Stuart Clark

So you want to be a Copywriter? 7 Copywriting Lessons Worth Learning

I became one completely by accident, meeting the right person at the right time, when I was fresh out of university. For most people though, starting out as a copywriter can be tough. As well as talented, you’re going to need to be patient, persistent and good at self-promotion. In fact, that’s probably the first tip I can offer on how to make it in this crazy, wonderful business: be good at selling yourself. After all, if you can’t sell everything that’s good about you, why should a creative director believe you’re any good at selling their client’s products? With that first tip in mind, here are seven more I think will help you out as you start your copywriting career.

I became one completely by accident, meeting the right person at the right time, when I was fresh out of university. For most people though, starting out as a copywriter can be tough. As well as talented, you’re going to need to be patient, persistent and good at self-promotion. In fact, that’s probably the first tip I can offer on how to make it in this crazy, wonderful business: be good at selling yourself. After all, if you can’t sell everything that’s good about you, why should a creative director believe you’re any good at selling their client’s products?

With that first tip in mind, here are seven more I think will help you out as you start your copywriting career.

Know your history

I think Steve Harrison, the ex-Creative Director with more Cannes Lions Direct wins than any other, sums this up the best. If you were a film student, you’d almost certainly study the work of history’s most famous filmmakers. Kubrick, Welles, Hitchcock and Spielberg, for example. So if you’re thinking of getting into advertising, the best place to start is by studying the greats.

What was Rosser Reeves famous for?

Why is Bill Bernbach the art directors’ hero?

What did David Ogilvy believe the single function of advertising was?

What does John Hegarty cite as the most successful brand ever?

How did Howard Luck Gossage foretell interactive marketing?

Being able to answer questions like these shows that you’re a passionate student of your chosen craft. But more than that, it will give you a good insight into how advertising has developed, what it is capable of, and how some of its best proponents can inspire you.

Read the classics

I think there are several classic books that should be considered must-reads for any aspiring copywriter, plus a few of my own personal favourites. These are:

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples

Hey Whipple, Squeeze This! By Luke Sullivan

The Craft of Copywriting by Alistair Crompton

Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy by Roger Horberry.

The Book of Gossage by Howard Luck Gossage

How to Write Sales Letters That Sell by Drayton Bird

The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman

The D&AD Copy Book edited by D&AD

A Technique For Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

There are plenty more I could add to this list but, to be honest, we’d be here all day. My copywriting library has just over 100 books in it. I haven’t read all of them cover to cover, but I turn to them again and again when I’m stuck for ideas. If you’re interested in what you do, it pays to study.

Be obsessively curious
It’s pretty essential this. Much of what you write will be an attempt to convince people that they should pick your client’s product over a rival’s. So you need to know your stuff. If you’re trying to sell steam irons with your copy, for example – and I’ve had to do this – you should know exactly what makes one better than another (it’s a combination of glide, steam pressure and safety features, in case you were wondering). That means digging around in the details to find a compelling story on which to hang your marketing message.

My favourite example of this involves David Ogilvy and Dove soap. Ogilvy was struggling to find a way of differentiating Dove from its competitors. So he took a closer look at the soap’s formula and discovered something very interesting: a quarter of the soap’s composition wasn’t actually soap at all, but something called “cleansing cream.” This one discovery led Ogilvy to develop a proposition that’s still in use today – “because it’s one quarter moisturising cream, Dove won’t dry your skin like soap can” – and help Dove become the number one selling soap in the US.

Furnish your mind

Sticking with David Ogilvy, the famous adman also reckoned that a well-furnished mind
was the most important thing for any aspiring copywriter to own. Which makes sense, when you think about it. It will be your job, after all, to come up with ideas. And an idea is really just a new combination of old elements. So the more material you’ve got floating around in your head, the more likely you are to come up with fresh ideas.

How do you keep your mind furnished? Do things that expand it. You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader. So read a diverse selection of books, blogs, newspapers and magazines. I read the Independent and The Sun, the former for the quality of its writing, the latter because it’s the most popular newspaper in the country, which means it can tell me a thing or too about writing for the everyday guy in the street. I loved the Harry Potter stories and I’m really into the way Stephen King captures the creepy nuances of small town America. But I’m also trying to read all the books that have won the Booker Prize, because that’s a different, more challenging read and I think it’s good to mix it up.

Likewise, if you enjoy the movies, don’t just go for the blockbusters, check out your local art-house cinema too. Or go to the theatre once in a while, or your local museum or art gallery. Do anything that takes you a little bit out of your comfort zone and gives you a broader range of experiences. It’ll stand you in good stead.

Don’t be precious, your work isn’t yours

One of the first things I was taught was not to be precious about my work. And not to take it personally if the words I wrote got rewritten. It was a useful piece of advice because, to put it bluntly, your words get retweaked all the time. Client amends are the curse of the copywriter. Sometimes they’re a bit annoying, sometimes they’re just plain wrong but basically, you just need to get over it.

Ultimately whatever you write, no matter how much time and effort you’ve put into it, is not yours. It belongs to the client, or more specifically to the client’s brand. And the bottom line is, they pay for the work, so they can have it written however they like.

Always remember, when someone amends your work, be it a client or your creative director, they are not amending your novel, or your personal pet project. They are changing words because they feel they can work harder or be more on-brand, or just because they feel like it. In the first two instances, take the changes on board and learn from them for next time. In the third instance, just take it on the chin, there is really nothing you can do about it.

Play the editing game

If there’s one golden rule about copywriting it’s this: get to the point. You’ll often be faced with word limits, and in some cases may need to write something to fit inside a pre-created design. Couple this with the fact that your customers, the people you are writing to, are busy and have little time for your sales message, and you realise, you just need to say what you’ve got to say and – and do it fast.

So get into good habits. Ask yourself, can I say it shorter? Play a game with yourself? How many words can I take out of this passage of copy and still keep the same meaning? You’ll surprise yourself. And mark my words, the ability to say exactly what you want, in as few words as possible is a skill well worth having.

Find your niche
Advertising is ultra-competitive and landing your first paid job can be tough. One way to give yourself an advantage is to find your niche. Become a bit of a specialist in one area of copywriting, then target those agencies that produce that kind of work.

To give you an example, I decided the best way to get my first job was to learn how to write direct mail. I knew it was something that a lot of agencies produced and I figured that if I could do it well, I was more likely to land a job. And so it proved.

The way to think about it is this, as a new recruit you’re always going to be something of a risk. There will be question marks over whether or not you’ll be able to handle the wide variety of projects you’ll have to work on. You’ll have to be taught a lot. But if you can sit down at your desk on that first day and produce work that the client will buy, with little or no assistance, then you’ve hit the ground running. So pick a niche. Be it brochure copy, B2B copy, direct mail, subscriptions copy, web copy… your speciality could be another would-be copywriter’s disadvantage.

To be honest, there’s a lot more I could add to this – how to build your book, extra-curricular writing, useful blogs to subscribe to, working alone and in a team, what to look for in an art director – but this blog is long enough for now. Hope it’s been handy.