What exactly does a copywriter do anyway?

February 17, 2011 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Ask Dean 

ask Dean Rieck about copywritersWhat does a copywriter do?

Funny that I never talked about this before. But I’m learning that a fair number of people really don’t know what a copywriter does for a living.

Even copywriters don’t always know how to answer that question, because they may do just one specific type of writing and have no experience with what others do.

So I think a clear definition is in order, though that’s harder than it sounds.

I’d hate to just say something lame such as, “Copywriters write stuff for businesses” or “Copywriters help businesses sell products and services with the written word.”

These definitions are simply too limited. And they really don’t give you a clear picture of the day-to-day work of a copywriter.

Perhaps the best way to define a copywriter is to just give examples of the various things a copywriter does. A copywriter will …

Write advertising and marketing copy.

Every business needs to bring in customers and clients. So they need a variety of printed materials, including ads, brochures, business plans, catalogs, circulars, direct mail, fliers, invoice stuffers, labels, packaging, post cards, product literature, sales letters, self-mailers, and trade show displays.

Write public relations copy.

Any communication with employees, clients, customers, or the general public is considered public relations (PR). The term “corporate communications” is sometimes used to encompass PR and various other communications. Usually, however, PR is anything a business sends to the newspapers or radio and television stations for public consumption, such as feature articles, news releases, press kits, and product updates.

Write technical materials.

Writers generally gravitate away from technical subjects, leaving this area open to those with a background in engineering, computer programming, science, and other high-skill areas. The needs in this area include data sheets, demo software, reports, sales sheets, technical papers, training and instruction manuals, and all manner of technical documentation. These materials are sometimes for fellow technical types and sometimes for the general public, who need complex ideas translated into simple English.

Write speeches.

Nearly every professional is called upon to give a speech at some point, especially highly visible executives and politicians. A speech writer needs an “ear” to write words that communicate, motivate, persuade, or sell. This includes speeches for local, regional, and national political candidates; speeches to raise funds for nonprofit organizations; and speeches for business functions, such as meetings, dinners, and special events.

Edit what others write.

While not a high-paying area, editorial work is widely available for writers with solid skills. This includes content editing, copy editing, fact checking, indexing, research, production editing, and proofreading for general business communications, textbooks, and publishing. For those skilled with other languages, there is also a big market for translations.

Ghostwrite copy.

Ghostwriting means writing something that someone else will put their name on. This can range from writing articles to authoring best-selling books, usually for fees far in excess of what you would get if published under your own name. The best money is to be made with high-profile politicians, business executives, and celebrities.

Write audiovisual and broadcast copy.

Audio visuals are used for training, recruiting, fundraising, and teaching by businesses, educators, government entities, and industry organizations. This includes audio scripts, radio ads, television commercials, and video scripts. It’s not unusual for copywriters to direct and produce the final product, which may include hiring a production studio, locating voice talent and actors, shooting video or recording audio, and editing the final product.

Write online copy.

The Internet is growing at a geometric rate and there is more and more work for copywriters online. This includes email marketing, websites, online sales pages, auto-responder messages, banner ads, product descriptions, wiki pages, video and podcast scripts, and other content. Since so much relies on search engines finding this content, online copywriters must understand SEO or search engine optimization techniques.

Write grants to raise money.

While not typical copywriting, this area can be particularly lucrative for individuals who prove their ability to obtain funds from government and private sources. This is a highly specialized area, requiring experience and extensive knowledge. Pay is often based on a percentage of the grant money awarded, which means you may work on commission and not for a flat fee.

Write collateral materials.

The word “collateral” is a catchall term for those miscellaneous items that don’t fit in any one category, including annual reports, booklets, corporate brochures, business letters, case histories, catalogs, corporate histories, newsletters, and so on. Most businesses could do without many of these items, but use them as secondary marketing and communications materials.

So, there you go. That’s what copywriters do.

Have I missed anything? Do you have a short definition of “copywriter” that makes sense?

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Smart Comments

14 Comments on What exactly does a copywriter do anyway?

  1. Ben on Feb 17th, 2011 11:12 am
  2. Couldn’t you boil this down to:

    ‘Copywriters write’ or ‘Copywriters communicate’?

