Copywriting – it’s easy to see it as the fluffy combination of advertising and journalism, and a copywriter as a dilettante, dabbling in both arts and excelling in neither. But that’s an unfair assessment.
Good copywriting is a skilled profession that draws strongly on journalistic skills to produce a good result. An excellent copywriter will also have a strong understanding of marketing and commercial media, but it all starts with journalistic skills.
First and foremost, as a copywriter you are hired to tell a compelling story. You are usually aiming for your reader to take some action in response to your copy – buy goods or services, donate money, recall something about a brand next time they see it, or better understand an issue. It all starts with piquing the reader’s interest with a good headline and keeping them engaged with a compelling story.
Like a good reporter, this usually means finding the story that lurks within the information you’ve been given. A journalist writing about the controversial Rushcutters Bay skate park may rely on Sascha and her skateboard to be their hook.
When copywriting, you might relate that more Australian youths and men die of suicide than any other cause, and go into specifics about the age range (15-44), triggers, prevention and support later in the copy.
It all starts with the hook.
They say that the key skill for selling (and friendship, and marriage, and parenting) is listening. It’s the same for journalism and copywriting.
First you keep your ear to the ground for story ideas, to feel the zeitgeist and hear how our language is evolving. Then you listen carefully to your editor, or your client, about the brief. Once the listening is done, you do a bit of reading between the lines, but it’s still listening. Then you’re listening to sources, and, finally, listening to yourself. What do your instincts tell you? Where do you need to dig deeper? Finally, you listen to the story. What are you missing? What isn’t being told?
Late last year, one of my clients in a business advocacy group, said to me, “One of the things I value about you is that you’re accurate. I know that if I commission you to write something for me about HR or industrial relations, you’re going to cover the details without getting anything wrong. We are an advisory organisation and if our copy is wrong it undermines our entire brand and message.”
I hadn’t really considered that angle because that’s just how I work – old journalism habits die hard. But it seems that some copwriting focuses so much on clever words that the writer misses the details. Those copywriters don’t get invited back.
The secret to all good writing is editing.
It can be hard to shift-gear between writer and critic, but we must. All good writers must step-back from their work and read it with a critical eye. Is it accurate? Does it tell the whole story? Is it compelling? What have I left-out? Where is my bias?
For journalists, there is a certain safety net in knowing that a sub-editor will go over the work later, asking questions and correcting obvious errors. Depending on the brief and the client’s budget, those of us in copywriting don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes no one else checks the work. In the past I have seen tiny errors that I missed on my desk appear in the final published version. It’s mortifying!
Being able to edit your own work is the best defence.
It may surprise you that a lot of content doesn’t use the copywriter’s words at all – it comes from an interviewee, just like a lot of good journalism. If you read a strong charity campaign, you’ll notice that it’s mostly based on interviews and follows an individual’s story. When I write about tech I often start with a conversation with an engineer or product specialist. I often need their input to understand what I’m writing about, especially if it’s an entirely new product. What they say will set the tone and structure for the writing.
Just like in journalism, when copywriting you need to know what questions to ask, need to listen carefully for details that need clarification and cover the essentials of what, when, where, why and who.
6. Writing to a style sheet
You may notice that every number less than 10 in this post is written as a word, and 10 and over is written as numerals. That’s no accident. It comes from the Sydney Morning Herald style guide that I used early in my career. And if I’d mentioned percentages, I would have written “percent” (The Australian’s convention) because I think it is cleaner than “per cent”. But that’s my personal preference. Editor’s Note: TCC Style is “per cent”, which follows Oxford style rather than “percent” the US style.
In long-form fictional prose, I’d be required to spell out every number. Financial writing requires numerals for all numbers. Most clients have their own style guides, branding guidelines and, if you’re lucky, tone of voice guidelines. When copywriting, we must abide.
6 ½. Expert knowledge as a copywriter
It’s not essential for a journalist or a copywriter to specialise because our true specialisation is in finding and telling the story.
However, for a journalist, specialisation makes them the go-to person for that topic and improves their credibility when reporting on an area. If you saw a report on a free trade agreement by someone you’ve only ever seen on E! News, you may feel sceptical. But if it’s Alan Kohler on Four Corners… the power of the niche.
It works similarly for a copywriter. When pitching, I always know that there are fewer competitors for medical, business and tech writing jobs, and I can prove my credentials well. Once I win the job, I can work faster, I know where to look for more information and can draw on previous jobs for ideas. However, if you asked me to write about Tik Tok trends, I’d be starting with Dance Monkey and finishing with @avarxsee dancing to Funkytown in her kitchen. And I saw them both on YouTube anyway. A millennial would run rings around me.
Finding your own copywriting niche isn’t essential but it helps.
There are far more crossovers between news media and commercial writing than you think. The skills of each are transferrable so, if you’re looking for a change, why not see if the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence? And if you are looking for talented, experienced copywriters, look no further than TCC!