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Copywriting Basics - Important Tips for Beginners

Updated on June 13, 2019
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Prachi has been working as a freelance writer since 2012. When not writing, she helps people with web designing and development.

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Copywriting is surely the Cinderella of the writing disciplines. Everyone knows a bit at least about novelists, playwrights, journalists, screenwriters, and so on. Most folks understand what these people do, even if they are a little hazy on how they actually go about doing it. But tell the average man or woman that you are a copywriter, and you are most likely to be met with a blank stare. Indeed, many people, confusing the term with copyright, will assume you are involved in some way with preventing illegal copying.

And yet, in our modern world, copywriting is probably the most widely read of all types of writing. Pick up any newspaper or magazine, and inside you will find dozens, maybe hundreds, of advertisements, all written by copywriters. Tune in to any commercial TV or radio station and you will see/hear many more examples of the copywriters' art. Open your morning mail, and you're very likely to find advertising flyers, mail shots, leaflets, and brochures. We may curse this as 'junk mail', but somewhere a copywriter has labored painstakingly to create it.

And here's a crucial fact. Even during downturns and recessions, there will ALWAYS be a demand for skilled copywriters. Indeed, at such times this demand becomes even greater. Effective copywriting ensures that a company's products and services are brought to the attention of people who may need them, and persuades them – or starts to persuade them – to buy. Copywriters thus perform a crucial role in the marketing process. Unheralded they may be, but without their efforts sales would soon plummet, companies would collapse, and many thousands of people in other jobs would find themselves unemployed.

Every word you read in an advert, brochure, leaflet or mail shot has to be written by someone, and that person – at least as part of their job – is a copywriter. Copywriters may work for a company, or an advertising agency, or as freelances. But whomever they work for (including themselves), they are paid for stringing words together for business clients. And the good news is, skilled copywriters are paid very well indeed.

Here we will reveal how YOU can join the ranks of professional copywriters, working the hours you choose from the comfort of your own home (or, if you prefer, for a company or agency). We will reveal how, by applying certain principles allied with your own skills and creativity, you can earn a great living doing a job that is well rewarded and endlessly diverse and fascinating. Excited? You should be. Copywriting has the potential to deliver all this and more for you, but first, let's take a closer look at what we mean by copywriting...

WHAT IS COPYWRITING?

Copywriting means, literally, writing copy. The word 'copy' in this context means any written communication that is intended for wider distribution via print or other media (e.g. television or radio). Journalists routinely refer to 'copy' when talking about the news stories they write.

The one-word term copywriting, however, is normally used to refer to producing a particular type of copy, and that is copy written for commercial purposes. Copywriting involves producing copy that is intended to inform (like a journalistic copy), but also to advise, influence and persuade. One defining quality of copywriting is that it attempts to change the behavior or attitude of readers in some way. Most journalism, by contrast, simply seeks to inform.

The most common aim of copywriting is to sell a company's products or services. However, this is by no means the only possible aim. Others might include:

  • Getting suitable candidates to apply for a job – recruitment copywriting
  • Persuading people to donate time or money – charities and voluntary organizations
  • Changing people's voting intentions – political parties
  • Encouraging people to claim benefits – welfare rights campaigns
  • Getting people to protest about something – pressure groups
  • Stopping people doing something – government anti-smoking campaigns
  • Persuading newspapers to write about your clients – press releases

In all these cases (and others), copywriters have to inform readers but also try to persuade them to take whatever action is desired by their clients. That action may be buying the clients' products or services, or it may involve some other change in behavior or attitude – but in all cases, the success (or failure) of the copywriter will have direct, measurable consequences. This is why firms are willing to pay big money for top copywriters whose work has been proven to deliver good results.

To return to a point made earlier, it is important not to confuse copywriting with copyrighting. The former is commercial writing; the latter is the legal process of ensuring that others do not copy an original literary work without the author's permission. Copywrite can be used as a verb – 'Can you copywrite this leaflet by Friday?' – although this usage is not particularly common. Copywrite as a noun is always incorrect.

WHAT DO COPYWRITERS DO?

