What is a copywriter? (Hint: writing's only half the job)

cartoon of different copywriter hats

Someone recently asked me 'so what is a copywriter?'.  One thing's for sure, being a copywriter is about way more than just writing.

Here are eight possible answers to the question: 'what is a copywriter?'.

1. A copywriter is a thinker

'Thinker' is the answer that immediately springs to mind, because it's what I spend most of my day doing.

When you hire a copywriter, you're not just hiring a word monkey. You're hiring someone to think through a business problem. The solution to that problem just happens to take the form of words.

Here are some of the problems I've helped clients solve recently.

  • Employees of a large financial firm needed clarity on the company's strategy

  • A slide deck seeking to encourage senior business leaders to sponsor an arts organisation was greeted with boredom and befuddlement

  • A cancer charity wanted to send something to supporters that would get them donating (but didn't know what would work)

  • A brand consultancy wanted to turn their book into an inspiring speech for an industry event, but didn't know where to start

It's the copywriter's job to help a client think through challenges like these. To be strategic.

To ask:

  • Who are we trying to reach with our words?

  • What's the objective here?

  • What will chime with this audience?

  • What's relevant and what's not?

  • And where does it all fit in with everything else we're saying?

The next step is to sit back and listen to the answers, which brings me to...

2. A copywriter is a listener

A written brief is important, but it's really the copywriter's job to get their clients to talk. Because something remarkable happens when people talk.

Ask a client to write down what they want to say and they get all self-conscious and 'writerly'. Which in a business context means they produce joyless drivel about 'driving truly global platforms of excellence across all our key markets'. Or whaddever.

But get them to talk and you get stories. Wonderful turns of phrase. Evidence that the speaker really does love what they do. Really does care about the message they want to get out there.

So if you want to be a copywriter, just listen. And expect to spend much of your day on the phone.

Think of it this way. Copywriting is easy. You just ask people questions and write down what they say.

3. A copywriter is an empathiser

A big part of the 'thinking' process is empathising with your reader. Putting yourself in their shoes. Seeing the world through their eyes.

Again, it's about knowing what's relevant and what will resonate. What you can assume they know and what you might need to explain. All things many non-writers struggle with.

You may have heard the (slightly jargony phrase) 'outside-in-thinking'. It's a term business strategists use to describe the process of viewing your business as the customer views it.

A copywriter's job is to apply outside-in-thinking to an organisation's comms. Which is why it can be particularly powerful to hire an external writer to bring a fresh eye to things.

In fact, I often don't think of myself as a writer but as the champion of the outsider. The one person in the process whose job it is to ensure the writing meets the needs of the reader (and not the needs of, say, the internal stakeholder).

4. A copywriter is a persuader

Yep, let's not forget the point of all this thinking, listening and empathising: getting someone to do something.

You might be persuading your employees to change the way they do things. Getting people to buy your product. Or convincing that investor to come on board.

Every successful piece of business writing has a clear desired outcome - I call it the 'Big Ask'. It's usually persuading your reader to act.

5. A copywriter is a musician

Finally, we get to the actual words. A great copywriter writes with her ears, not her eyes. She brings to every piece a little bit of rhythm, some artful repetition and words that capture the cadences of the spoken word. Or, rather, the spoken word improved.

6. A copywriter is a compromiser (sometimes)

A famous general once said 'no plan survives first contact with the enemy'. The copywriter's version? No first draft survives contact with the client.

Invariably, the first casualty is the rhythm. Hey ho.

7. A copywriter is not a fantasist

I'm sure I'm not the only copywriter who's had a client ask: 'could you just make something up for us at that bit?'.

Answer: 'no'.

While copywriting requires some creativity, there are limits. We don't pull ideas out of nowhere.

But we will listen. And probe. And find out what you really want to say at 'that bit'. Or whether you need to say anything at all.

8. A copywriter is not a grammar fascist

If you're a stickler for the rules of grammar, become a proofreader. If you're looking for someone to police your documents for non-adherence to those rules, hire one.

But your copywriter, while they know and care about the rules, has bigger fish to fry than whether that infinitive should remain split.

And they're happy to play fast and loose with the rules of grammar, if doing so furthers an aim or makes better music. I'm sure this post has made some poor pedant's eyes bleed somewhere.

Are you a copywriter?

If so, how would you answer the question: what is a copywriter?