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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