Copywriting 101.

on October 10, 2014 Copywriting Careers with 0 comments

If you want people to do a certain task, perform a specific action, or think of something in a particular way, you have to sell them on the idea or undertaking. Selling is not only for products and services. It’s also for ideas, methodologies, arguments, and even people. Each time you get someone, or a group of people, to do or think what you’d like them to do, you’ve performed a function of sales. Do this through the medium of written words, and you’ve got the building blocks of a copywriter. Copywriting is a specific function in the broader repertoire of written communications. The function of copywriting is to get a person or group to perform an action. As copywriters, we consistently develop the craft (not art) of selling people on an idea, product, service, or person. Copywriting courses at Quantico focus primarily on developing this skill of getting people, groups, and organizations to perform specific actions by selling them on the merits of the process and the outcome.

Copywriting: Enter With Wisdom

Let’s think for a minute about why global firms and political organizations (Quantico has worked with Bayer, Sumitomo, Ricoh, Accor, IHG, AXA, SGX, Zurich, and governments of Singapore, India, and Canada) hire a copywriter. These institutions have the planet’s smartest people working for them. They’ve also got access to a huge wealth of resources. So why do they hire copywriters to work on projects that are seemingly simple, like generating a header for a brochure, or writing three paragraphs for a report, or proofreading and editing (there’s a difference) a document? If anybody who speaks a language and loves reading and writing can become a copywriter, then surely any of a number of people within these institutions would be able to do the job. After all, just about every job today requires applicants to have ‘excellent communication skills.’ Large firms (this also applies to many smaller companies) know very well the specific training and skills-set that go into creating a professional copywriter. A professional copywriter knows how to tailor the skills mentioned above to meet the unique requirements of each firm. And above all, a professional copywriter is able to be a consultant to these firms, performing first the tasks of a consultant and consumer behavior specialist, and then a creator of persuasive content. In fact, in many of the world’s most established copywriting firms, senior copywriters don’t even work on the final copy. They conceptualize the content based on their insights and data, and then leave the task of content formulation to a junior copywriter.

Copywriting is an old, established profession. It’s also exciting since it’s classified as a creative function, which is why the lure of copywriting can be so strong. Also, copywriting works within the context of language and since all of us use language as a necessary function of life, the appeal of copywriting is further intensified. And this is where most aspiring copywriters stumble. Indeed copywriting is reliant on language but to think that one has the necessary skills to be a copywriter because they know a language is like someone saying he or she is familiar with first aid and therefore qualifies as a neurosurgeon. A company that’s just produced a 150-page annual report is not going to hire a person to proofread the document just because that person is a teacher who marks students’ essays. Similarly, you aren’t likely to hire a retired police officer to promote your case in court just because the officer knows the basic aspects of the law, or was once referred to as an officer of the law. Likewise, a copywriter is not someone who is only familiar with the language or has an ability to write. A copywriter is a trained professional (a communications specialist) with experience in consumer behavior and client psyche, and who’s spent a lot of time analyzing and reporting on industry trends. Copywriters are skilled in text analytics and semantics. They are highly educated in and thoroughly exposed to culture and politics (small P). And arguably the most important skill that earns someone the title of a copywriter is the ability to predict and fulfil consumer purchase criteria. This last, and most important quality we look for in Quantico, is a data-driven skill. A copywriter at Quantico, and at other top firms around the world, knows extremely well how to put findings into practice. A copywriter must know how define a competitive set of customer perceptions because only then can the copywriter tailor an offering to consumption circumstances.

Why Copywriters Fail: Misconceptions, Mistakes, and Misery

It must seem obvious that professional copywriters, like professional accountants, have the requisite knowledge, experience, and training to perform the functions of copywriting. So why are there still so many retired teachers, aspiring novelists, and self-proclaimed language experts still masquerading as copywriters? Why do more than 90% of all freelancers go bust within the first year of operations as copywriters, when the demand for copywriting is only increasing in the age of information? And why do others who manage to stay afloat find it difficult to nail down five figure monthly salaries (often charging in the cents per sentence) in an industry that’s so highly prized? There are two reasons for this. One is the absence of a certifying body for copywriting. Unlike professional accountants, there is no examining board for copywriters who want to achieve professional status. Therefore anyone who wishes to call themselves a copywriter may do so without scrutiny. But take note: Although this path may seem convenient for buddying copywriters, the absence of a governing body means that your skills are tested directly by the market itself. And the market, unlike a governing body, is hasty in deciding, harsh in its rejection, and permanently unforgiving to those who mess up just once. In other words, where a certified professional does not judge you, the clients, whom you need for your business, become the ultimate and only judge and jury. And once word spreads, it stays for a long, long time. Of course this does not happen to every aspiring copywriter. But the rules of any industry are essentially identical when it comes to expertise. Many a freelance copywriter who takes this fact lightly, or chooses to ignore it, falls quickly into a disreputable category. This is why more than 90% of all freelance copywriters fold up their business in the first year. And this phenomenon leads to another unfair side effect. With the number of freelance copywriters terminating their operations prematurely, the freelance industry comes under fire where companies no longer want to work with a freelance copywriter, even if they have the abilities, out of fear that the freelancer will simply go bust.

