10 things I wish I had known before becoming a copywriter
In collaboration with Media Week, UCL English Alum, Emily Schone (pictured), shares her insights on what she wishes she had known before starting a career as a Copywriter, after graduating in 2021.
25 November 2021
As much as I’d love to tell you I settled on a career in copywriting after months of dedicated research and soul-searching, I can’t. I very much fell into it. Stumbled, actually. Full-on tripped and found myself sprawled out – proverbially – on the floor of a content and SEO marketing agency in Kent, freshly graduated and looking for a temporary job in my home town.
Here, I learnt the art of writing with a purpose in mind – to engage, to establish authority, to inform and entertain and, ultimately, attract the attention of a potential customer.
From blogs to press releases, landing pages to SEO: I received a crash course in the world of digital marketing, and have since developed a newfound respect for the faceless writers behind online how-to guides and Google ads.
I now work in London, as a Junior Copywriter for URBN’s Anthropologie.
Sometimes creative, sometimes difficult, often head-bangingly frustrating – there’s a lot to writing successful copy and content, and equally, a lot I wish I’d known beforehand.
So, for any prospective (or accidental) copywriters out there: these are 10 things I wish I’d known before starting out.
1. Writing is a muscle…
…and you’re going to want to train it. Regularly.
Copywriting is pretty non-stop; you’re going to have to produce copy and content on-demand, to tight deadlines. The second you clear your inbox, another brief will come in.
It’s worth making sure you’re writing in volume, and frequently, before you think about applying for copywriting roles, such as:
- Post blogs
- Submit pitches to online journals
If all else fails, pull up a document and write stream-of-consciousness style for twenty minutes a day.
“When it comes to copywriting, you’ve got to have words on tap. You always can’t wait for inspiration to strike. Think of it as writer muscle-memory; it’s all about forming a habit.
2. Keep it simple (most of the time)
The temptation to whip out some wordplay or drop in that reference is strong – it’s part of the fun of writing.
However, it’s key to remember that, as a copywriter, your content/copy is for a client or brand within a marketing context.
You don’t want to risk losing intent in a complicated sentence structure or obscure aside. Your writing needs to be accessible and engaging, always. Think of linguistic play like chilli seasoning.
It’s great for spicing up plain writing, but be careful and use it sparingly! Too much, and you’ll turn people away. Sometimes, it pays to put the puns down in favour of a direct, effective message.
3. Equally, don’t be boring
There’s a fine line between being to-the-point and being dry.
It’s a careful balancing act, and one I’ve misjudged many a time!
Obviously, this depends on the client or brand’s tone, and the subject you’re writing on – a wedding blog for a sleek city venue is going to generate a very different copy to a landing page for a children’s charity.
That said, even the most serious content shouldn’t feel like the literary equivalent of chewing stale bread. Remember, you’re trying to acquire customers: you’ve got to grab – and hold! – their attention with your copy.
Top tip: If in doubt, keep Apple’s famous “1000 songs in your pocket” in mind: you’re looking to convey something desirable (be it a product, person, or service) in a compact, memorable way.
4. Always think about the bigger picture
Any writer will tell you that it’s all too easy to get caught up in the detail.
Should I split this into two paragraphs? Is that one too many semi-colons? What is an Oxford comma exactly (and why do I care so much)? Before you deep dive into the linguistic nitty-gritty, take a moment to circle back to the bigger picture.
Keep in mind:
- What’s your ultimate aim?
- What is your copy setting out to accomplish?
Maybe you’re trying to generate better click-through rates with an eye-catching email subject line. Or maybe you’re trying to write an SEO blog designed to boost your client’s rankings. Whatever your M.O., it’s vital to keep this at the forefront of your mind when copywriting, as chances are, it’ll influence the content itself.
5. Your audience is everything
It’s not you, it’s them.
No really – it’s all about them. Identifying your target audience is essential to copywriting: who are you aiming to be read by?
Once you’ve got a group in mind, you’ll be able to work backwards and write content that chimes with their needs, interests, and wants.
Say you’re copywriting for a personal training business. There’s no point waxing lyrical about the studio’s new high-tech treadmills or the number of weights in their inventory – you’re not writing for the personal trainers themselves. Instead, your audience will likely be people with physique or wellbeing goals in mind. Content with a broader lifestyle focus will likely be more effective, here.
Not everyone will share the same goals, either – writing blog after blog about weight loss programmes, for example, is only going to exclude prospective customers looking to gain weight, or strength, or rehabilitate after injury.
