50 Attributes of a Great Copywriter

50 Attributes of a Great Copywriter

Suppose you’re in the market to hire a great copywriter. Suppose you’re in the market to become a great copywriter.  What are the attributes of success? After spending many decades writing, editing and hiring/managing writers, here are 50 attributes of a great copywriter that stand out to me.

What can you add to the list?

1. Curiosity. Writers are like six–year-olds; they always want to know why. Curiosity is the gateway to clarity. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.“

2. Clarity. The difference between a writer and someone who writes is that the former enlightens the reader while the latter confuses the reader.

3. Passion. Further down, I’m putting words like “boring” and “trivial” in quotations because to great copywriters, nothing is boring or trivial if that’s what they’re writing about.

4. Vocabulary. More than just knowing a lot of words, writers must know the nuances of meaning that distinguish, say, notorious from famous.

5. Precision … The devil is in the details of grammar, punctuation and style. From sloppy copywriting, readers infer a sloppy author (i.e., your company).

6. … Without perfectionism. If a writer never says, “Done!” nothing ever gets published.

7.  Diligence. Professionals are expected to work efficiently and meet deadlines. This applies to copywriters and other creative talent.

8.  Ability to multitask. How nice it would be if copywriters could handle one assignment at a time. Unfortunately, in the real world they have to juggle jobs just like everyone else.

9. Focus. To multitask effectively, copywriters need the ability to stay in the moment, focusing entirely on the job at hand. Distractibility diminishes quality.

10. Self-motivation. The manager who motivates a writer to write by screaming, “WRITE!” has yet to be born.

11. Self-editing. Arrogance undermines quality. Great copywriters know when their own ideas stink and treat them accordingly.

12. Versatility of form. Business writing is so much more than articles and web pages; I once described 18 types of odd copywriting jobs. The more of these assignments a writer can handle, the more valuable he or she is to any business or agency or client.

13. Versatility of voice. Some writers master the conversational style; others master the technical or formal (boardroom) style. Those who can move gracefully from one style to another are rare treasures indeed.

14. Versatility of purpose. Some writers are uncomfortable with the concept of a hard sales pitch; other writers are uncomfortable with “boring” assignments. Great writers are uncomfortable with not writing.

15. Consistency of quality. Great copywriters consistently turn in work of high quality, rather than just being great when they feel like it or by chance.

16. Is quick on the uptake. Because of deadlines, copywriters often have to learn on the job and on their own – and quickly.

17. Knows when to stop learning. Being quick on the uptake also means knowing when you know enough to get the job done. Writers who feel the need to know everything before hitting the keyboard never get started.

18. Knows when to ask for help. A writer has two choices: struggle endlessly with a vexing problem or get help from a subject matter expert. The latter option improves speed and accuracy.

19. Knows whom to ask for help. A writer is only as good as the brain trust that surrounds him or her. Choose collaborators wisely. There may be no such thing as a foolish question, but without a doubt, there is such a thing as a foolish answer.

20. Handles criticism professionally. Clients, internal personnel and editors always criticize draft copy. If these people feel they must walk on eggshells when dealing with the writer about edits, morale and productivity suffer mightily.

21. Defends the work. Great writers not only accept and even welcome constructive criticism, they also turn the tables and make a persuasive case for their work. Clients, managers and editors are not always right; an overly compliant writer contributes to mediocre content.

22. Has perspective. On the other hand, great writers don’t make mountains out of molehills. Writers who continually get hung up on small matters of style or approach infuriate coworkers and bosses. 

23. Knows the rules. When it comes to punctuation, grammar and style, writers can’t make it up as they go along. Because both correctness and consistency are important, good writers are familiar with the rules (e.g., AP style) that govern their type of writing.

24. Knows when to violate the rules. Selectively breaking rules is a sophisticated technique for capturing attention. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign succeeded in part by departing from the boring and pedestrian phrase, think differently

25. Uses plain English. Knowing a lot of words is good, but using obscure words is bad. As Stephen King said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” This is as true for fiction as it is for business copy.

26. Is a master of brevity. Any writer can spew out 1,000 words on a given topic. A great writer condenses the topic down to 300 powerful ones.

27. Knows how to go long. Brevity in business writing, while generally advantageous, is not always so. Certain types of content, such as landing pages for complex products, demand long copy. Again, any writer can spew out 1,000 words of drivel, but it’s the great writer who can compose 1,000 words of irresistible persuasion.

28. Understands the business world. Writers write well about what they know. Thus, a first-rate copywriter understands the business process, customer behavior and basic business concepts such as features and benefits.