The advice, and the signs, are simple: Know your field very well. Know what you’re getting into by choosing to become a copywriter. Remember, it’s a professional field (despite not having a unified governing body) in which evaluation of performance and price is assessed directly by the clients who decide how good or not you are. Professional copywriters (the real ones) do this evaluation for themselves, setting prices that are commensurate with their expertise and on par with the global copywriting industry — which as we’ve seen is a highly prized field.

The second reason why copywriters fail is because of the term itself: copywriting. We tend to look at the ‘writing’ part of copywriting and believe that this is the core skill necessary. It’s not entirely the fault of new copywriters. The U.S. Bureau of Labor makes the same error, grouping copywriters together with writers, novelists, and authors. While there is some overlap, it is insignificant. What we should be looking at is the word ‘copy’, not ‘writing’.

Why Copywriters Succeed: Majors, Masters, and Mash

‘Copy’ means text, and text is a large definition that encompasses words, images, people, organizations, communities, countries, and planets. Textual analysis is therefore the study of the world around us and how it interacts and fits with the people whom you want to message. Owing to the sheer scale of diversity, textual analysis is not a perfect science, but neither is it a pure art with total creative freedom. This is why we call copywriting a craft. Copywriting balances the science of textual analysis and consumer behavior with the art of humanizing communication to accumulate and harness stronger network effects. Professional copywriters are not afraid to mash these elements together and sift through the outcome for meaning, even if the result is a formidable combination of content. That’s because each combination from the mash yields something of a symbol that is as unique as the entity for whom the content is for.

Copy relies heavily on semiotics (see Ferdinand de Saussure) which is the study of signs and symbols (includes words) and their implied meanings to the individual and the society. Here’s a simple example: A traffic light has three colors — red, amber, and green. Regardless of whether we speak English or Mandarin or any other language, we as a global society agree that red means stop and green means go. This meaning is implied by the color of the lights and agreed upon by the world (denotation) so that the colors of a traffic light are universally understood. However, the color red has different associations for different cultures. For some cultures it’s a symbol of prosperity and energy, and in others it signifies blood, war, anger, and hatred. These different meanings are called connotations and are unique to the different cultures who perceive the color red within context of their own experiences. And then there’s the history of the traffic light; the modern version with the three colors was created at General Electric and is now used all over the world.

A copywriter is able to consolidate all these aspects (in this case the denotations, connotations, and history) and apply a cultural lens to the text so that the final product resonates on a conscious and unconscious level with the target audience. This is the premise, the bedrock, on which copy is built. And this is also why a great novelist or author is not automatically a great copywriter, and vice versa. Copywriting is an independent function which carries its own set of criteria, and is measured by its own metrics for utility and usability. In other words, a novelists write for pleasure. Copywriters write for purpose, and that purpose is to sell.

What Every Copywriter Must Know: Traditional and Digital Mediums

When you choose to enrol in a copywriting course, there are probably several factors influencing your decision. One that doesn’t often take centre stage but is critical to a successful copywriting career is the medium in which you want to specialize. We’ve seen that there’s a lot more to copywriting than general perceptions of the industry. Copywriting itself has multiple layers in which one can choose to specialize. The two primary subsets of copywriting are traditional copywriting and digital copywriting. The traditional medium of copywriting deals with offline content. Collaterals that are associated with traditional copywriting include brochures, pamphlets, newsletters, annual reports, posters and billboards, and market flyers. In our age of information, each of these collaterals has a digital counterpart. The same collaterals are distributed across the world in electronic format to be read on desktop screens and mobile devices. In fact, you can add the letter ‘e’ to almost all of these pieces and chances are your colleagues will know what you are referring to. So one of the questions we get asked most often in our copywriting course is ‘what’s the difference between traditional and digital copywriting?’ Surely with a click or two one can convert a newsletter destined for print, into a format suitable for digital distribution. This is true so why the distinction? Because of the way people utilize and consume text on screens is significantly different than on paper.

