Often confused with copyright law by the uninitiated, copywriting is the art of commercial writing. Most often it means using words to persuade people to buy a product or service, and the glamorous side of the copywriting profession is considered to be working for an ad agency writing copy for television adverts – as you’ll know if you’ve ever watched the television series Mad Men.
But the term ‘copywriting’ covers all wording that appears in a commercial context, or that’s used by businesses and other organisations to represent themselves or to persuade an audience to take any kind of action. Website copy, blog posts, press releases, brochures, leaflets, catalogues, social media posts – you name it, as a copywriter you’ll probably end up writing it. Even the call-to-action buttons on websites are a form of copywriting, known as ‘microcopy’.
Good copy is essential to the running of a business, as it forms a major part of a brand’s identity. Copywriting is a rewarding job because it involves helping organisations to get their message across in a way that helps them grow. If that sounds like a line of work you think you’d like to get into, keep reading to get the lowdown on what’s involved in becoming a copywriter.
As a copywriter, you have several different ways of working open to you.
- Working in-house – you work full-time for one company, covering all copywriting needs for them. Working on only one company means you’ll really get under the skin of that brand, but you’ll have less variety in your work
- Working for an agency – working full-time for an agency, you’ll work with lots of different clients. This is a great way to build up a breadth of copywriting experience and get practice at writing in different tones of voice for different brands
- Working freelance – working for yourself, you’ll essentially be a one-person agency, with a variety of clients to work on. All you need is a laptop and you can work from anywhere, and this location-independence is a big draw of freelance life for many copywriters
Copywriters will often try all of these over the course of their career. Many start out by writing as an in-house copywriter or for an agency, as this is a good way to build up experience before going freelance. You can start from scratch as a freelance copywriter, but this is much more challenging with no experience.
Some copywriters choose to specialise in a particular industry, such as technology or travel, while others keep their options open by taking on work from a variety of industries. You may find that you naturally start to gain a reputation in one area in particular after starting out as a generalist.
Daily life as a copywriter
The nature of your day-to-day life as a copywriter will depend on the kind of copywriting you do, but clearly, you can expect to spend the majority of your day writing. This can be a challenge in moments of ‘writer’s block’! Of course, it’s not all about being a wordsmith; as with any job, answering emails and dealing with other bits of admin will also take up some of your time.
Unless you work in-house, you’ll be switching from one client to the next and writing in a variety of styles and formats on all manner of different subjects. You’ll find yourself having to become an expert on all sorts of things you’d never considered before, and research and brainstorming will often take up a significant proportion of your day on new projects.
You won’t always be writing from scratch. Often, you might be working with existing text and transforming it from something long and full of jargon into something clear and succinct that anyone can understand. You might be given a one-line brief and asked to work your magic, or you could be working from a brief that runs to several pages, with clearly defined brand guidelines to match.
What makes a successful copywriter?
It’s not necessarily the case that because you were good at English at school, or because you like writing your own blog posts or stories, you’ll make a good copywriter. Naturally, flawless spelling and grammar are essential, but that’s just the beginning. To succeed as a copywriter, you’ll need the ability to:
- Sell – most copywriting is about selling products or services, and sometimes, they might not be very exciting products or services. The ability to find the interest and write compellingly about any subject is essential to becoming a successful copywriter
- Get into the mindset of your audience: understanding who you’re writing for and adapting your style accordingly is a fundamental to copywriting. What challenges do your audience face, and how can what you’re selling make their lives easier?
- Switch between styles – you’ll need to get used to writing ‘on brand’ for a huge range of clients. What’s appropriate for one brand won’t be for another – and bigger brands will have style and tone of voice guides that you’ll need to be able to follow
- Tell stories – ‘storytelling’ has become a buzzword in the copywriting world, and for good reason. Telling a company’s story is a great way to get potential customers to buy into the idea of a brand, and with so much competition, some imagination is essential to help your clients’ businesses stand out from the crowd
- Keep up with trends – to stay at the top of your game as a copywriter, you’ll need to keep abreast of the latest trends. Depending on whether you specialise in a particular industry, that might mean keeping up with relevant news or looking at what’s popular at the moment. As a lifestyle copywriter, for example, reading the latest women’s and men’s magazines will keep you up-to-date with the latest fads and the language being used to write about them
- Manage projects – project management is a crucial part of life as a copywriter, and you’ll likely have several projects on the go at once. Managing clients’ expectations, chasing up the information you need and ensuring deadlines are met are all part and parcel of being a successful copywriter
- Understand what clients want – clients aren’t always particularly clear about what they want from you. Successful copywriters are adept at asking the right questions to ensure they’re sufficiently well briefed to meet the client’s needs. It’s also handy to have the ability to judge when your own suggestions and input might be welcomed; you can sometimes add value by helping to shape the direction of a project to allow a client to achieve their goals, such as suggesting extra copy they might need or copy that isn’t necessary
In addition to these, it will also be helpful to have some specific skills and knowledge, which we’ll now move onto.
What knowledge and skills do you need for copywriting?
As we’ve already noted, you’ll need to be able to write English to an impeccable standard, with a flawless knowledge of grammar. You’ll need great attention to detail, and you’ll also need to be good at research; you’ll often have to write expertly about subjects you may have no prior knowledge of.
