What does a professional copywriter do?

The fact this question is so often asked is bizarre given professional copywriters are in the business of making things clear.

We’re obviously not doing well enough with our own job description. What copywriters do is write. What we write is called ‘copy’.

Usually when I tell people I’m a copywriter they look puzzled. When I ask if they know what a copywriter is, they usually say: ‘Is it to do with copyright?’

Hand writing 'It's wrong'Copywriters have nothing to do with ‘copyright’ unless they work for a copyright firm or have written a copywriting guide that they have copyrighted.

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 for adverts and campaigns you see online or on billboards, TV, radio or in magazines.

They also write copy for websites and blogs as well as the words you read in business material like brochures and company annual reports, like much of the work I do.

The double-page feature in a trade journal promoting a specific business message or thought-leadership piece has probably been written by a copywriter who’s been paid by a company that’s likely to benefit from the publicity. 

In the corporate world there’s plenty of traditional marketing collateral that needs to be written like press releases, newsletters, leaflets, presentations and speeches, as well as the new raft of material created by the explosion in digital. 

If there’s no capacity in-house to write it, a freelance copywriter will be used. 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 recruit freelance copywriters.

The 21st century copywriter

Along with the rise in technology, the copywriter’s role has changed.

Big corporations need words to communicate to customers. In order to do that they need writers who understand how to sell messages.

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 (search engine optimisation) skills and other online marketing know-how.

Generalist copywriters enjoy a great deal of variety. It’s like news journalism where every day is different. I call it corporate journalism.

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 words
  • Avoiding cliches and 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.

Writing saying less is more

If you’re a marketing copywriter, especially one who works digitally, you’ll know that in an age of information overload people scan.

Online audiences need grabbing in 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
  • Contacts
  • Online marketing
  • PR and marketing agencies
  • Advertising
  • Recruitment agencies
  • Social networks.
Why use the word ‘copywriter’?

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.


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