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What are the top 3 traits or skills every copywriter must have to excel?

Can you suggest any tips or insights to develop your copywriter expertise?

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Ginny in Richmond, Virginia

76 months ago

A copywriter must be detail-oriented, must be able to meet deadlines, and must have an expert understanding of the English language.

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Bill in Hudsonville, Michigan

75 months ago

Ginny in Richmond, Virginia said: A copywriter must be detail-oriented, must be able to meet deadlines, and must have an expert understanding of the English language.

Hi Ginny, that's the absolute minimum of skills a copywriter must have. A good copywriter must also have these traits:

1. Inspiration -- the ability to "connect the dots" in seemingly disparate bits of information, making something from the bits that's larger than the sum of its parts

2. Knowledge -- an awareness of many, many subjects. A copywriter must be, at the very least, a mile wide and an inch deep, able to write about anything with seeming intimate knowledge

3. "Magic" -- that certain extra something that makes copy special

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Cynthia in Park Forest, Illinois

75 months ago

So Bill,
How does one become a copywriter? Is education or experience best? Is this a career that can be started after age 40? Or is it best (or easiest) to begin right out of college? Thanks.

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Bill in Hudsonville, Michigan

75 months ago

Great question, Cynthia. Some say copywriters are born, not made. But the same can be said of musicians. Or architects. Or politicians. (And let's not forget human beings. I haven't met one yet that was "made.")

For anyone interested in writing -- of any kind -- I recommend this book: Zen In the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Run, don't walk, to find that book. It's available from Amazon. And probably just about any sizable book store (Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc.) The book explains the writing life using words, typically Bradbury, that crackle and sizzle. The man is a master of word-pictures. I love that book.

Education gives one the degree. It's the foot in the door. But experience -- and an insatiable curiosity -- about life, literature, love, nature, the arts, and humanity is extremely helpful. My undergrad degree is in Journalism. My profession is advertising and marketing, a profession in which I've dabbled for nearly 20 years.

In today's world, it's virtually impossible to do anything after 40. Companies want young, cheap labor. Hiring is based on computer programs with sophisticated algorithms that screen out applicants whose resumes don't contain enough key words. For example, if a company advertises for a Copywriter, if your resume doesn't contain the word "copywriter" in any of the previous job descriptions, it's not likely you'll be hired, which is damn stupid if you ask me. What this boils down to is this: HR departments no longer hire based on what you *could* do. They hire based on what you *have* done. You could be the next Hemingway, Dickens, or Bradbury. A truly gifted and magical writer. But if you haven't done it before, chances are next to zero that you'll be hired to do it in the future.

HOWEVER...

(END PART ONE.)

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Bill in Hudsonville, Michigan

75 months ago

(BEGIN PART TWO.)

HOWEVER...

There's always a possibility. Especially for entry-level copywriting positions.

What all agencies or corporations will require is what's sometimes called your "book," which is an industry term for samples. Your portfolio. If you have little to no experience as an official copywriter, you'll need to prove that you can write. So you'll need to assemble newspaper articles you've written, web sites you've designed and created, poems, letters for non-profit organizations, etc. Compile your most professional samples. Digitize them. These days, companies want you to e-mail them your portfolio along with your resume and a cover letter.

Here are two more books to read if you want to be a top-notch copywriter: "Scientific Advertising" by Claude C. Hopkins. It was written in the 1920s. Its message can be summed up in three words: "Advertising is salesmanship." In short, write to SELL. And sell hard. Study the direct marketing professionals. DM copywriters know how to sell.

Another book to read is David Ogilvy's classic "Ogilvy On Advertising." There isn't a finer book in print to teach one what the world of advertising is all about.

Finally, a bonus book: Seth Godin's "Permission Marketing." Once you grasp the message of that book, you'll be prepared to tackle any assignment with wisdom and uncanny insights. (Actually, anything by Seth Godin is worth reading. The man is a marketing genius.)

(END PART TWO.)

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Bill in Hudsonville, Michigan

75 months ago

(BEGIN PART THREE OF THREE.)

What would be helpful to know, Cynthia, is what you mean by "copywriter." In other words, what do you intend to do with your skills? How will you apply yourself? In an agency? In a corporation? And in what tactical way -- On the web? Print? TV/Radio? Mail? Ads?

What's behind your question?

If you ask me, someone with experience has more insight into the human condition than a fresh-faced college graduate. So if you're the "over 40" person to whom you refer, I'd say go for it. College will teach you terms and applications. It won't necessarily give you the talent. I sometime teach at a nearby university. I've had many students in advertising/PR who could barely string a sentence together. So the degree is not the differentiator. It's the person's innate talent.