Importantly, as we’ve already touched on, you’ll need to develop a clear understanding of consumer behaviour and what motivates different sorts of people to buy – and you’ll need plenty of persuasive writing techniques up your sleeve.
Not only that, but it’s essential to have an understanding of how websites work, as you’ll often need to use the power of words to guide people around a website. That means not only understanding the best practices of writing for the web, but also having a grasp of user experience and how people typically navigate around websites.
As with most jobs, good interpersonal skills are important for communicating well with clients. The nature of copywriting is that you’ll usually be working alone, so you’ll need to be someone who’s self-motivated and comfortable juggling multiple deadlines without anyone to oversee what you’re doing.
There are also some complementary skills that may help you find work as a copywriter, including:
- HTML – you don’t need to know it in detail, but being able to do basic things such as format headings and URLs will help
- SEO – search engine optimisation is an important consideration when you’re writing for the web, and you’ll find that some clients will give you keywords that they want you to incorporate into their copy. Having at least a basic knowledge of SEO will come in handy if you’re planning to write digital content
- Social media – even if you don’t intend to offer social media services, it’s good to have an understanding of the various social networks, not only because you may be asked to write content for them, but because they’ll help you promote yourself professionally as well
- Paid search advertising – being able to write content for online adverts, such as those on Google, will add another string to your bow
There aren’t any ‘official’, universally recognised copywriting qualifications as such, and copywriting is a skill best learned on the job. However, to get you started and to gain relevant training to put on your CV, a number of organisations offer diplomas and other qualifications to help you learn the basics. These are some of the best known:
- Reed.co.uk and the College of Media and Publishing – Level 4 Diploma Copywriting Course
- The IDM Award in Digital Copywriting
- The Writers Bureau – Complete Copywriting Course
- The Blackford Centre – Diploma in Copywriting
- The Andy Maslan Copywriting Academy – Breakthrough Copywriting Courses
- American Writers and Artists Inc – The Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting
If you plan to specialise in a particular industry, you may also want to think about what you could do to further your expertise in this specific area. For example, if you planned to specialise in legal or healthcare copywriting, are there any courses or qualifications you could take to prove you know what you’re doing?
How to build experience
Whatever kind of copywriting job you have in mind, you’ll need some way of proving that you’re good at writing and demonstrating the breadth of your writing skills. Getting started as a copywriter is much more about gaining experience than it is about gaining qualifications, and when you come to apply for jobs or freelance work, you’ll usually find that employers and clients are most interested in reading some examples of work you’ve done. These are some good ways to start building up your copywriting portfolio:
- Start your own website or blog – setting up your own blog and writing about something you enjoy is a great way to start showcasing your skills
- Write for friends and family – asking around your friends and family and putting out some feelers on your social media accounts may well yield people who need something writing for their own businesses
- Write for charities – most charities are stretched for funding, so you could try approaching a few organisations and offering free or low cost copywriting work
You’ll be needing somewhere to store your portfolio, and the best option is to dedicate a section of your own website or blog to showcase samples of your work; research shows that an online portfolio can make a difference at interview. For more inspiration, take a look at these four beautifully designed portfolio sites.
How to find a job as a copywriter
There are plenty of places to look for work as a copywriter if you decide to go down the full-time employment route. Some good places to start include:
- You’ll find lots of copywriting jobs simply by searching for “copywriter” on the usual job sites, such as Indeed.co.uk and LinkedIn Jobs
- Another copywriting-specific place to look is Pro Copywriters, which has a copywriting job board for both full-time and freelance roles
- Look at agency websites – search Google for content and digital marketing agencies and add the word ‘copywriter’ to your search to find agencies who are recruiting copywriters
- Social media is a great place to look for copywriting jobs; try searching Twitter for terms such as ‘copywriter job’ and see what’s being advertised
As with many lines of work, copywriting is a competitive field and it’s worth doing what you can to stand out from the crowd. Arguably the best thing you can do in this regard is to set up a professional-looking, memorable website. It doesn’t have to be as clever and amusing as this legendary example from copywriter Joe Coleman, but it’s worth putting the effort in to make sure it’s nicely designed, visually appealing and with your own copy on show to sell your services. As we said earlier, incorporating a great portfolio showcasing a variety of writing styles is a must, as prospective employers will likely want to see examples of your words.
How to become a freelance copywriter
If you’d prefer to go it alone, setting up as a freelance copywriter is surprisingly easy.
- Set up your own website – as discussed in the previous section
- Register as self-employed – this is a simple form to fill in with HMRC
- Start looking for work – check out these tips on how to find work as a freelancer
- Get paid – here are all the tips you need on how to get paid as a freelancer
There’s loads more advice on what you need to do to go freelance, and if you’re not quite sure whether you’ve got what it takes to be your own boss, you may find it helpful to have a read of this article on the skills you need for freelancing.
Is copywriting the right career for you?
Finally, copywriting is an interesting and varied line of work that’s always stretching your brain cells and introducing you to subjects you’ve never learned about before. It’s a career that can give you complete flexibility over your time and location, should you wish to go freelance, and it’s incredibly rewarding seeing your work in print or online – even if it isn’t usually credited to you by name. It’s not without its drawbacks; it’s a largely solitary profession, for instance, so might not suit you if you thrive on being part of a lively team. If you’re convinced it’s the career for you, you can find lots more helpful advice from Pro Copywriters.
Rachel Ramsay is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.Read full profile