First and foremost, let’s not confuse the term with “copyright,” which is a legal designation and generally unrelated. A copywriter is a person who writes the text for advertisements, with the end goal of getting a reader to act (or stop acting) in one way or the other. Advertising copy is influenced by art design, SEO considerations, ad space limitations, and the ever-timely burst of inspiration.
In my opinion, the better the copy, the more you don’t recognize it. That’s not to say that it’s passive or uninvolved. Quite the contrary: every word is deliberate, calculated, functional. But what these words do in effect is merge with their medium, telling one unified story and creating one holistic experience. It’s more than convincing an audience; it’s moving them. It’s the graceful dance of getting a customer to act the way that you want them to, but without them feeling forced into it. Aristotle called it rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, that appeals through one of three ways: either the sheer logic of the argument, the emotions of the audience, or the trustworthiness of the brand. To help you in your rhetorical strategies, here are some tips for successful copywriting:
3 checklist items before you get started
- Know the brand. Study the ins and outs of the culture and products/services offered—be fluent in the language of the brand. Understand what it really means to be an advocate for what you’re trying to sell, because often times, consumers can see through superficiality.
- Know the audience. Step into their shoes for a bit, and walk around until you get comfortable. Sometimes that means actually talking to people in your target audience, reading sites and articles that they read, etc.—you won’t fully grasp what their needs are until you grasp where they’re coming from.
- Know the ask. Understand what you’re trying to sell, what medium you’re selling through, and what platform you’re selling on. Then, determine your approach. Focus less on what makes the brand fit into its market category—focus on what makes it stand out.
6 tips for successful copywriting
Here’s some great advice that I was given when I started writing, and some useful tools that I turn to when I’m stuck.
- Write down everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s not good. When you start, you need to get all the bad ideas out of the way in order to arrive at the good ones. And sometimes a bad idea may be bad in itself, but has the potential to lead to something else, and that’s good.
- Once you’re done writing, you’re not. Pick up your headline, your concept handle, your whatever it is you just finished, then rewrite it in a completely different way. This exercise was shared with me by a mentor copywriter of mine, and continues to be excellent advice: it forces you to break your own molds, keep the creative juices flowing, and possibly land on some nugget of ingenuity that you may not have uncovered otherwise.
- “Never walk away from a hot keyboard.” This is a line from Luke Sullivan’s Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This!, a remarkably poignant yet irresistibly funny guide to ad copywriting. The book has been a great resource for me (pick it up if you haven’t read it), and this particular excerpt always reminds me to feed inspiration when it’s hungry instead of cutting it off short.
- Practice makes perfect, and then makes more practice. Find articles and ad examples, then try out the styles, the tones, the sentence structure. It will help you to see more solutions to your problems, and challenge you to revamp a tried-and-true technique to your own liking and purposes. For daily inspiration, I frequent the advertising and branding section of Adweek, and for a breakdown of different writing devices that can be employed in an ad, I reread this fantastic article, “An Inconvenient Truth for Copywriters,” by Suzanne Pope.
- Wield your creative license, but only if you’re being smart. Don’t be afraid to bend the grammar and spelling rules as it benefits your ad, but at the same time, don’t throw the dictionary out the window. Know how to properly formulate a sentence before you masterfully disrupt it. My favorite resource to consult for basic grammar rules and writing mechanics is the Purdue Owl.
- “It’s the passion that keeps you sane.” An English professor in grad school told me this once, and while it wasn’t said in direct reference to advertising, I try to remember the sentiment in every piece I write. Here’s the truth—I don’t “own” any of my ad writing, in the sense that it all belongs to the person commissioning me to do the job. But the process of writing is intrinsically mine, and it is a dedication to that process and a passion for the craft that makes this job one of the best in the world.
In the end, remember that copywriting is all about translating a message: it’s articulating the intangibles, perceiving the audience’s needs, bringing concepts to life. The magic is the way you can turn something that feels so complicated and intricate on your end into something so simple and effortless on the customer’s end. It’s the art of persuasion—I hope you’re convinced