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May 17, 2016

What is a Copywriter?

Writing, Blogging
Photo Credit: Michael Heilemann via flickr

The term ‘copywriter’ is actually a hard one to nail down and really define.

When asked what is a copywriter, Merriam-Webster responds with, “someone whose job is to write the words for advertisements.”

Although that is somewhat correct, copywriters do far more than that today. Far, far more. But back in the early days of ad writing, when Madison Avenue copywriters were the be-all and end-all of the game, creating the words for advertisements was all that they did.

The 21st century has seen a big shift away from this specialization, especially with the blasting off that online content marketing has taken. Today’s copywriters have a little bit of everything rolled into one.

It makes for a very complex definition for the question of “What Is a Copywriter?”

So Exactly What is a Copywriter?

A copywriter is someone who writes copy. It’s as simple as that. That copy might be ad copy, or it might be something different, such as an article that focuses on a particular topic. The aim of the copywriter is to create value in his or her clients’ job. Copywriters have to incorporate skills such as in-depth research, marketing, psychology and a number of other fields that make the field of copywriting a rich endeavor for many writers. When someone asks “what is a copywriter” the final answer is obviously not going to be as simple as “the person who creates ad copy.” Copywriters are so much more than that. Copywriters effectively use language to help their audience see what they see and experience what they experience. In essence, a copywriter’s aim is to create good copy.

What Skills Does a Copywriter Have? 4 Major Ones All The Good Ones Have In Common

When we first started off as copywriters, no one knew what we were expected to do. The questions of, “what is a copywriter” and “what is expected of us” were commonplace. As a freelance copywriter, you have to manage your time and it’s up to your clients to explain to you what they want. After you get a clear, concise explanation of what is expected, then you do it. It sounds simple from this perspective, but it encompasses a wide range of related skills, such as:

1. The Ability to Communicate Effectively: As writers, the No. 1 defining characteristic of what is a copywriter is to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently (i.e., write well). As a copywriter, you need to know what your client wants and how they want it. You also need to know the audience you’re writing for. Good communication skills allow you to put these together and develop copy that is compelling and useful in the context of what you’re creating. Whether it’s ads or simply web copy for a site, all of these things come into play when crafting a piece of content.

2. Understanding an Audience’s Motivations: Another key skill of a copywriter that is sometimes overlooked is the ability to gauge an audience’s psychology. What makes them tick? When you’re presented with a request for copy, one of the best questions you can (and need to) ask your client is, “who am I writing this for?” Generally, a client’s audience is a niche and you can usually stick to one particular style of writing that you know works with that type of reader. However, sometimes your ability to write is taxed as you try to cover multiple niches with copy and have to compromise at some points in order to make it work.

3. Anticipate the Audience’s Questions: Unlike other forms of content creation, copy isn’t usually open to feedback. When your client’s audience sees your copy, their first inclination would be to question it. In the old days of ad copy, you had even less leeway between what you presented to the reader and what you could do to answer their questions. Because of the ability to include other types of rich media embedded into a piece of copy, it makes the problem of answering the audience’s questions much easier to solve. This forms another key addition to the definition of what is a copywriter.

4. Know the Product: Knowing the product enables you to effectively anticipate the questions that your client’s audience might have. Remember, these are regular people, usually belonging to a particular niche. Knowing what they want is one thing, but knowing how your product deals with what they want is something else. Your aim is to bridge the chasm between what they think they need and how your product provides it to them. The product is what your copy will be based around and knowing it intimately is in your best interests. The best copywriters take researching their products to a whole different level, getting to understand how it did before and what sort of people bought it to get a feel for what sort of buyer they’re looking to attract now. It’s an art and a science, all rolled into one.

The Same but Different

The question of “what is a copywriter” isn’t a new one. Advertising is an ancient art, hailing from the olden ports of Babylon and Tyre where street hawkers would go about, drawing in people to see incoming wares through their patter. Although the medium has changed as well as the terms, the idea remains the same. Copywriters are charged with making people interested enough in a product to buy it.

The term “copywriter” itself wasn’t commonly used before 1911. Before that, there was no word to define what someone who creates words for ads was called. Now that we know what copywriters are, it seems silly that the term did not exist before the 20th century. From ancient Romans to the more ancient Greeks, advertisements had its place in society as a means of encouraging someone to do something or to buy something. Today’s copywriters call this a call to action (CTA) and it’s another cog in the wheel that defines, “what is a copywriter?”

Is it Easy to Become a Copywriter?

Stephen King once said that you’re either a terrible writer or a good writer, but no writer is born great. The same can be said for copywriters. Many of us start off using copywriting as a means to an end, maybe to supplement income or to earn more with an aim of increasing our flexibility with work. With time, however, the truly great copywriters are separated from those who simply do it to pass the time.

Practice is one of the defining traits of what makes a copywriter, but it is far from the only one. Being willing to go the extra mile is another one of the defining characteristics of what is a copywriter. Probably the most important one, more important than these two, is the thirst for knowledge about the art. The most important arrow in a copywriter’s quiver is passion for the art.

Why Should I Consider Becoming A Copywriter?

There are a lot of reasons for becoming a copywriter. As I mentioned before, many of us copywriters start off doing this as a part time job to supplement our incomes. Most of us start off as struggling college students with a mind for language and an ability to turn a phrase. The income we make from copywriting can be quite large when compared with entry-level jobs in our chosen profession. It’s not strange to hear engineers and med students finishing their degrees and then turning to write copy full time. The income is only one part of the copywriting lifestyle, however.

With copywriting, you get the freedom to work as you want and where you want. Pretty much the only thing you need to be a copywriter is an Internet connection so you can submit your work. That’s why some copywriters take it upon themselves to use copywriting as a means of income as they travel. It’s relatively dependable and gives you the kind of freedom that a regular office job would not be able to. This is another reason why some moms take up copywriting — it gives them freedom to be home with their young children while earning a decent income.

It should be said, however, that copywriting is not for everyone. Another key characteristic of a copywriter is the ability to manage time effectively. This means planning your work around deadlines and executing projects on time.

Delivering work to a client on time can be a difficult thing (even for the most experienced of copywriters). Self-motivation is key. To be able to do what needs to be done for your clients, you need to be able to motivate yourself properly. In many cases, this lack of motivation is what kills many copywriting aspirations.

Exploring New Worlds on the Back of Ad Copy

What makes copywriting such a great profession to be involved in?

Probably the No. 1 thing copywriters will tell you that drives them is the different perspective it can give you.

Nothing prepares you for seeing the world in a totally different light like this job. You start seeing people differently. You start understanding the motivations that drive people. You consider society as a huge interconnected interaction of persons. You see individuals in the whole and appreciate how they create the very society you are a part of.

It’s a mind-blowing revelation, and it’s probably the most rewarding thing about becoming a copywriter.

So the next time someone asks you, “What is a copywriter?” Tell them a copywriter is a person who builds dreams… and helps other see what they can be and where they can go.


Julia McCoy is a top 30 content marketer and has been named an industry thought leader by several publications. She enjoys making the gray areas of content marketing clear with practical training, teaching, and systems. Her career in content marketing was completely self-taught. In 2011, she dropped out of college to follow her passion in writing, and since then grew her content agency, Express Writers, to thousands of worldwide clients from scratch. Julia is the author of two bestselling books on content marketing and copywriting, and is the host of The Write Podcast. Julia writes as a columnist on leading publications and certifies content strategists in her training course, The Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Julia lives in Austin, Texas with her daughter, husband, and one fur baby.