We have already talked a bit about this, but to emphasize the diversity of copywriting, here is just a partial list of some of the jobs copywriters may be asked to work on:

  • Press advertising
  • Brochures and leaflets
  • Sales letters
  • Direct response (mail shots)
  • Press releases
  • Other PR materials, e.g. press packs
  • Advertorials (promotional articles)
  • TV and radio advertising
  • Newsletters (for customers or employees)
  • Point-of-sale literature
  • Product packaging
  • Sales promotions e.g. consumer contests
  • Catalogs
  • Billboard posters
  • Job advertisements
  • Jingle lyrics and slogans
  • Web pages
  • Emails
  • Email newsletters and e-zines (electronic magazines)

That's a huge range in itself, but copywriting can extend into many other areas as well. For example, one copywriter we know devises ideas for humorous greeting cards, while another produces short 'novelty' books for a specialist publishing house. Other types of job copywriters may be asked to do can include writing speeches, preparing instruction manuals, and even writing short stories and articles. Here the work of a copywriter starts to overlap with other types of writing – in the cases mentioned, speechwriting, technical writing, short story writing, and freelance journalism respectively.

Copywriting Sample Ad
Copywriting Sample Ad | Source

One general rule with copywriting, however, is that a job normally starts with a request by a client. The copywriter agrees terms with the client, writes the copy (whatever it may be) and submits an invoice for payment. By contrast, a freelance journalist typically works by submitting a query letter and outline to an editor. If the editor likes the idea, she may then commission the freelance to go ahead and write the piece. In the case of a freelance journalist, the initial idea and approach tend to come from the writer; in the case of a copywriter, they normally come from the client.

Essentially, then, copywriters are 'hired pens'. Skilled wordsmiths, they can turn their hands to a wide range of commercial writing tasks. Many do specialize, for example in website copywriting or writing TV/radio commercials, and for experienced copywriters, this can be a good way to generate higher fees. But equally, many copywriters venture into other fields as well, perhaps combining copywriting with freelance journalism or even fiction writing. Freelance copywriters can choose to specialize in the types of work that interest them most, while still keeping open the option to apply their writing skills in other areas as well. Now, doesn't that sound like the best type of writing job of all?

SKILLS AND APTITUDES REQUIRED

To be a successful copywriter you will need a number of qualities. Here are some of the most important:

1. Writing Skills

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Obvious perhaps, but to succeed as a copywriter you do need some sort of aptitude with words.

For starters, you will need a reasonable knowledge of the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. That's not to say you will always follow them – the best copywriters don't hesitate to break the rules occasionally when it suits their needs – but you do need to know what the rules are in the first place. This is a subject we will return to later in the course.

As a copywriter, you need to be able to produce fluent, readable, persuasive prose. You don't have to be Shakespeare, but you do need to be able to create copy that will engage people's interest (and emotions), and carry them with you to wherever your client wants them to go. You will need to be able to write in a style that, while never patronizing, can be easily understood by most people. And you will need to be able to vary your style to suit your client, his company's public image, his target audience, and the medium you are writing for.

2. Imagination

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Copywriting isn't always thought of as a form of creative writing. And yet the best copywriters are those who have the imagination to devise fresh, original approaches to marketing what may be very familiar products and services. It is difficult to keep coming up with new ways to sell cars, breakfast cereals and insurance (to choose three random examples) – and yet, as any TV viewer will know, good copywriters, are able to do this routinely.

A note of caution is appropriate, though. While imagination is a major asset for a copywriter, it must be tempered with practicality. Many businessmen are understandably cautious about taking risks with their company's advertising and prefer a 'tried-and-tested' approach rather than something new and radically different. The adage that 'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM' still resonates with many business people. Professional copywriters often, therefore, offer their clients two different options: one that gives free vent to the writer's imagination, and the other a safer back-up in case the client isn't prepared to take a chance on the more 'creative' proposal.

3. A Businesslike Approach

If you want to get business inspiration, Jeff Bezos is the answer
If you want to get business inspiration, Jeff Bezos is the answer

Copywriting is, of course, a business, and in that respect, it is like any other. You will need to get yourself and your business properly organized, keep records of income and expenditure, notify HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and later pay taxes on your profits, and so on. We will look at setting up in business in more detail later in the course.

