.
Copywriters can be generalists and work across several areas. Or they specialise in one area, eg, health or science.
Digital copywriters are not only expected to know how to write, they also need SEO skills (search engine optimisation) and other online marketing know-how.
Generalist copywriters enjoy a great deal of variety. It’s like news journalism where every day is different.
Brief history of the copywriter
In 1923, ad man Claude Hopkins wrote a book called Scientific Advertising and introduced the concept of writing ‘copy’ to sell things.
His advice is as relevant now as it was then. It applies equally to people writing copy for publicity as it does to those writing adverts.
In a nutshell, he advises
- Understanding the subject
- Writing as you speak (as if selling something)
- Keeping it simple
- Using short sentences and short words
- Avoiding cliches or superlatives
- Producing an excellent headline
- Remembering the ‘what’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM) rule.
This last bit of advice reminds us that readers are hungry only for what benefits them – what is ‘meaningful’ to them.
In my post on writing like a journalist I explain the concept of the ‘killer top line’. This same principle applies to the WIIFM rule.
If you’re a marketing copywriter, especially one who works digitally, you’ll know that in an age of information overload most people scan.
Online audiences need reeling in within 2-3 seconds. Blink and they’re gone.
How does a copywriter get work?
Depending on the type of copywriting you’re doing, freelance work comes through a number of sources:
- Word of mouth
- Online marketing
- PR and marketing agencies
- Recruitment agencies
- Social networks
Why use the word ‘copywriter’?
So why don’t we use the word ‘writer’ if that’s what we’re paid to do?
It’s because that word is usually taken to mean ‘novelist’ and that glamorous job is way out of our humble league.
The words ‘professional copywriter’ are more authentic and in an age where everyone’s a ‘writer’, it’s important to be clear.