What you should know about becoming a copywriter
On the last day of most copywriting courses, the program director will put all the students together in a room and tell them what to expect from becoming a copywriter at an ad agency.
If they’re honest, it’ll sound like the most cutthroat, back-stabbing, ego-fuelled mess of a life one could imagine. And if the students are honest, they’re all itching to get out there.
Even so, we thought we’d present another view of the business for the newbies graduating this year.
Becoming a copywriter takes ideas, a pen and a page
No software to learn. No updates to install. No glitches to navigate. No media to manipulate. And you technically don’t even need a pen or a page.
Some people find this terrifying because there’s nothing to hide behind. Your words go right into your readers’ brains and live at the mercy of how they’re perceived by one person with their own biases you can’t know.
We think you’re better off finding it liberating because you’re not limited by what’s “possible.”
Writing is the most important part of any project
It won’t matter how good a piece looks or how cool a website is if the message is off. Becoming a copywriter begins by taking that responsibility seriously. Start with doing your research so you know what you’re talking about.
Also, the more you learn about a brand, product or service you’re writing about, the more angles you’ll uncover. As famous Mad Man David Ogilvy said: there’s something interesting to say about everything if you dig deep enough.
Awards define agencies, not copywriters
Some copywriters will win awards every year. For the most part, the awarded work you’ll see from them is excellent. What you won’t see are the quid-pro-quo deals made in the judging room or the outrageous costs of entering work into award shows.
The reality is that awards are biz dev grabs, like they are in every other industry. They’re fantastic to trot out in a new business pitch. They give clients a deeper sense of trust that the folks sitting across from them know what they’re doing. And bringing a client up on stage to collect an award is just about the best thing an agency can do to keep a client for another year.
Awards (or lack of awards) are not a reflection of your talent. They’re not necessary for becoming a copywriter or for career advancement, despite what some people may tell you. And they pale in importance to showing up, working hard and being nice.
An unrelated creative outlet will make you better
If you’re becoming a copywriter, a life solely revolved around copywriting or advertising will never give you the creative perspective to be a great copywriter.
A parent we know and respect said this about raising kids:
If you want a thinker, teach them to speak another language, make music and play chess.”
Here’s how these three activities could help you as a copywriter:
- Learning another language exposes you to different styles of communication, unique idioms and sayings, and folktales/stories you’d never otherwise hear. The benefits to writing here are obvious.
- All music is made with just 12 notes arranged uniquely and set to a beat. Let that sink in for a moment, then consider that you have the entire English language to work with. Working within the structures of song meter and lyric-writing will train your mind to seamlessly meet character counts, match cadence, create flow and structure an idea — all of which contribute to the quality of a written piece.
- Chess is all about strategy and planning ahead. This is a critical skill for copywriters because your reader is going to have objections to giving your client their hard-earned money. If you can anticipate those objections, you can address them in your copy before they become barriers to purchase.
Whatever your extra-curricular passion is, explore it with gusto. You may not feel it making you a better copywriter, but you’ll see it.
Big fancy words won’t help you
You may have an undergrad degree in English Literature, but the person buying the laundry detergent you’re selling probably doesn’t. They don’t have time to consult their dictionary while reading your copy. Becoming a copywriter means learning to convey concepts easily.
You’re going to get writer’s block
It’s part of becoming a copywriter and it’s the worst.
You’ll feel like you’ve forgotten everything you ever learned. You’ll write the same line a hundred times because you can’t think of anything else. You’ll question everything.
Write your way out of it. If you have nothing to write for work, write something for you: a blog, a lyric, a poem, anything. Just keep your fingers moving.
To avoid writer’s block at work, write a lot. Come at body copy or product descriptions from different angles. Try different sentence constructions. Experiment with cadence. Push the envelope with your ideas. The more you put down, the more chance you have to hit something worthwhile. Your creative directors will guide you in the directions they want you to go.
Don’t give your creative directors reason to doubt you
Ideas are subjective. You’ll never get chastised for putting one forward. You will if you put them forward with typos. If you believe enough in your work to share it, care enough about it to proofread it.
Present your copy as it’s intended to be consumed
If you’re writing web copy, let your client or creative director read it instead of reading it to them. If you’re presenting radio, record it on your phone and play it. The obvious exception is broadcast, but if you can record something approximating what you’re thinking, do it.
Your network is everything
You spent the last year learning the “whats” and the “hows” (what’s a brief, how to write a compelling headline, etc.). The reality of this industry, like most industries, is that the “whos” are way more important.
Copywriting is a transient industry, with people moving from agency to agency like bees in a flowerbed. The more people you know, the more opportunities you’ll hear of.
And don’t make the mistake of only targeting creative directors or senior writers because, if you’re good, they’ll come looking for you. Instead, meet the folks your age: the account coordinators and studio designers and junior UX technicians. They’re the ones who’ll go to bat for you when the time comes.
Good luck out there
** If you’re done becoming a copywriter and you’re into writing longer copy, send us your portfolio.