29. Anticipates reader questions and concerns. Because great writers understand the business world, they are able to identify probable reactions from the target audience – and address them in the copy. In addition, this knowledge enables them to discard messaging points that are not pertinent. An ounce of anticipation is worth a pound of verbosity.

30. Recognizes gaps and weaknesses in the information or ideas being presented. Business savvy enables great writers to spot flaws in the case they are being tasked to make; their input can be enormously valuable to a firm’s sales and marketing leadership.

31. Plays nice with designers. Business copy is more than just cranked out text. It is an important component of a brochure, web page, slide presentation or some other form heavily influenced by design. Writers and designers must be flexible and patient when working together to hammer out the finished product.

32. Knows SEO. Copywriters need not be SEO experts, but they do need to know the basics of keywords, anchor text structure and a few other details. SEO comes into play in such things as text, headlines, subheads, Meta titles and Meta descriptions.

33. Muscles through writer’s block. Writing when inspiration is lacking is agonizing – in fact, it’s every writer’s nightmare. Great business writers have the ability to crank it out even when ideas are harder to come by than five-sided snowflakes.

34. Tells stories. Today’s content strategies have circled back to perhaps the oldest technique of all, storytelling. The ability to spin yarns is essential for case studies, landing pages, slide presentations, videos and a multitude of other forms.

35. Is observant. Writing without seeing the details is like playing solitaire with a 49-card deck. You can’t win.

36. Listens. Most great writers I know are better at listening than talking – maybe because writers are often introverts by nature. Listening is crucial to many aspects of business, including content creation, because it is the surest way to understand the needs of a company’s leadership and its customers.

37. Takes notes. Relying on memory alone, a writer forgets or misremembers most of what he or shehears and observes.

38. Thinks logically. Most business writing is aimed at influencing action – influencing prospects to buy, customers to stay, investors to invest, etc. Since business decisions are made in part based on compelling arguments, copywriters must be able to lay them out.

39. Writes with emotion. Because business decisions are also based on feelings, writers must be able to provoke an emotional response in many of their assignments. Warm prospects freeze when exposed to cold writing.

40. Reads enthusiastically. Great writers are great readers. Reading is to writers what exercise is to athletes.

41. Reads widely. Versatile and authoritative writers read all sorts of things – newspapers, novels, history, comics, or even washing instruction labels if nothing else is available.

42. Reads deeply. Great writers enjoy mastering a subject. The combination of depth and breadth of reading facilitates the versatility in form and style mentioned above.

43. Isn’t a desk jockey. Great copywriters aren’t just about reading and writing. Instead, they go out into the real world and talk to employees, customers and even competitors. Without this, they lose their feel – or never acquire it.

44. Borrows well. Creative copywriting is often an exercise in recognizing effective content and adapting it to the job at hand. Great writers are discriminating judges of talent.

45. Borrows professionally. Crediting a source in the form of a mention, a link and/or a formal citation is a necessary element of credible and creditable writing.

46. Has a mentor. Exceptional writers almost always speak highly of a teacher, an editor or a writer who inspired and taught them.

47. Is not blunt. Many writers tell it too much like it is. Great writers control this tendency.

48. Is not temperamental. Many writers have mood swings; perhaps this goes with the creative territory. Great copywriters manage this tendency to prevent it from interfering with their work.  

49. Is imaginative. Although in some business situations, imagination may be seen as a negative, employers should not come down too hard on copywriters who appear to be daydreaming or throw out lots of ideas.

50. Possesses a sense of humor. Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allan Poe were brilliant writers, but neither would be particularly effective or happy writing an infomercial script for miracle meat slicers. A lighthearted spirit helps writers plow through “boring” and “trivial” assignments, connect with readers and work well collaboratively.

Over to You

This is quite a long list, but I feel as though I’ve left things out. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I’ve really captured the essence of a great copywriter in any sense at all. So here are a few questions.

  • What can you add to this list?
  • Are there items here you would remove?
  • What makes you a great writer?
  • What do you look for when hiring a writer?

Listen to this as a Podcast

Guest author: Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an Internet marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. He is an experienced content strategist, respected blogger, and SEO copywriter. Connect with him on Twitter @bradshorr.

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  • http://www.thesocialsyndicate.com/ Michael Naughton

    Great topic Jeff. Agree with all 50 (esp. #26 & #28). Also enjoyed your ebook on blogging. Best, Michael

  • Danimal713

    I have worked with Brad Shorr before. I would have to say he is one of the most versatile writers around. Great job on this post Brad. If I had to add one to this list, I would include the ability to step outside of their comfort zone. It is not easy to write day after day, but knowing when to take a leap of faith and understanding the risk vs. reward scenario can really prove to be huge when it comes to acquiring relevant internet traffic. Great job Brad!

