The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

What copywriting is… and isn’t.

Posted by rachelwriter on June 25, 2009

Courtesy: massdistraction/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: massdistraction/Flickr

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of spending the morning with two of Atlanta’s brightest and coolest creative marketing professionals—Stephanie Frost and Erik Wolf of Zero-G Creative—as a guest on their weekly radio show. The topic of discussion? You guessed it: content and copywriting.

Along with fellow Atlanta-based copywriter Emily Capps, one of the things we talked about was the general public’s view on professional writing.  Unfortunately, there’s a widespread misconception that writing is nothing more than a mechanical skill—something that can be learned and taught by rote, much like typing or riding a bike.

But, the truth is… writing is so not something that the average Joe Schmoe on the street can do. (Well, okay, I take that back: Joe Schmoe can probably hold a pen and scribble a few words and letters on paper. He may even be able to type legibly. But he certainly can’t string together meaningful, impactful words to deliver clear, concise, actionable copy. Does Joe Schmoe even know what that means? I doubt it.)

Yes, writing is so much more than pulling random words out of the air and ploppin’ ‘em down on paper. It’s a carefully honed craft, people! One that requires forethought and strategy. Creativity and objectivity. Awareness of audience and brand. A mastery of grammar and punctuation. And, yes, good old-fashioned wordsmithery.

So, to help clear things up and avoid any further confusion, I’ve decided to continue the conversation by shedding some light on what professional copywriting is—and what it isn’t.  Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive breakdown. I’d be here ‘til next week just trying to fill in the blanks. That’s why I encourage you to add your is-s and isn’t-s, too.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Copywriting isn’t…

• Like writing an AP English essay, a senior thesis, or a PhD dissertation—even though all three are difficult in their own right, and even though you earned an A++ on each.

• As arbitrary as updating your Facebook status or Twitter feed, and not really caring who reads it or what they take away from it.

• Like that time you wrote a song for your 10th grade crush, inspired by The Cure.

• As fluffy as the resume and cover letter you just posted on Monster.com.

• As wordy as that contract you signed when you financed your new car.

• As easy and as routine as texting your BFF…while driving.

• As simple as replacing every word in a sentence or phrase with another, more “smart-sounding” word from the thesaurus (whose definition, by the way, you probably never even knew before).

• Haphazardly adding extra, polysyllabic (<–you like that one, don’tcha?) words because you think it makes the copy look and sound more “professional.”

• As emotionally unbridled as that ranting, raving e-mail you sent to your supposed best-friend in a moment of blood-boiling ire.

• As intimate as that deeply profound sonnet you composed in your 7th grade poetry class.

• Writing when you feel “inspired” and only when you want to.

• Like riding a bike.

Copywriting is…

• Understanding precisely who your audience is. Every time. Copy for the nation’s most lucrative furriers is going to be very, very different from copy for the nation’s most ardent PETA supporters.

• Having the ability to write in a myriad of voices and in various tones. Will your copy by youthful, lighthearted, and witty? Or sobering and serious?

• Knowing what questions to ask—about your client, your client’s business, your client’s product, your client’s market, and your client’s competition—and using that knowledge to help shape the style, tone, and type of copy you write.

• Realizing that as few as two or three carefully chosen, impactful words—heck, even one!—can be enough to effectively get an actionable message across. (That’s right, people: more doesn’t always mean merrier.)

• Knowing when and how to turn on your inner editor and start putting unnecessary words on the chopping block.

• Having the ability to distance yourself from your business, product, or service and see things through the objective (sometimes skeptical) eye of the consumer.

• Knowing the difference between your product’s features and its benefits.

• Understanding why and when it’s appropriate to break the rules of grammar and punctuation. (Sorry, grammar haters: you still need to know how to use a comma and a semi-colon correctly.)

So… What else is copywriting?  What else isn’t it?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

Thanks for reading and joining the discussion!

–Rachel

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2 Responses to “What copywriting is… and isn’t.”

  1. Heather said

    Hi! I’m a copy editor who spends most of her time working on documents prepared by copy writers, and I’ve often wondered what secrets help them write spot-on, snappy mots justes.

    I feel like I’ve picked up a few things just from exposure to their work, but I also realize that, because I work in house, that exposure is specific to a small variety of audiences and products. I think having a better sense of what good copy writing looks like and entails will be handy for my work, too, so I’ll be checking back. Thanks! 🙂

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