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What Is a Copywriter?

Updated on December 30, 2017
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert, nonfiction book editor, author of 21+ books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.

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A copywriter is a commercial writer who writes textual material primarily for marketing and advertising purposes. Copywriting can often make (or break!) an organization's sales. So this can be a lucrative specialty for talented writers with a track record of success.

Copywriters may work on a freelance basis or may be on staff for advertising agencies, public relations firms or other marketing companies.

What Do Copywriters Do?

Copywriters write the text to be used in almost any advertising or marketing effort including:

  • Advertisements (magazine, newspaper, broadcast, Internet ads, etc.)
  • Sales letters
  • Direct mail
  • Email marketing
  • Brochures
  • Billboards and posters
  • Websites
  • Social media content
  • Scripting for videos
  • Reports
  • Press releases
  • Catalog descriptions

Essentially, copywriters help clients tell their story in a way that persuades people to take action. Logical or emotional persuasion tactics can be employed depending on the market and message.

While text alone can often be enough, usually copywriting must be married with the medium to be successful. For example, a brilliantly written magazine ad with blah graphics or layout can fail to trigger action. Therefore, copywriters usually work closely with graphic designers and art directors to create a coherent message. As well, copywriters must be completely familiar with the requirements and limitations of each medium.

How Piano Lessons Changed the Field of Copywriting

One of the most famous pieces of advertising copywriting was from the mind of ad pioneer, John Caples (New York Times).

In a 1926 ad for the U.S. School of Music home study course, the headline read: ''They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano But When I Started to Play!'' The ad spoke to people's emotional need to be popular by telling the story, in the first person, of how someone used the product to gain confidence in playing the piano for friends. It launched a new school of first-person-story copywriting technique which is still used today.

Caples' genius was the inspiration for the Caples Awards which launched in 1978 to honor excellence in copywriting for a variety of offline and online marketing efforts.

Breaking into Copywriting

Is breaking into copywriting easy? Typically no. Because of its pivotal role in advertising, sales and marketing, clients usually want to hire those that are experienced in the field.

Experience can be gained by working as an entry level copywriter for an agency or marketing department, working up into larger projects with greater responsibility for the firm or its clients. Freelancers may be able to secure assignments and build a portfolio by offering their skills in the open market.

Copywriters need to have an excellent—native usually preferred—command of the language used for business in their markets. Broken or awkward language use can be quickly identified by the local population and possibly brand the marketer as an outsider. This is why job or opportunity postings for copywriters often request native speakers/writers to write for the country in which the marketing materials will be distributed.

Global Copywriting Conundrum

Many years ago, I was helping with a copywriting project that was going to be distributed in both English and Chinese. No one on the project team here in the States spoke Chinese. So a Chinese translator was hired. First question: What dialect should it be in? Mandarin? Cantonese? If I remember right, Mandarin was chosen. But was that the right one?

Years later when I got involved in the promotional industry, I started receiving tons of email solicitations from foreign suppliers. Some of them have been almost laughable in their command of basic English word use and syntax. What a pity.

These incidents demonstrate the challenges that the field of copywriting is facing as we move into an ever expanding global and multicultural economy. It also highlights growing needs for experienced native speaking, culturally aware and genuinely fluent multilingual copywriters around the world.

Disclaimer: Any examples used are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest affiliation or endorsement. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne

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  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 21 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hello Alun/Greensleeves! Copywriting can be lucrative if you can connect with the right markets. Certainly worth investigating. Let us know what you discover. Good luck with that adventure and have a delightful week!

  • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

    Greensleeves Hubs 21 months ago from Essex, UK

    Interesting to read this introduction to copywriting Heidi. Since giving up full time work earlier this year, I've been wanting to spread my wings as a writer and discover what works best for me. Your information as a basic guide to copywriting will be useful, as this is one area I will have to consider. Thanks, Alun

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Mick! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Have a great day!

  • Mick Beet profile image

    Mick Bert 3 years ago from Australia

    Good read

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Dolores! Indeed, it is another way to put those English and writing skills to work. And to your point, I spent years writing about and working in a contracting-related field without ever turning a wrench. :) Sometimes those just outside the field have a fresh and different perspective than those buried in it. Thanks so much for reading and sharing! Happy Valentine's Day Weekend!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi The BizWhiz! It is an interesting subject and field. Glad you enjoyed. Thanks and have a great Valentine's Weekend!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Peachpurple, that's probably the best description of a copywriter I've seen. :) Thanks for adding that to the conversation. Happy Valentine's Day Weekend!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi RTalloni! Yep, language skills are so critical to success and can open up so many career doors. Thanks for stopping by and have a beautiful Valentine's Weekend!