In addition, it's important to bear in mind that as a copywriter, most if not all of your clients will be people in business themselves, often in quite senior positions. They will expect you to be efficient and business-like in all your dealings with them: to answer their phone calls, respond promptly to their emails, meet agreed deadlines, and generally (as Margaret Thatcher once said of one of her ministers) bring them solutions rather than problems. Some successful authors may be able to get away with being disorganized and unreliable in their business affairs, but this luxury definitely does not extend to copywriters.

4. Attention to Detail

Copywriters are regarded as experts in the use of English, and that means clients expect them to get things such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation correct. As mentioned earlier, there may be times when you choose to break the rules, but this should only be for a very good reason, e.g. to grab readers' attention.

If, as a copywriter, you submit work to a client that is full of typos, spelling mistakes and so on, and your client notices he will be unimpressed by your lack of professionalism and unlikely to use your services in future. Even if your work finds its way into print, it is very likely that some readers will notice the mistakes and comment on them. Again, if criticisms of your writing reach your clients' ears, he is very unlikely to hire you in the future or recommend you to anyone else

This is, incidentally, one reason why journalists don't always make good copywriters. Journalists are used to dashing off a copy as fast as possible, often leaving it to a sub-editor to correct any mistakes. Copywriters, in contrast, do not have this luxury. They are expected to act as both writer and editor and deliver to their client 'clean' copy that is free from errors.

5. Self Motivation

As a freelance copywriter, you won't have a manager setting your targets and deadlines. On any given day, you can choose to work, or you can do something else instead. But unless you regularly choose to put the hours in, you are unlikely to earn enough money to make a decent living.

Successful copywriters, like successful freelances in any field, are self-motivated. They don't need someone standing over them to get down to work. If you know you are easily distracted and inclined to put off tasks till the last minute, you may need to think hard whether being a freelance copywriter is right for you.

The need for self-discipline applies especially in the early days of your career when you will need to spend a lot of time touting for business. Once you have your first few clients, you will find that their demands impose a certain discipline in themselves. Your clients will set deadlines and expect you to meet them, and you will have to do this if you hope to go on working for them. To some extent, therefore, freelancers have a number of different 'bosses' rather than just one. The difference is, however, that if one of these 'bosses' makes unreasonable demands, you can always fire them!

6. Easygoing Temperament

An easygoing temperament is another big asset for a copywriter. There will be times when your client doesn't like your ideas and wants changes made, or even a completely different approach taken. Copywriters need to be able to accept criticism with good grace, even if they don't always agree with it. A sense of humor can help here, while an exaggerated sense of your own importance is likely to prove a hindrance. You will need to remember at all times that you are being paid to provide a service and that the customer is always right (even when he's wrong).

7. Listening and Questioning Skills

Copywriters need good listening and questioning skills, especially when receiving a brief. A brief is a set of instructions for a task, and it may be delivered verbally or in writing. Copywriters need to be able to grasp what a client needs quickly. And when they are not sure, they need to be able to ask the right questions to clarify this – all the while bearing in mind that, for their client, time is money. To some extent, these skills come with experience. If you get it wrong, however, you will have wasted your time and your client's – so it is important to have (or develop) the listening and questioning skills needed to get this right as often as possible.

8. Adaptability

Copywriters get asked to produce a copy for all kinds of business; they never know what they will be asked to write about next. It, therefore, helps considerably if you have some knowledge of – and interest in – a wide range of subjects.

Top copywriter David Ogilvy once observed that a 'well-furnished' mind is essential in copywriting. The more different things you know about, the more possible approaches to a brief are likely to occur to you. On the other hand, if there is only a small range of topics you are interested in, you risk writing copy that is trite and predictable.

Adaptability is closely linked with curiosity. Good copywriters are curious about the world in general and their clients' products and services in particular. Some of the very best advertisements have been written by copywriters who made it their business to find out as much as possible about what their clients were selling and then used this information to craft unusual and compelling sales copy.

9. Persuasiveness

Ultimately, as mentioned earlier, copywriters are expected to produce copy that generates some response from the 'prospects' who read it. That response may be to submit an order, request a brochure, visit a restaurant, apply for a job, make a donation, or something else. Copywriters must, therefore, understand how to use words to persuade people to act in accordance with their clients' wishes.

