When you major in English, most responsible adults will assume you’re going to be a teacher. Non-English majors tend to believe teaching is the only thing you can do with an English degree. People you barely know, and sometimes even complete strangers, will ask you nosy questions about how you plan on paying your bills as a writer and will remind you that most writers don’t make any money. These people may make you cry once or twice, but if you’re passionate enough about writing, you’ll major in it anyways. Such is the life of a creative person.
Even though I did end up teaching for several years after I graduated, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Not a copywriter, but a writer nonetheless. And even though I didn’t plan on being a copywriter when I decided to major in creative writing, it wouldn’t have mattered anyways.
The skills you need to be a successful copywriter aren’t necessarily taught in formal education, but you can learn them through experience. Before we talk about what skills you need to be a copywriter, let’s clear up what copywriting actually is.
What is Copywriting?
Most people I talk to outside of my profession don’t know what a copywriter is. I guess I can’t blame them because I’m not sure I even knew what a copywriter was while I was pursuing an English degree. I receive confused looks from people all the time when I tell them what I do. The writing part they get, but they usually ask, “What exactly is copy?”
Copywriting is creating copy, or text, for marketing purposes. So unlike a content writer who produces informative content for a blog post or ebook, a copywriter will create copy for ads, websites, or other marketing material. Copy is meant to convince people to take action- whether that action is buying a product, signing up for a service, or joining a mailing list.
(BONUS - here's a video about it.)
Copywriting Skills You Won’t Learn in School
No matter what your background is, every successful copywriter needs the following skills. Chances are, you won’t learn them in formal education.
I know this one seems silly, especially if you major in writing. However, the writing skills you learn in school don’t always translate to copywriting. It’s not the same as academic writing, nor is it the same as writing fiction, although experience in those areas will certainly improve your writing ability. For copywriting, you need to be able to write in a way that’s concise and engaging. Being a talented fiction writer doesn’t necessarily make you an effective copywriter, but writing well should be your starting point.
Research skills are absolutely necessary for a copywriter. If you’re helping a business sell a product, it’s going to require some research so you can understand the product and target audience. You don’t need to be an expert in the field you’re writing about, but excellent research skills can help you write trustworthy copy.
You also shouldn’t have to rely on a client to give you the information you need. As strange as it may sound, many of the business owners I speak to don’t know a lot about their competition or their target audience. It may be up to you to determine what makes their business stand out and that will require some mad research skills.
Copywriting is more than just creating fun and quirky headlines but no one wants to read boring copy either. Creating copy that compels the reader is going to take a lot of creativity. Sometimes, you have to take a product that is boring to most people and make it sound exciting enough that someone wants to buy it, even if they don’t really need it. This involves understanding the way your target audience thinks, which leads me to my next point.
You're a great writer? Excellent! A great writer can become a great copywriter. But you have to understand people as well as you do writing. If you're creating copy for the website of a brand new business, you have to think through why someone might come to this website, what problem they need a solution to, and what might turn that person into a paying customer. Solid prose may be entertaining to read, but it doesn't necessarily sell vacuum cleaners.
It's Not Meant for Everybody, and That's Okay
I've seen a lot of copywriting courses that claim "Anyone can be a copywriter!" They usually talk about how copywriting isn't the same as the writing you did in school and claim that copywriting is more accessible than other types of writing. I really don't want to crush anyone's hopes or dreams- but copywriting isn't for everyone. It’s true that copywriting isn’t academic writing, and there are many skills you can learn to become a great copywriter. However, if writing isn't one of your strengths to begin with, copywriting may not be for you.
We've all heard the phrase practice makes perfect. Practice will make you better, but as my previous administrator used to quote, “perfect practice makes perfect.” I think this applies to copywriting, or any writing, in the sense that if you practice but never get feedback or receive constructive criticism, you won’t know how to get better. Constructive criticism is challenging, especially for creative people, but it’s necessary for you to improve your craft.
If you think you do have what it takes to be a copywriter or you're interested in learning to write copy, the best way to get started is just to dive in. When I took my first copywriting job, I had no idea what I was doing, but it got easier over time. You'll find out pretty quickly whether copywriting is for you.