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Thank you very much! Your comfort zone point is an article in itself. So very important.

  • Nick Hodge

    I definitely think “without perfectionism” is important. If you’re too critical of your own work you’ll never publish anything for fear of it not being good enough. Now, I’m not saying don’t try and do your very best work, but in the end, having the courage to put yourself out there is half the battle. Be proud of what you produce.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Courage is right! When I started writing online I remember times when my finger literally trembled when hitting the Publish button.

  • http://markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    As a very passionate writer I’m very happy to say that I can fully identify with this list Jeff – thanks!

  • Michael Kilgore

    A copywriter has rhythm — not for dancing but for writing. Vary the sentence length/structure and let your copy sing.

  • Alison Hardy

    Love it! I was nodding all the way through. When I reached the end, I thought “Jeez, I’m so happy I’m a copywriter”. Thanks for reminding me how lucky I am to do this wonderful job.

  • Kelly Boyer Sagert

    I’d also say flexibility (meant in a different way from your #12). You may start out with a plan on what to write and how to write it, but will need the ability to quickly switch gears if necessary (our legal department won’t let us say ABC; oh, we just stopped offering that service; and so forth).

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Excellent point, Kelly. Whenever the project involves a lot of people doing edits and internal reviews, changes are bound to happen. My only beef is when the review process makes the output worse rather than better.

  • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

    Great post! The only one I don’t like is number 47. But the other 49 are spot on.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Doug, thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll take 49/50 all day. :)

  • Matt Litkie

    What about coffee? there is nothing in here about coffee…

  • Mike Sullivan

    I’d remove #32. Pleasing algorithms may make you a more effective blogger, but it has nothing to do with great writing.

  • Gordana Stok

    A great writer is a great thinker.

  • Gordana Stok

    A great writer is a great thinker.

  • http://martydickinson.com/ Marty Dickinson

    GREAT copywriters sell their own stuff – Anyone can learn how to become a copywriter. But, the few copywriters that ROCK conversion rates, as opposed to those that just put cool sounding phrases on a page, cut their teeth by selling their own products online. Put food on your own table with your copywriting before attempting to do the work for clients and you will approach the whole process with a different attitude…and you’ll have better results too.

  • Jake Parent

    Really awesome post. I also like all of these except 47. In today’s world of fast paced information overload, I appreciate bluntness more than ever.

  • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

    Everybody: Thanks for all the comments and great ideas. When I had 50 items listed out, I thought I had gone a little overboard. But you’ve come up with several more great additions already. So I guess here’s another one to add to the list — great copywriters never run out of ideas!

  • http://www.remotedman.wordpress.com/ Darius Douglass

    50 attributes is a lot. You could probably condense them to 10. Like 41 and 42.
    I would add that the editing process never ends even when your work has been published. Writers are very critical of their own work. For instance, If I review a piece I had published 3 months ago, and find a grammatical error, I will correct it. That is the perfectionist part of a writer.

  • Akash Agarwal

    It’s a great tips for me. All the points are very important to be a great copywriter. I really learned a lot from it.

  • Sarah Bauer

    Great copywriters are intuitive by nature. This quality gives them the power to understand what people want, and how they relate to the world around them.

    Great post, exhaustive and interesting list!

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  • Kelly Smith


  • http://copywritercollective.nl/ Collective Freelancer

    Well written, Brad! Innovation and Ingenuity will keep freelance copywriters on top of their game. See us on http://copywritercollective.nl

  • Mike Myers

    Just seeing this…great list! I do agree with Mike Sullivan on #32: writing for SEO is just unnatural and can confuse/turn off the reader. Hopefully, Hummingbird, etc. will help with that. Thanks for this.

  • http://www.looklikeanexpert.com Elisabeth Kuhn

    Looks like great copywriters are miracle workers as they have to reconcile so many different and sometimes contradictory characteristics. I’ve got ways to go…

  • http://www.paraphrasingmatters.com/ Chris Gayle

    Excellent Point When I reached the end, I thought “Jeez, I’m so happy I’m a copywriter”

  • http://agastyamaurya.com/ Agastya Maurya

    Beautifully crafted and well thought through list!

  • http://blog.kanbanery.com/ Kanbanery

    I will add one more- stay organized. Many people claim that work organization might kill their creativity. We don’t agree with them :)

    Many of our customers use a kanban board to schedule their work. Is a simple way to meet deadlines and work smarter, not harder.

    We are aware that most of the creative people know nothing about Agile, so… we decided to help them and write about it:)

    Here are Kanban tips for copywriters:

    Enjoy :)