There are various techniques copywriters can use, and these will be revealed later in the course. One very important quality for a copywriter, however, is the ability to understand and identify with their clients' target audience. They need to be able to put themselves in these people's shoes, to understand their wants and needs, and then show how these can be met by (for example) buying the client's products. Good copy persuades by answering the implied question, 'What's in this for me?' If you can understand a prospect's needs and show how your client's product or service will meet them, you are well on your way to persuading them to buy.

10. People Skills

In some ways, this is the most important quality of all. Copywriters need to be able to get on with people from all backgrounds – one day they may be working for a local garage owner, the next the chief executive of a large corporation.

You might think that your writing skills are the only thing that matter to your clients, but that is not the case. Human nature dictates that people prefer to do business with people they like and get on well with – as long as they also have the ability to do the job as well, of course. If you present yourself well to a potential client and demonstrate that you understand what makes him and his business tick, there is every chance he will hire you. By contrast, if you present yourself poorly, even though your CV may appear impressive, he is likely to look elsewhere. And there will always be someone else he can ask.

Copywriters also need people skills for 'networking' with others in the industry. As your career develops, you will build your own network of artists, designers, printers, typesetters, fellow writers, and so on. Knowing such people and having a good working relationship with them can be crucial to providing the best possible service to your clients and getting more work in the future. Networking and personal recommendation can also be very effective in finding new clients. So if you do not think of yourself as a 'people person', you may need to think long and hard whether freelance copywriting really is the right career for you.

EARNING POTENTIAL

One other issue you might want to take into account when deciding if copywriting is right for you is its earning potential.

The good news here is that, in general, copywriters are well paid. As a new copywriter, about the minimum you can expect to earn, is £100 per day. That gives you a gross earning potential of at least £25,000 a year. Of course, to work out your net earnings you will have to deduct from this the costs you incur through running your business, including postage, telephone, stationery, Internet access, and so on. Even so, a full-time copywriter – even someone new to the profession – should be able to earn a minimum of £20,000 a year. Experienced copywriters can earn two or three times this amount; while for the very top copywriters, a six-figure income is by no means unattainable.

Freelancers have an additional advantage over those in employment in that they can claim a much wider range of expenses against their income. Freelances who work from home can normally claim a proportion of their household bills against the tax, along with motoring expenses, books, trade magazine subscriptions, membership of professional bodies, and so on (this is further discussed in Module 7, Setting Yourself up In Business). All this means that freelances can typically keep a larger proportion of their income than people in conventional employment – although, as they are paid gross by their clients, it also means that they must remember to keep a portion of their income aside for when the time comes to pay the taxman.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Copywriters are fortunate in that they only need a small number of tools and equipment to ply their trade. The following is all you really need when you are setting out as a professional copywriter:

  • A good sized desk or table on which to work. The kitchen table might do at first, but it is better to have your own desk where you will not have to clear away all your papers when meal-times come around! Try to position your desk near a source of natural light. Especially if you plan to work at night or in the evenings, a good quality reading lamp (preferably one which can be adjusted to a wide range of positions) is strongly recommended.
  • Together with the desk, you will also need a comfortable chair, preferably with a padded seat and adjustable height and backrest. A plain dining room chair is likely to become uncomfortable after long periods, interfering with your concentration.
  • Nowadays a home computer with Internet access is pretty much essential. You can use it for a wide range of purposes, including administrative tasks such as invoicing and keeping financial records, as well as your actual copywriting work. Internet access is necessary for sending and receiving an e-mail, research via the Internet, seeking out writing jobs and clients, and so on.
  • You should also have a telephone so that clients can contact you with offers of work and you can contact them with any queries. A telephone answering machine will ensure that you never miss out on work due to being away from home. Alternatively, you could use BT's Answer 1571 service, which automatically takes messages for you when you are on another call or simply not able to get to the phone.
  • Finally, you will require a good dictionary (one with at least 150,000-word definitions). Some suitable choices would be Collins English Dictionary, the Concise Oxford Dictionary (or the two-volume Shorter Oxford), or Chambers English Dictionary. Not only will dictionaries such as these help you with spellings, they also advise on correct usage, italicization, and so on.