Various studies have agreed that attention spans are shorter and traditional reading orders are disrupted when viewers interact with texts on screens. These disruptions have lead to some of the most delightful and innovative designs for websites and e-newsletters. Copywriters who’ve worked for long enough in the traditional medium are aware of the subtleties of content absorption owing to variances in design. For example, applicants to Quantico, with knowledge of typography and information design systems have an 80% higher chance of getting accepted than those without design knowledge. This is because the kind of typeface used for the words will determine the level and quality of interaction with the content. Imagine writing a letter to two of your local government representatives and receiving a reply from one set in Arial, and the other in Comic Sans. For those who followed the election of Barack Obama, many will know of the campaign’s focus on one-word and short slogans (Change, Hope, Yes We Can). Professional copywriters will be able to tell you that it wasn’t just the words that made a difference, but the typeface used — Gotham. A bold, simple, highly geometric type that had a distinct ‘for the people’ appeal was used to reflect the qualities of the campaign, and by extension the president himself. Typography is everywhere around us, from the train station route chart to the advertisements on the side of the platform, to the websites we use, the brands we follow, and the books we read. There can be no words in the digital space without typography. If words are the body of the content, typography is the soul of it. Typography is just one of several subtleties that professional copywriters are fully aware of and utilize to strengthen their products. Copywriters also need to know how the digital medium interacts with content. Most digital content ends up on websites. And a website is useless unless the target audience can find it.

Getting on Google’s Good Side: Writing For Two-ish Audiences

Thus we enter the complex world of search — a rich, expanding pageantry of content that parades across our screens. When we write for traditional mediums, we write only for people. When we write for digital mediums, we write for two audiences — people and spiders. Okay so they’re not real spiders but rather small snippets of software code that index the entire content of the world wide web. (Get the reference to spiders now? Spiders? Web?) Search engines develop and use their own spiders to crawl the web and spin web links across all content. And while the algorithms of these spiders are only getting scarily intelligent at mimicking human reading behavior (see Google’s Artificial Intelligence Project) we are still, for the time being, writing for two distinct sets of audiences. Humans beings will understand language nuances better than the spiders because we are a semantic species. The spiders need more help in understanding meaning but are becoming extremely good at it. (This is why you can search for the term ‘car’ in Google and also get results for ‘truck’ ‘bus’ and ‘motorcycle’. This is semantics.) We write to make the content clear to both humans and spiders, which is not always a straight forward affair. Humans may understand the nuances, references, and double entendres but spiders may have difficulty keeping up. As a result, the spiders will rank that page lower. That is unless there is significant human traffic to that page, in which case the spiders will rank it higher. Professional copywriters are, surprise surprise, semantic experts. (Note: if you are not an expert in semantics you are not a professional copywriter. Period.) They know how to balance semantic equations within content to create texts that engage both humans and spiders without trading off quality, interest, or index levels. This is another key quality that we build into Quantico’s copywriting course, together with typography, and network effects. Whether you choose to specialize in traditional copywriting or digital copywriting, there’s no getting away from the pervasiveness of technology that influences every aspect of the copy process. And yes, to be a great professional copywriter is to be familiar with the world of tech. It’s the future that’s happening now.

What’s Next For Copywriting? The Future Of The Industry

In the age of information, copywriting has been steadily gaining traction as an integral part of the content revolution. (Naturally we mean the copywriters who know about the stuff we’ve talked about). The industry is growing fast, which means soon there’ll be just premium space left for premium copywriters to occupy. If you’re going to become a copywriter, do it with full knowledge of and respect for the industry which you will be working in. Quantico’s copywriting course was developed from our own experiences over a decade. It’s a great industry to be in and we’re pretty much in the center of the content revolution. While programmers will create the next generation of web and software applications for the world, copywriters will connect the world with those products and services, and communicate their utility. We will be responsible for the next wave of digital content and linguistics. We will also become the curators of meaningful content. It is our job, and passion, to lead the world towards clarity and engagement through semantics, culture, network effects, consumer predictions, and data-driven decisions that affect the minds of readers on a conscious and unconscious level. This is what Quantico’s copywriting course is about — a future that’s happening now.

Here are 42 more tips (simple but not as commonly practiced as you might believe) to get a stronger grip on copywriting practicalities.

1. You are writing for human beings. Prioritize engagement from the outset itself. If it does not interest, it does not work. Period.

2. Begin with the end in mind. What’ is the expected result? Write towards an ultimate action you want customers to take.

3. Words have emotions. Identify which ones apply to your copywriting and work for your customers. Emotional appeal is key.