I guess what I'm saying is this: You can be a copywriter without the degree. But the degree will more than likely get you in the door. Reciprocally, not having the degree will keep the door closed to you. HR departments today are without street smarts. They operate by formula and guidelines. Precedents. Gone are the days of someone spotting your talent and saying, "Hey! You're just what we need. Report to work on Monday." The hiring process today -- because everyone is out of work -- drags on for weeks. Sometimes months. And competition is fierce. Almost cutthroat. In the end, a company would rather play it safe than take any chances. Hence, hiring someone whose resume fits neatly into the prescribed formula rather than hiring someone whose resume appears to be an unknown or slightly off the beaten path.

One more thing. If you've written for all of your years -- screenplays, poems, articles, reviews, etc. -- you've likely developed something fresh-faced grads don't have: discipline. You know what writing takes. You've paid your dues. You've honed your chops. That, in my book, is vastly more important.

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M in Hampton, Virginia

75 months ago

Bill, what a WONDERFUL post! I am a freelance writer but it's almost impossible for me to find a full time paying writing gig without a degree, much less get anyone to call me back. They all want a BS in English or journalism minimum. Even though I have tons of experience and a professional portfolio, they won't even give me the time of day.

I did really enjoy your post, Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement.

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zeech in Pompano Beach, Florida

75 months ago

I started a career as a copywriter at age 46. If you have done writing in your past, any type of writing, you need to highlight this on your resume. I was lucky enough to find someone who was willing to give me a chance. Don't give up. Do freelance if you have to to get some portfolio pieces.

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Cynthia in Park Forest, Illinois

75 months ago

Bill,
Thank you for your in depth response. Yes, I am the 40 something individual looking to start a writing career. My background is social work, customer service and to a small degree, sales. I did write in some capacity in all my previous positions. As a consultant for an art company and as a realtor, I created my own marketing pieces and they were quite good. Currently, I work at a university and would like to work in the Public Affairs office. A vast number of pess releases go out of that office in reference to the programs, facilities, and community functions offered by the university, including a theatre, and an extensive healthcare program. I am a graduate student majoring in Media Communication, although my undergratduate degree was Retail Management. I am a voracious reader, I am curious (my family might say nosey!), I have written for the campus newspaper and know that my writing skills will be perfected as I complete my course of study. Thanks for the recommended reading and for your thorough respone.

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Cynthia in Park Forest, Illinois

75 months ago

Oh,
And I am usually an excellent speller! My "undergraduate" degree is in Retail Management. :-)

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Bill in Hudsonville, Michigan

75 months ago

Cynthia in Park Forest, Illinois said: Bill,
Thank you for your in depth response. Yes, I am the 40 something individual looking to start a writing career.

Given your background, I'd say you have all the raw talent to be a writer. As zeech and I mentioned, put a book together. Get a decent-looking portfolio and assemble your stuff. It would help if you have a story ready for each piece. A reason-why story, one that indicates your strategic thinking up front that resulted in the tactic someone looks at. For example, "This piece was the result of research conducted that indicated a need to be more persuasive, to woo the target audience in a slightly different way. So I pumped up the benefits and highlighted a few key features and -- voila! -- we got a 10% response rate. Sales increased by $15,000 in just two months." Whatever. Have a story ready for each piece. You want to be both strategic and tactical. These days, many employers want someone who can do everything, combining skills that never were combined before. For example: "We seek a top-notch wordsmith who is also a skilled designer (of print and web) and research pro. Must have working knowledge of Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign as well as Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint." In short, people want 2-3 employees in one person in an attempt to squeeze the utmost productivity out of a single individual. So be a "Renaissance Man"...yet have depth in key areas. I think you'll do fine.

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Frances Cherman in Santa Cruz, California

72 months ago

> What are the top 3 traits or skills every copywriter must have to excel?

1. Curiosity. About everything. And a willingness to ask the questions curiosity naturally inspires.

2. The ability to imagine yourself in the situation of the person you are trying to reach with your copy. You must understand the nature of a problem he faces (hopefully the one this product or service purports to solve) PLUS the entire context in which he is experiencing the problem--his options (if any), his priorities, his fears, his hopes, his positive and negative experiences with your company or with products like yours...all of that must be held in your mind before you ever set finger to keyboard, otherwise you may write great-sounding copy that is loved by the marketing staff but has no relevance or credibility to the prospective customer you're trying to influence.

3. The ability (while still in the customer's skin) to see your product through his eyes...to recognize the questions he would ask and natural resistances he would have to buying the product...and then the courage (because marketing WILL freak out when you suggest this) to actually address those questions and concerns, thus removing the barriers that would otherwise keep him from buying.

To sum it up, you need to unswervingly view your client, product or service from the customer's point of view, and write to support and influence that point of view. You will never, ever convince a person to buy your product by contradicting their reality; you must acknowledge their reality, show them you support it, and then teach them something believable they didn't know, which, presumably will be how your product and/or service can help make their life better/easier/more prosperous/more fun/etc.

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