Copywriting – a different kind of writing skill
As a writer, I regularly receive offers for copywriting courses that promise to help me break into copywriting in around four weeks.
Hmmm. Colour me dubious.
I worked as a commercial copywriter for 20 years before changing direction to devote my working hours to establishing a new platform as a fiction writer and finishing my debut novel. If there is one thing I know, becoming a good copywriter takes significantly longer than four weeks. If there are two things I know, the second would be that copywriting requires entirely different tools, skills and experience to those required to become a great novel writer.
Let’s start with the voice behind the text. Copywriting is all about delivering a message, but it’s not your message. This means the first thing you must ask yourself is: on whose behalf am I writing? In other words, are you writing FOR company A – in which case you need to use that company’s tone and jargon, or ABOUT company A – in which case you must use the tone and jargon of the website, magazine or other media in which the text will be used. Are you putting words into the mouth of the CEO or the mechanic on the shop floor? They would probably express themselves very differently. You get the picture? So far, so good.
Now here comes the tricky bit: The client has selected You as the copywriter for a reason. This could be purely based on your reputation – word of mouth is a wonderful thing – but it may well be because they like your writing style. Your clarity, your wit, your word choice – all the components you put into a text, above and beyond its voice and message, that spin and lift the text towards achieving its objective: commercial success.
So try and find out why the client selected you. Are you the first copywriter they have engaged? Why are they changing? If the client has been forced to change copywriter due to circumstances beyond their control, check out their website and soak up the style. They were obviously happy with it. If, on the other hand, they are switching because they are unhappy with their current copywriter, my advice is to stay away from old material. The temptation to steer clear of any resemblance is huge, and may negatively impact your own style as you subconsciously – or even consciously – try to be different. Deliver what you think the client wants without checking out what they didn’t want. What the client wants the text to achieve is always pivotal. Which neatly leads me to the next point…
Who are the intended readers for this specific piece? For instance, company A produces clothing for extreme sports. An article intended for an in-flight magazine, a daily paper or even a sports magazine must be written far more attractively and in more comprehensible general terms than, say, an article designed for an extreme sports website or publication. Those readers want technical details, and the use of correct terminology will add credibility to the product. An in-house magazine to give employees news of a company’s progress will read very differently from the Annual Report supplied to its investors and shareholders. Find out where the piece will be published. Is it for the European or American market? British English or American? Learn the differences! And how to use them. For example, if you are writing about an American company for a British publication, write in British English but still refer to the head of the American company as the President, not the Managing Director. Titles reflect the person not the publication. If you don’t know a person’s title, find out! Because credibility is key.
Never underestimate the amount of time you will need to spend on research. If this is your first piece for a new client, you will need to gen up on their industry as a whole and their products in particular. While the correct use of terminology lends credence, misuse of terminology will have a devastating impact on your own reputation with the client, and worse, if unnoticed before publication, the client’s perceived credibility among the general public or peers in their industry. If in doubt, ask. The experts are those who work with the company’s products every day i.e. the company’s own employees. Never be afraid to ask, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you know where your limitations lie – within their industry not yours – and that you are interested and prepared to learn in order to deliver a professional text. They will love you for asking them and, as your knowledge of their jargon grows, they will remain loyal clients as you become the person best equipped to supply their needs.
I can’t repeat this enough.
So, you receive a brief from a client and think you can trust it? Wrong! Yes, in terms of technical facts and figures about their specific products, but Never when it comes to spelling, dates and general information. If they launched a product on a catwalk in Italy – check the spelling of the location and models’ names. If the photo shoot was by a specific photographer – check the spelling of the photographer’s name. And so on. I’ve saved countless companies from the embarrassment of misspelling the name of a business partner, product or place. It’s not because they’re stupid or don’t care, it’s because language is not their forte and they don’t notice. That’s your job. It’s called service and quality.
And when you think you can have got the hang of these basics, then comes the real skill: honing your writing skills to produce innovative texts that sell the product, service or message within a given number of words. Because at the end of the day, that’s what copywriting is all about.