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What Is a Copywriter?

Updated on February 21, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


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