What Is A Copywriter?

Writing runs the gamut from news articles and annual reports to stories, articles, and poetry. It can be a lumpy definition in so far as writers tend to crossover, like country western singers, into different areas. James Joyce wrote both novels and short stories.

Hemingway wrote both fiction and journalism articles. William Carlos Williams wrote only poetry, although he was also a practicing physician. F. Scott Fitzgerald is best known for writing “The Great Gatsby,” but he worked as a copywriter after failing to find a job as a journalist. By his own admission, Fitzgerald was a mediocre advertising writer. Salman Rushdie and Dorothy Sayers, on the other hand, were pretty good copywriters, although they met with more success as authors. However, in all honesty, I can’t think of a single journalist who made his or her mark as copywriter.

Writing Well Is Not Copywriting

Copywriting is not about writing well; it is first and foremost about strategy. Writing well is layered on top of strategy, like a Bob Mackie gown on Cher at the 1987 Oscars. Strategy dictates writing style, or voice, so the best marketing copy for a particular project may be full of colloquial turns of phrase that fly in the face of writing well. In other words, to be a good copywriter, sometimes you have to write badly. Was Cher’s Bob Mackie gown garish and tasteless? Absolutely. Does it stand out as an iconic red carpet gown? Yes, but only because it was so Cher. Hanging on a mannequin, the dress was crazy awful. Hanging on Cher, it was fabulous.

Copywriting Is A Mindset

Copywriting is a methodology, not a writing style.
Copywriters who talk about writing sizzling copy, hot copy, selling copy are off the mark because the world of marketing is not about sizzling copy or hot copy or even selling copy. It is about strategy. You can’t sell an Aston Martin with sizzling copy. (Think about it.)
Writers who are trained to write well, i.e. journalists and many English majors, usually have trouble writing good copy. Without fail, proofreaders make horrible copywriters.

How Copywriters Make Money

All copywriters want to make money. Some are greedier than others, but copywriting is a commercial enterprise, not an artistic one. The problem is that copywriting is a one-off product. It is a custom service, and writers like artists can only produce so much. Profitability is therefore limited by production. If a copywriter wants to make a lot of money, he must take one or more of the following paths:

A copywriter can take the short order cook approach and turn out a lot of burgers. Some copywriters are very good and very fast, but even so quality suffers when a writer has to rely on speed and volume to make money. Often these copywriters are fast talkers who can convince you the work is good, even when it is rushed and hideous.
A copywriter can take the elitist approach and charge a very high hourly rate or project fees, although not all high-priced copywriters are worth the money. You can figure that a senior-level freelance copywriter has to make at least $50 an hour in order to pay his bills, afford a laptop and phone, and cover the gaps when he has no assignments or must do administrative and self-marketing tasks. Bump this up if a writer lives in a metro area like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Miami – which most do.

A copywriter can take the spinoff approach, and build a career around teaching others to write. This takes two basic forms: teaching business people how to writer their own copy, or teaching other writers and wannabes how to be more successful. With this approach, a writer can parlay his knowledge into downloadable e-books, seminars, and whatnot – he can sell the same content over and over, thereby making more money.  Examples are Dan Kennedy (teaches entrepreneurs) and Copyblogger (preaches to the choir). Obviously, there is crossover because wannabes learn wherever they can. I would lump former copywriters who have become speakers-and-book-authors about advertising in the very broad spinoff class.

Copywriting Is More Than A Science

Yes, there is some science to copywriting. But in the end, the greatest copywriters of all time were the ones who wrote the rules, not followed them. Science can only explore and understand what already exists. Generally, marketing science looks backwards at case studies and work that has already been done. Some principles of human persuasion persist over time. A good copywriter learns everything he can about consumer psychology, buying behavior, and other empirical marketing fields. But this is only the back story, because when a good copywriter sits down to work, creativity has to kick in. And that makes copywriting an unpredictable art.

Furthermore, media and society and people themselves change, so a copywriter has to have an antenna for these changes and be able to incorporate them into his work. The artfulness of copywriting is indefinable, which is why I have a problem with the idea of trying to teach someone to be a copywriter. At some point, you either have the creative knack or you don’t.

Creativity Isn’t Personal

Likewise, having the persona of creativity doesn’t make one creative. If you read through the websites of ad agencies, you will notice that they fall over themselves trying to be interesting and different. I do not think being interesting and different makes someone a good copywriter. I consider myself a rather boring person but a very good copywriter. I think, in fact I know, I’m a little crazy but I consider it a character flaw. I do not think it contributes to my writing, but I could be wrong.