4. Myopia serves nothing. Always look ahead by at least 20% more than your clients. It’s part of a copywriter’s job.

5. Always remember that you are selling something, not only products or services, but ideas, concepts and aspirations.

6. Information seldom comes in neat packages. It’s your job to pull in the bits and pieces and present the big picture to your client.

7. Don’t expect to get it right the first time. No one expects that. Focus instead on getting it right in the most efficient ways possible.

8. Keep your client in the loop. Clients may not be expert copywriters but they are the experts in the field you are writing about.

9. The first draft is always the worst. The first ideas come to everyone. Dig deeper for greater originality and appeal.

10. Assert your expertise. Listen to suggestions but exercise your own expert judgement. You are responsible for the final result.

11. Credibility is currency. Error is fraud. Ensure that every writing piece is without grammatical or factual errors. Even the drafts.

12. Want to be a great editor? Try reading your sentences from right to left (English script). It’s easier to spot errors that way.

13. Copywriting is an element of design. Form follows function in every type of communication, including written content.

14. Insist only on the highest quality work, even if the client is satisfied with what currently exists. If you can do it better, do it better.

15. Never steal another’s work. Plagiarism is the scourge of the industry. It’s easy to discover and impossible to explain away.

16. The best approach to adopt is the reader-centric one. It requires empathy and results in total understanding of customers’ mind.

17. Research. Research. Research. Then research some more. Then some more. Research. Have some time? Research.

18. Know when to stop tweaking. Perfection is the result of the work doing what it’s supposed to. All other forms are non-existent.

19. Copywriting is a lot like Mathematics. There is a perfect system. There is an elegant solution. And logic always take priority.

20. Know the language. Know its every nuance. Your language is your source of all copywriting expertise. It’s your fountainhead.

21. A copywriter is an artist and a scientist. Copywriters are adept at making information speak to the right and left brain.

22. Try beginning with a mind map first, then do an outline. Chaos is the cradle of creativity. There will be plenty of time to organize.

23. No one cares how great you are. Everyone cares how you can make their lives great. Talk about your customers, not yourself.

24. Knowing a language does not make a copywriter, just as knowing a song’s lyrics does not make a musician.

25. Your words will be judged by those who are not in the business of words. It’s up to you to clarify expectations before starting.

26. There’s no set time to write, just as there’s no set time to enjoy the day. Whatever works for you is fine, just meet the deadline.

27. Don’t begin with a description, unless it’s essential. Instead evoke a thoughts-train. Ask a short question or state an assumption.

28. Copywriting is the domain of those who can truthfully convince customers of their expertise. Be that copywriter.

29. When did it become cool to treat customers as fools? Be good to readers. Every copywriter is obliged to create ethical content.

30. The first eleven words of any paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Pay attention to the first eleven words.

31. Vary your sentence lengths for greater interest. Long sentences slow down time. Short sentences speed up time.

32. Tone of voice is critical. We use tone of voice to sense feelings and receive emotional feedback.

33. You are only as good as your last tagline, paragraph or advertorial. Smart copywriters never believe they’ve achieved perfection.

34. Use jargon carefully. A specialized audience will expect and appreciate it, but to the uninitiated, it will be nonsense.

35. Use gender-neutral language. Your copywriting is going out to the human race. Be inclusive.

36. Watch the labeling. Some audiences do not like being referred to as ‘victims’. Neutral labels hide negative connotations.

37. Get the punctuation correct, and know the correct names. Virgules, octothorpes, pilcrows, and interpuncts are proper terms.

38. Hyphens, dashes, and minus signs are often incorrectly interchanged. Use them properly. Misuse is tantamount to misspelling.

39. Watch the redundancies. ‘In my personal opinion’ is redundant. Redundancy is the enemy of accuracy.

40. Watch the vocabulary. ‘Revert to you’ means ‘I will turn back into you.’ Clients may not know this. Copywriters must know this.

41. American or British spelling? Either one is acceptable as long as there is no interchange. That is a copy crime.

42. Clients trust you with their content. Convert their words into actions that create positive outcomes for their business.

Copywriting is a sales function that combines aesthetics with analytics. The copywriting process plugs into every model of business communication to connect customers with organizations. Copywriters are multi-industry specialists who sell engagement, ideas, and rhetoric, which drive and humanize brand fulfilment. Learn more about this at Quantico’s workshop: Introduction to Copywriting. We cover a lot of ground on identifying and amplifying latent points of inflection between customers and brands, and transform users from passive recipients of data into active participants of knowledge.