Not sure whether you have what it takes to be a copywriter? Let’s look at the core skills you need to be a successful copywriter.
People are going nuts for content. They can’t get enough, so demand is going through the roof. More often than not, a business will turn to a copywriter to generate it for them. So what skills do you need to get into the game?
Copywriter skills: –
- You have to be good at writing – not brilliant
- A good communicator – write like you talk
- Empathy – see issues through other people’s eyes
- Research skills – you have to write about things you know nothing about
- Attention to detail – check for mistakes, then check again
- Self-motivated – writing is a solitary task
Can anyone become a copywriter?
Motivation is all you need. The techniques themselves are not difficult to learn but it will take practice to get right. Persistence and ingrained curiosity are a huge help. Meet any copywriter and they are a bit of a know-it-all. They have to be.
One of the great aspects of the job is that you work on completely different things. Farm equipment one day, fashion the next. Beer, banks, cars – you need to develop an expertise on every project you work on. That will be largely self-taught. Natural curiosity will help you dig deeper into a subject to find nuggets of information.
It comes down to salesmanship. How you go about that will depend on who you are talking to and when and where you are having the conversation. Writing a 280-character tweet is a very different skill to writing a 1500-word blog post but you can learn how to do it.
“Just write like you speak. People listen to conversations not speeches.”
Do I need a degree in English?
Definitely not. It may even be a hinderance. Commercial writing has to be simple, not academic. In our information overloaded age, a reader needs very little excuse to move on to another topic. You want your reader to sail through the copy, so it has to be easy to read.
Marketers will often use the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale to assess the readability of a piece of copy. This scale was originally developed by the US Navy to make their manuals easier to read. It is a formula that looks at sentence length and word length and predicts the grade school reading level of the text.
The scale ranges from 1-100, where the higher the number the easier the text is to read. As a rule of thumb, you want to write copy that falls between 60-80. That’s the school reading level of an 8th Grader, (8 years of schooling) which will be comfortable reading for most adults.
Examples. I took extracts from front page articles of digital editions of newspapers and from popular books to check their reading ease score.
New York Times – Ease Score – 37 Grade Score – 15
The Guardian – Ease Score – 33 Grade Score – 16
New Zealand Herald – Ease Score – 63 Grade Score – 9
Harry Potter Goblet of Fire – Ease Score – 79 Grade Score – 6
War and Peace – Ease Score – 66 Grade Score 10
It is very easy to work out the readability score of your own writing. There is a built-in tool in Microsoft Word that works out the readability score for you. You can find out how to access it here.
There are also several free online calculators that allow you to cut and paste text and work out your readability score like this one. I use the Yoast SEO plug-in to check my text.
Resonate and connect
Understanding people is a huge asset for a copywriter, much more their writing skill. You have to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. If you can think like someone else then you can connect with them. Understand what they are worried about and how to re-assure them.
Most of the time you are talking to strangers, you need to build trust before they let you into their lives. This is the selling psychology everyone talks about, you have to know what motivates people – what makes them happy, sad, envious, greedy for more. What drives people to make a decision, if you can crack that you’ll make a great copywriter.
Watch people, listen to their conversations, just be curious. You will have to develop conversations with people from all different backgrounds as you work on different products. Media companies place ads in front of people by targeting their sociographic features but the ad is useless if it does not connect with the audience. That is where you come in.
Do I need to know graphic design?
This is a common question. Words and pictures are so closely linked, they have to work hand-in-hand. Almost every piece of marketing content uses some sort of visual reference to make it more impactful, to grab attention or be more pleasing to the eye.
You don’t need to know graphic design to be a copywriter though. This is not a copywriter skill. But it can really help if you have some sort of visual awareness. Words and pictures usually come as a package. Ideas are presented as visuals. If you are working by yourself, it is a good idea to team up with a graphic designer or art director, so you can either develop ideas in tandem or package up your copy with visuals. This is much more attractive to clients as they can see how their ads will look, how the consumer will view their ads.
How visually aware you are as a copywriter will largely depend on where you see your career in copywriting going. Digital copywriters are paid by the word and will be focused on blog content, landing pages and web pages.
Direct Mail copywriters will produce a lot of emails that are dropped into company templates, so their focus is on persuasive writing that drives click through rates. Work in ad agencies is concept driven, you are not employed for your writing ability but for your skill at coming up with ideas. Copywriters come in all shapes and sizes.
What are key characteristics of very good copywriters?
- Persistent – You will be constantly asked to write about subjects you have absolutely no knowledge of. You’ll have to do research. The only way to spill content onto a page is if you have soaked up knowledge from somewhere else. And if you are happy with the first thing you find, it is not going to be very original, a million other people will have found the same thing. Keep going, keep looking until you know more than your client about the subject. If you can surprise them, you can definitely surprise their customer with new information, of even the same information presented in a new way.
- Attention to detail – I make mistakes all the time. When I am writing a draft, I am more concerned about getting the words down on paper. I kind of blurt everything out before I forget what I want to say. Then I look back and can see lots of squiggly red lines on the document that pinpoint my mistakes. I have learned to my cost that spellcheck will not pick up everything. I now triple-check, line-by-line to find the little mistakes. Then I read the piece out loud – that helps me with tone and rhythm of the text. After I have done all that, I use a trick learned from a proof-reader I knew and read the text backwards word by word. When you read something over and over again you become blind to what is actually on the page. Reading it backwards makes you look at every single word.
- Self-motivated – You’ll spend many hours, sitting at a keyboard, looking at a blinking cursor, flashing on a blank page. You can brainstorm ideas with other people but writing is a solitary task. You have to have the will to push on, find inspiration within yourself to complete a job. People will not be shy when it comes to telling you whether they like your copy or not but it will be down to you to write it. Some people find that difficult. Others thrive on it, are excited by it.
- Inventive – Who wants to read the same thing? It’s boring right? The consumer knows it and the writer. Creativity is a skill that is useful in many careers but is an essential skill for a copywriter. You are going to be asked to write about something other writers have already covered extensively. Heck, you might have already written about it yourself. You have to put a new spin on it. The good news is you can learn to be more creative. It is practise, the more you write, the more confidence you will gain.
- Thick-skinned – This is a skill that most people don’t think of. Every writer is faced with a lot of criticism and rejection, it’s part of the job. Every piece of text you produce will be judged. Reviews and re-writes are common. You can put your heart and soul into something, think you’ve done a great job and then have it thrown back in your face. Now that will usually only happen if there has been some mis-communication between you and your client about what you want to achieve. But is happens. A professional copywriter has to take it on the chin, review and reset and start writing again.
Copywriting is a great job. You can be your own boss, you get to work on all kinds of projects, constantly learning new things. Writers struggle to make money, copywriters do not. Understanding people, how they tick and what motivates them is the greatest skill a copywriter needs. That doesn’t come out of a book, it comes from observation.
My own daughter became a copywriter without any experience or help from me. She liked to write (maybe I helped there) and that was all she needed. Straight out of school she went into a digital agency – got a trial, aced it, then got briefs every to write blog posts. Much more profitable than waiting tables.
If you’d like to find out how I got into copywriting you can take a peek at the story here. Now it’s your turn. Let me know how you got into copywriting in the comments below.