    As you point our there’s so many possible uses of a copywriter that there’s no single, clear, description. My suggestions above are easy to understand but there’s also room for confusion in the interpretation.

  3. Dean Rieck on Feb 17th, 2011 11:30 am
  4. Ben,
    Yes, copywriters write. However, so do novelists and poets. I think the problem is that so many people think that copywriters are just like other writers. But they do something different and special.

  5. Sonia Simone on Feb 17th, 2011 11:52 am
  6. I might expand Ben’s point to “copywriters write material that serves a business purpose.”

    I do think it’s super valuable for Dean to break it down this way, as I think it helps to show the complexity of this work. And of course, every one of those categories has niche writers who specialize in just that, or in that format for a particular industry or set of industries.

  7. Ben on Feb 17th, 2011 11:57 am
  8. fair point – perhaps my description was a little too general :)

  9. Dean Rieck on Feb 17th, 2011 12:18 pm
  10. Sonia,
    Right. Sometimes it’s just easier to show than tell. Sort of like when my wife asks how to work the remote control with 8,639 buttons. I could try to explain it, but it’s easier to just say, “Press this button.”

  11. Damon Z. on Feb 18th, 2011 11:11 am
  12. Dean’s “description” is also valuable for copywriters explaining the value they offer to a potential client.

    Were I to say, “Well, I write,” to a prospect, she might respond, “Well, good for you.”

    Were I to position myself using (stealing?) Dean’s approach, the prospect might say, “Good grief! Can I adopt you?”

  13. Lucy Smith on Feb 20th, 2011 4:13 pm
  14. Heh, I bumped into a school friend in the supermarket, and after the whole, ‘so what do you do’ thing, I told her I was a copywriter, and she looked surprised and started telling me about her husband’s new job at a law firm. It took me a minute to click that she’d thought I did copyrighting.

    Normally, depending on the situation, I just tell people ‘I write stuff’, but if I have to be more refined than that I usually just say it’s writing for businesses and can include websites, brochures, etc. I like some of these definitions though.

  15. Dean Rieck on Feb 20th, 2011 5:13 pm
  16. Lucy,
    Yeah, I wish I had a buck for every phone call I’ve received about “copywriting” a song, poem, book, slogan, whatever. And to my credit, I’ve never made fun of any of them for poor spelling.

  17. Ozio Media on Mar 17th, 2011 9:55 pm
  18. Your description was great. There are so many aspects related to copywriting that it’s hard to come up with a single, definitive definition. Copywriters are also bloggers and the minds behind great and not so great product reviews. Also, copywriters benefit not only businesses but consumers and the public as well by researching, writing and distributing beneficial information.

  19. Codrut Turcanu on Apr 5th, 2011 3:19 am
  20. a copywriter doesn’t write, he provides businesses with the vehicle to attract the right audience for the right product at the right time

    how does it sound? :)

    P.S. Anybody can learn how to research and write, but not many can fill in the gap (e.g. match consumer needs with product features)

  21. Cresilda @ Virtual Assistant, Inc. on Apr 11th, 2011 3:36 am
  22. I’m very glad to read this article plus the great comments. Thanks for sharing Dean and the others. Copywriters just do so many things that they are crucial to a business’ success! :)

  23. Tanner on Sep 15th, 2011 8:28 pm
  24. To live the life of a copywriter means that you are God. A God who is both divine and as well as nefarious if need be. Because, similar to the “Godly” act of creating things from scratch, a copywriter must dig down deep into his soul, he must pluck ideas from places he never thought he would venture to and from these ideas he must write the ever expanding/ever wondrous tangible but sometimes intangible thing known simply as “copy.”

  25. Duane Christensen on Sep 24th, 2011 11:46 pm
  26. It seems to me that 75% or more of what you listed basically involves “persuasion”. Persuading people to do something with WORDS.

  27. fiona chan on Mar 5th, 2012 6:55 am
  28. Hey Dean, this is a nice one! :) I am a copywriter myself and it’s really frustrating and hair-pulling when people just don’t get an idea of what we do.