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Well here is an example of how to earn income with an English degree! There is so much talk these days about how you need to be an actual authority on a topic, that certain companies want doctors to write about health, master gardeners to write about plants, and so on. One gains authority for writing on a subject by research and writing. The main qualifications for being a writer is the ability to write well, not necessarily to be employed in the actual field. Thanks for this one! (Shared!)

  • profile image

    TheBizWhiz 3 years ago

    Wow. This is a very interesting subject. Thank you

  • peachpurple profile image

    peachy 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

    In other words, copywriter is a sales promoter in the writing world

  • RTalloni profile image

    RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

    Thanks for an interesting and informative read. You've given another reason for children to begin learning languages at an early age!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi kalinin1158! Yep, the ad biz can be quite exciting and fun. But it can be a tough one to break into. If you do venture in this direction, keep us posted on your adventures. Have a great week ahead!

  • kalinin1158 profile image

    Lana Adler 3 years ago from California

    I've never tried copywriting but I do love "Mad Men"... There is something exciting about it. Thanks for sharing, voted Interesting!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Chitrangada Sharan! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Hope your New Year is off to a great start!

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Great hub which makes us understand, who exactly is a copywriter. It involves experience and expertise and an in depth knowledge.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful and informative hub. Voted up!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Thanks, manatita44! Glad you found it helpful. Happy and Peaceful New Year to you, too!

  • manatita44 profile image

    manatita44 3 years ago from london

    Well done, heidithorne.

    Great knowledge of copyrighting. A role which seemingly calls for experience and lots of work. Much peace for 2015...

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi FlourishAnyway! So, so true! Cultural lingo is almost impossible to teach. Really requires immersion in the culture for an extended period of time, especially for adults who have been raised in other cultures. Hope you're have a delightful Christmas. Enjoy!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

    You highlight the very important point about being a native speaker. All the cultural nuances you just cannot teach ...

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Iris! Yes, many writers do some bit of copywriting. But it does take some real talent and time to become a true ad copywriter whose work can mean success or failure for a campaign. BTW, it was AWESOME chatting with you yesterday! Merry Christmas!

  • Iris Draak profile image

    Cristen Iris 3 years ago from Boise, Idaho

    This is informative. I guess I always just assumed that most writers did some copywriting early in their freelance careers. I guess not based on the fact that many aren't sure what it is. Interesting.

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Well, alancaster149, at least I now know it will take an Oxbridge diploma to get a copywriting gig across the pond. :) Not too sure if it's the Ivy Leaguers or the Silicon Valley-ers that are truly running the ad show. Hope you're having a lovely holiday season so far. Merry Christmas!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Well, billybuc, I figured you might have a chunk of your resume dedicated to the copywriting craft. Merry Christmas Tuesday to you, too!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Thanks for the giggles, Gawth! Let us know how that letter writing career goes. :) Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Happy Holidays!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi misterhollywood! Lots of writers surprisingly don't know what a copywriter is. Thanks for your vote and comments. Merry Christmas!

  • alancaster149 profile image

    Alan R Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

    Teacher-cum-author-cum-copywriter... What else, Bill?

    Hello Heidi, the market over here goes for Oxbridge graduates to do this kind of thing (everything to do with advertising here calls for Oxbridge graduates, even the tea lady has to be a Bart.Hons). Once upon a time all you had to be was good with words. Now it's good with words, with knobs on.

    I suppose the Ivy-Leaguers have cornered Madison Ave now?

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Well, as a matter of fact, I am a copywriter. Question answered!

    Merry Tuesday to you, Heidi!

  • Gawth profile image

    Ron Gawthorp 3 years ago from Millboro, Virginia

    Gee, if I could just hook up with those Nicaraguan letter writers ("I am leaving you a ton of money" I might have a future in copywriting. Nice article. Thanks! :)

  • misterhollywood profile image

    John Hollywood 3 years ago from Hollywood, CA

    Really interesting. I honestly never knew any of this! I'm voting up.

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