12 Aug

So you want to be a copywriter?

I suppose this post is prompted partly out of bitterness, partly out of genuine concern (for clients hiring copywriters and for my fellow scribes), and partly out of anger at having bothered to learn and hone a skill… then having to watch individuals go; ‘I could do that, no probs’.

I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an accountant just because I can add up quickly and understand a balance sheet.
I wouldn’t dream of calling myself a designer just because I can use Photoshop and own an etch-a-sketch.

However, there seems to be a growing trend of people choosing to call themselves a copywriter, just because they happen to know English (or the mother tongue in their country) and can type on a keyboard.

They seem to think they can just tell clients that they’re a copywriter, with no background in the field, because, well… anyone who can type is a copywriter, right?

I see these individuals on freelance websites a lot, with profiles that say things like; ‘I studied English at uni…. I was a teacher… I read some copywriting books… I wrote great essays as a student… I used to write a newsletter’
However, they can present no tangible examples of copywriting work, no portfolio, no commercial writing of any kind.

I also see people just adding it into an existing list of services offered by their business, when – again – they have no experience of it. They just think the ability to type qualifies them.

Part of the problem is that copywriting is a field with low barriers to entry. You can go through an official course, but you don’t have to. You can get agency experience, but you can also wing it for a bit.
Or… you can come fresh out of uni/college, having written a few good essays, and write well… but without being able to adapt your style to different businesses.

The reason it irks me that people are just choosing to label themselves ‘copywriter’ is:

1. It takes the p*ss out of myself and my fellow professionals, who bothered to; go through a relevant course/learn copywriting as a skill (I went through the West Herts Copywriting and Art Direction course), read up on the industry heroes/read relevant books (David Ogilvy, David Abbott, Dominic Gettins etc), work on live briefs and learn through – initially – making mistakes on big accounts, learn about brands (how they operate, past marketing etc), learn how to write across different media channels.
To then go in and charge (or try to) the same hourly / daily rate as someone who’s worked for years to get to that rate, and has the experience to back it up, is a p*ss-take.

2. Would you hire a roofer who said they’d never worked on a roof, but had ‘read lots on it’ and ‘seen other people do it’?

3. It’s genuine copywriters who suffer the fallout when someone who isn’t actually a copywriter makes a mess of a client’s copy.
These are clients who – having been stung – then don’t trust copywriters, or see it as something that ‘clearly, any idiot can do’. There’s also a knock-on effect where clients expect the professional copywriter to ‘pay for the sins of others’ i.e do the job at a knockdown rate, because that client is having to pay twice for copy.

But, if anyone out there – with no prior experience – fancies just calling themselves a copywriter, because they can speak English and type quickly, I’d ask them the following questions:

– Can you write in another style/voice other than your own? If you can’t, you’re not a copywriter – you’re just someone who can write as themselves.
Try a test: write a paragraph/FB note as if you were your best friend, and see if people can tell it’s not them that’s writing. Then see if you can write as Virgin Media, then Nike, then Apple etc.

Why do I say this? Well, think about it: if you can only write as yourself, will that suit a law firm, a building company, a health and fitness business?

– Can you imagine yourself as your target audience (the target audience of your client’s business), research them, and write to them: could you write as if, in your head, you’re a 55 year old who lives in the country and is quite right wing?

– Do you know when and how to use a colon, a semi-colon, a hyphen, and a full stop? Do you know when to use one over the other, and when they’re interchangeable?

– Do you know which words are hyphenated and which aren’t… and when it doesn’t matter either way?

– Do you understand semantics: when to use e.g ‘risque’ Vs ‘controversial’, or ‘fast’ Vs ‘speedy’?

– Do you write like you talk… but with what would be considered errors in standard written English?

– Can you explain the decisions you’ve made – word choices, syntax, tone of voice – to a client, having written their copy?

– Do you know the difference between an endline and a strapline?

– Have you written across different media channels: do you know the difference between writing website content, a blog post, a press ad/headlines, a direct mail piece, a video script etc?

– Can you show live examples of brands/businesses you’ve worked on?

– If someone asked you to explain your daily/hourly rate, could you? Could you say where you got it from/what you measure it against?

– Do you understand that just because you’ve written it, and it came from your hand, that doesn’t mean that it’s right/a finished piece of work, and the client may criticise it and come back with a number of changes to be made?

If you answered ‘no’ to most of the above questions, then you have no business calling yourself a copywriter and/or taking money from clients on the basis of having that skill.

I don’t call myself a scientist just because I got a D for A-level Biology, so please don’t label yourself as a copywriter if you’re not one – it just creates problems for both clients and genuine copywriters.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *