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What is a copywriter anyway?

Creative man with written pages scattered around him
Date: January 9th, 2019
From glamourous images of 'Madmen' ad executives coining slogans over long liquid lunches, to the supposition that I 'do something with trademarks', I frequently encounter confusion or blank faces when I tell people what I do.... So what on earth IS a copywriter?!
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Oh, to be an accountant or a doctor - or a trapeze artist - or even a gravedigger - who, when asked at parties ‘what do you do?’ can give a clear-cut answer that everyone understands and can pass some sort of interested or polite comment upon.

Not so the humble copywriter. In the company of marketing folk I can feel fairly confident they’ll know what I do, but amongst wider company I have fairly lost count of the times my job title has been met with responses along the lines of ‘Oh how fascinating, so you deal with trademarks and things?’ or ‘What’s the craziest invention you’ve seen patented?’. A copyright-er rather than a copywriter. Cue embarrassed confusion when I turn out to be rather less legally-minded.

I often now take recourse to describing myself simply as a ‘writer’ – more relatable to most, but requiring further clarification that no, I don’t yet have any published novels. Or, I find myself gabbling out a quick explanation of my work, which does the job, but probably sounds more like a sales pitch or the introduction to my CV than interesting party chit-chat.

Which is why, as we launch into a new year full of intent to learn new things, I thought I’d answer the question many of you thought to yourselves when I announced I was going freelance as a copywriter…. what even is a copywriter anyway!?!

Never mind “love”, it’s copy that’s all around us

A nuts-and-bolts definition of copywriting would be something like “the act of writing text for marketing purposes – including websites, brochures, emails, ad billboards, direct mailing and catalogues - aiming to increase brand awareness and persuade a person or group to take a particular action.”

“Copy”, which sounds like journalistic jargon or perhaps something to do with Xerox, is simply all the text you encounter on a daily basis whenever you go online, check Facebook, read an email, open your post, pick up a leaflet or brochure, or ponder the ad on the side of a bus. From catchy taglines to a heartfelt charity fundraising campaign, to listings of events in your area.

It’s me who’s writing that stuff. Far from a Madmen-esque role swivelling in my office chair with a whisky until inspiration for an ad slogan strikes, my projects see me working on everything from websites and emails to catalogues, charity mailings, press releases, product listings and blogs: essentially anything that any company or organisation needs writing, I will write it. Whether it’s a whole new website for a new brand; a specialist brochure; or simply a few short sentences for a particular e-shot or social media post.

It’s all in the action

And crucially, whilst I am a writer, I’m a particularly persuasive one: unlike journalism or creative writing, the ultimate aim of copywriting is to get the reader to take action. Whether that’s to purchase, opt-in, donate, or generally engage with a product, company or charitable cause. I work hard as a copywriter to understand the target audience of any piece of print or digital content – what makes them tick; what will they find interesting; and what will make them ‘add to basket’, pick up the phone, or mention the brand to a friend. But I do strive not to be a ‘salesman in print’ (as I saw one definition term me) – I pride myself on content that isn’t overly ‘sales-y’, but appeals to readers, engages them, makes them feel like they’re gaining something by reading, and makes them feel warm towards a brand or cause. I want the reader to feel entertained and interested, not being sold to.

It’s tough to pick just one example of this from my portfolio, but have a look at the brochures I wrote for the Old Royal Naval College, a prestigious historic events venue in London. It was a fascinating project for a history geek like me, requiring copy extolling the beautiful period features of the venue; but I wasn’t just penning a history pamphlet. The client was aiming to attract customers seeking events spaces with a difference in a crowded London market, and persuading them to get in touch and book. The copy I produced married the descriptive, the factual and the emotive to draw people in, tell them a bit of a story, help them imagine their own event being held there, and nudge them to take the next step.

Wider wordsmithing

On top of this more conventional copywriting, with a history degree and a background in the cultural and charity sector I have a few further strings to my copywriting bow. I relish projects working on historical or destination guidebooks; and getting my teeth into corporate annual reports. I pen newsworthy press releases; and I have clients for whom I tranform audio interviews into readable magazine articles. I’ve even written CVs and covering letters for jobhunters. I also do a lot of proof-reading, turning my eagle-eye to the writing of others. Suffice to say I rarely have a dull day’s work, and my pen is always itching for the next word-based challenge!

So… next time you encounter somebody with a business card stating ‘copywriter’, don’t politely change the subject. Ask them what projects they’re working on, what big brands they might have helped shape, or what got them into writing.

Just please, please don’t mention trademarks.

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