These, really, are all you need to get started as a freelance copywriter. A few optional extras include:

  • Fax Machine. This is less necessary than a computer but worth considering once your business is up and running. Although it is gradually being replaced by email, many businesses still routinely use faxes and will expect you to have some means of sending and receiving them. If you don't want to shell out for a second phone line, you should be able to get combination fax and answering machine. These devices can automatically sense what type of call is coming in and deal with it appropriately. Another alternative and one that is growing in popularity is to use an Internet-based faxing service such as eFax (www.efax.com). This and similar services provide you with a special phone number for incoming faxes. The faxes are then converted into emails and forwarded to your email address. The fax typically arrives as an image attached to the email; you can view this on your computer and, if you wish, print it out. These services also allow you to send faxes via the Internet.
  • Thesaurus. A thesaurus, as you probably know, is a word finder. These can come in very handy when, at the end of a hard day, you are seeking yet another way to express a concept like 'guarantee' or 'good value'. Most modern word processing programs include a thesaurus function, but it is usually pretty basic. A printed thesaurus can give you a lot more suggestions to work with.
  • Rhyming Dictionary. This can be invaluable for coming up with rhyming slogans and jingles.
  • Specialist Reference Books. Finally, if you intend to seek copywriting work in a specialist area such as medicine or technology, a dictionary of the relevant technical terms will be an asset.

STARTING YOUR 'SWIPE FILE'

Hopefully, what you've learned so far has confirmed that you want to become a professional copywriter and that you possess the necessary aptitudes and abilities (or are willing to develop them). So here is the first practical step you can take on this journey: start your own swipe file!

A swipe file, as the name suggests, is a collection of good examples of copywriting you come across in your day-to-day life. As your swipe file grows, it will become an invaluable source of ideas and inspiration to you.

Put your collection in a box or a folder, and keep it somewhere that will be handy when you are working. As well as press adverts you see and sales letters you receive, your swipe file can include headlines that catch your eye, catchy phrases or slogans, compelling body copy, and even graphic devices and photographs. If you have an email or web page you want to include in your swipe file, print it out and use a marker pen to highlight any section you particularly like. You can also use an ordinary pen to write any notes that occur to you on the margins.

The bigger your swipe file becomes, the more useful it will be as a copywriting tool. In due course, you may want to divide it into a number of different compartments for easy reference: headlines, sales letters, web pages, emails, and so on.

Keep your eyes open for good copywriting at all times, and try to grow your swipe file by adding at least one new item every day. To get you started, here are five examples of successful, proven headlines.

1. Do You Make These Mistakes in English?

This is a classic headline that arouses the reader's curiosity. Who could resist reading on to find out what those mistakes are? The original mail-order advert using this headline ran for over 40 years.

2. Who Else Wants to Earn a Six Figure Income?

'Who else wants...' is a very popular headline on Internet sales pages, but it works well everywhere. This headline implies that other people are succeeding in the way described, and invites the reader to join them or be left out.

3. The Secret of Staying Young

Everyone likes the idea of learning a secret – something known only to a privileged few. This type of headline has been rather over-used in the past, but with the right product or service, it can still work well.

4. Quick Relief for Tired Eyes

This is another classic headline. In just five words it sets out a common problem and promises to provide a solution to it.

5. Speak Spanish like a Diplomat

In this type of headline, you describe a particular skill or activity and provide a world-class example of it. Some other possibilities might include 'Play Guitar like a Rock Star', 'Sing like an Opera Diva' and 'Holiday like a Millionaire'.

Adding items that catch your eye is perfectly acceptable. After all, if an ad captured your attention, the chances are it will do the same with others. However, you should be particularly on the lookout for ads that are proven to be successful. These are ads that are run over and over again. This can only mean one thing: the ad in question is working well and making money for the company concerned.

Just a note of caution, though. Your swipe file is there to help you generate ideas. It is not an excuse to blatantly copy other people's ads and infringe copyright laws. When you are working on a new ad, you can thumb through your swipe file to find inspiration for a suitable hook or angle. Or, if you need to come up with a headline, you can read good examples from your file to get your brain in the groove for generating new ones. All successful copywriters keep their own swipe files and refer to them often.

CONCLUSION

In this introductory module we have explained what copywriting is and the wide range of work that copywriters do. We talked about the skills and aptitudes needed to perform this type of work and looked at its earning potential. We discussed the relatively few 'tools of the trade' needed to set up a copywriting business, as well as a 'swipe file' and why you need one. We concluded by previewing the remaining modules in the course and offered some advice on how best to approach it.

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