Your content should cover a range of potential needs or interests relevant to your reader. With the target audience in mind, you’ll be able to tailor your copy to best achieve your clients’ “bigger picture” aims.
In case you missed it: Read Student Journalist, Annita Semina Petrides, key lessons from this year's Media Week
6. Think about your tone
Before I started copywriting, I never paid much attention to the tone of online content. I couldn’t tell you what the key stylistic differences were between websites – only that I wanted to buy the product or use the service – but actually, once you really think about it, tone is part and parcel of a brand. When I became a copywriter, I realised just how much behind-the-scenes work goes into maintaining it.
To illustrate this: the marketing agency I worked for specialised in venues for events.
One of those venues was a prestigious, historic space in the centre of London. Imagine how jarring it’d be if I started producing web copy full of slang, or made references to the latest Tiktok trends when writing about their rooms for hire. Conversely, if I was writing for a trendy Shoreditch bar, and started dropping in facts about the area’s long history and 18th-century charm, you’d probably do a double-take.
Top tip: I found that a big part of copywriting is playing the ventriloquist. Get familiar with the brand or client :
- How they write
- How they don’t write
- How they relate to their audience – to ensure your content seamlessly aligns with their image.
7. Do your research
No one tells you that being a copywriter can sometimes feel a lot like being an investigative journalist.
Behind the simplest ads lies a whole lot of digging – how the product/service works, who you’re writing for, how they talk, who their audience is etc. Sure, you don’t need to be an expert in a subject to write about it (you won’t have the time!), but it certainly helps to do a little background research before you take pen/finger to paper/keyboard.
Don’t underestimate the power of collaboration.
In my first week, I was tasked to write a piece on tax accountancy for parties. I know the regulations around tax breaks about as well as I understand quantum physics (I don’t).
So, I reached out to an events accountancy firm, and got in touch with someone who did know the rules around tax and parties. Not only did the interview mean my copy was accurate, but it also boosted the authority of the client I was writing for. Win-win.
8. Embrace the ugly first draft
Yep. You heard me. That hideous, malformed first draft that reads as your cat has just walked across your keyboard? Don’t delete it in disgust.
I’ve learnt that it’s often better to get something down – no matter how awful – and come back later to fine-tune it, rather than sweating over perfection first-try. Some of my best content has come from embracing what I call my “ugly first draft”; I find that it’s a lot easier to polish up rough copy than scrapping it all and start over.
Top tip: If you can, take a break between writing and editing. Fresh eyes make all the difference!
9. Get used to writing in all formats
In my naivety, I thought copywriters just wrote product descriptions. As it transpires, the reality is a lot more varied, including:
- Email marketing
- Ad copy
- Long-form blogs
- Case studies
- Press releases
- Landing pages,
- Headers and preheaders
- Guest posts
- ..and much more. Every day (and every brief) is different.
That said, it’s a sharp learning curve, particularly for those who, like me, come from a background of 3000+ word academic essays. Each format requires a different approach; writing a 90-character word limit (with spaces!) is actually quite tricky, especially when those 90 characters have to grab the reader’s attention in the quick-fire world of online browsing.
While on-the-job training is invaluable, it can be useful to look at THE content you’re exposed to as a consumer to get an idea of how you’ll be writing.
Top tip: start to identify patterns and formats in your day-to-day
- Have you ever scrutinised the CTAs in the marketing emails you get from your favourite clothing brand?
- What about the Google ad you scrolled past the other day?
- When you’re browsing, pay attention to the layout of the websites you land on.
10. Have confidence
Self-doubt is inevitable, and there’ll be times you’ll be sat staring at a blank Word document wondering why you ever thought this was a feasible career.
I’ve certainly had moments where I’ve felt disillusioned – that I was kidding myself all along, that I’m not fast enough, good enough, savvy enough; that the client will hate it, my superiors will think they’ve made a mistake hiring me etc., etc.
In moments like these, catch yourself and stop. Take a breath, and remind yourself that you’re copywriting for a reason – everyone has their ups and downs, but sometimes, it’s a case of faking it ‘til you make it.
“Practice confidence. Listen to criticism. You’ll build momentum as you go: try to enjoy the ride!
For more tips on working within marketing in roles such as copywriting, check out the information, which includes insights on advertising, marketing, pr and social media careers events. View recordings and five lessons we learnt from Media Week.