How we work: what does a copywriter do?

Man at party says: 'I write astronaut banter for NASA'

To those of us in the game, the following exchange will be all too familiar:

– So, what do you do?
– Oh, I’m a marketing copywriter. I write for tech companies.
– Oh wow great.
Twenty minutes after the conversation has moved on…
– Sorry, can I just ask – I mean, what is it that you actually do? I mean what does your job actually involve?

A little catharsis

facepalm Hiddleston

This post is for all sorts of people. It’s for those totally out of the know; it’s for those looking to get into the know; and it’s for those in the marketing profession who think they know, but probably make quite a few false assumptions.

This post is also for Team Articulate because we all shed a little internal tear every time that exchange takes place.

Misconceptions and misnomers

First thing’s first, let’s address a few misconceptions:

  • Not all copywriters are advertising copywriters. This in itself causes some confusion as the latter is the more famous (especially after the phenomenon that was Mad Men).
  • Medical copywriters have their own special niche, which I don’t pretend to know about or comment on here.
  • Copywriting has nothing to do with copyright law.

Ironically, one of the big problems in communicating what copywriters do is a lack of clarity around the definition of the word itself. Turns out, like a doctor that smokes, copywriters aren’t very good at communicating the nuances of their role.

Jesse Forrest, for example, distinguishes between copywriters, who write to get people to take an action, and content writers, who write to inform. But who ever heard of a content writer? Here at Articulate we do both of those things, so are we just plain writers?

No. Because the minute you say ‘I’m a writer’ people think novels, poems and maybe journalism. It’s a linguistic minefield.

Personally, I rather like Iain Broome’s answer:

To be a copywriter is beyond definition, but it’s fair to say that one thing binds us together: we all work with words on a daily basis.

So what DOES a copywriter do?

what does a copywriter do: woman at desk with books

Warning: reality may differ from advertised image

Well, to name a few things, we:

What’s important to understand is that while words are the main output of a copywriter, writing isn’t necessarily what we spend most of our time doing. We have to do a lot of research and thinking, tweaking and formatting, and a bunch of other seemingly peripheral tasks.

In fact, we often say here at Articulate that for a writing project you should spend half your time researching, a third editing and only a sixth actually writing the thing. Despite what some people think, copywriting is a lot more than just ‘wordsmithing’.

better business writing

Who do we ‘copywrite’ for?

Unlike fiction writers or journalists, copywriters usually write with an agenda: the client’s agenda. It might be to promote a product, but it might also be to educate an audience or demonstrate expertise.

Written content is used in all sorts of ways by companies, especially with the advent of inbound marketing, which is all about talking to and about customers rather than pushing a product or service.

This means copywriters have to be versatile, quick learners and have very little ego. You’ll rarely recognise the name of a copywriter – our work usually goes out under the client’s name. We also have to make edits that not only keep the client’s marketing department happy, but their legal, sales and brand police happy too.

We copywriters care about the quality of our work, but we certainly can’t be precious about it.

A copywriter’s voice

Jessica Rabbit

A copywriter will be whoever you want them to be. (We’re a little bit slutty that way.)

What I really mean is that while every copywriter certainly has their own voice, it is secondary to that of the client. We must adapt our writing style and tone depending on who we are speaking as and who we are speaking to.

There are certain golden writing rules that particular copywriters or agencies will try to adhere to – we have an Articulate writer’s guide, for example – but if the client has their own, that comes first.

And while not every client has a tone-of-voice document, they all have a tone of voice. Write something that doesn’t sound like it, and they’ll soon pull you up and call for edits. Copywriters have to ask questions and delve into existing collateral to immerse themselves in the voice of the client to write the project right.

What do copywriters write?

If you want to talk nitty-gritty, the type of things we write include:

  • Blog posts. These can range from 200 to 1500 words. They’re usually a bit more informal or opinionated, but it varies from client to client.
  • White papers. Not like the government ones though. White papers tend to be 1,500-2,500 words and are informative, educational documents that explain the origins of a problem and how it might be solved. Often that solution will be linked to what the client sells, but the majority of the white paper will be objective and useful.
  • Emails. Email campaigns are there to pique interest, raise awareness and prompt an action. They have to be short, enticing and informative.
  • Social media posts. Those little 140 character tweets and witty Facebook updates don’t write themselves you know. Social media requires copywriting too.
  • Case studies. Short articles that explain how a company helped its customers. Case studies often have a formulaic structure but a good copywriter can find the story inside it.
  • Industry reports. Sometimes we have to get a bit heavy and write some hardcore reports based on real research that illuminates or expands upon a certain issue, industry or trend.
  • Website copy. Writing for the web comes with its own set of rules and guiding principles: it’s a whole other skill set, but one many copywriters have up their sleeve.

A job’s a job

Of course, aside from all that copywriting magic and mystery we also do a bunch of job stuff that everyone else does: admin, management, emails, training, client wrangling and looking at Facebook when you’re, ahem, between deadlines.

(Hat tip to GiphyNathan Rupert)

better business writing

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49 Responses to How we work: what does a copywriter do?

  1. Clare, will you please include in your series, “Essential business grammar lessons”, when to use “who” and when “whom”.

    Careful, though, you shouldn’t necessarily wish to quote from this blog.

  2. SusanAthena says:

    “We copywriters care about the quality of our work, but we certainly can’t be precious about it.” …..somehow always a cheap thrill – lol- finding that which got missed in editing – especially when it’s done by a copywriter! (which, by the way Mathew Stibbe – I believe Nick (comment from March 16, 2015) was hinting at – which does make your comment like the icing on the cake. Words!! Editing!! Sometimes we miss what later seems the obvious!) There was at least one or 2 more – but this one was too obvious not to mention!
    This was a great article btw!!

  3. Joe says:

    Excellent piece. About eight years ago, a fellow blogger told me I’d be an excellent copywriter. I asked her what the hell that was. Her answer was vague. I forgot about it.

    A few weeks ago another friend told me the same thing. I decided to look into it, which is how I ended up here.

    Hey, maybe in about seven years, I’ll be a copywriter.

    • Hey, you could be a copywriter tomorrow if you start today! 🙂

      • Joe says:

        Do you actually enjoy it? The friend from seven years ago left the field. The friend that recommended it recently doesn’t work in it, but said his friends that do aren’t crazy about it.

        • Can’t speak for Clare, although I hope (and think) she enjoys the writing. But for me, it’s been fun. I used to make computer games for a living – fun right? NO! – and my worst day as a copywriter is better than my best day as a computer games person. Can be tough but it’s very satisfying and paragraphs don’t crash!!

        • Clare Dodd says:

          Well – yes I do enjoy it! I think it depends who you work for and how much they value good writing. Some agencies perhaps think more about design and copywriters are the ‘fillers’ – I don’t imagine that’s much fun.

          But working somewhere like Articulate that puts great writing at the heart of the marketing strategy – that’s good.

          Plus it’s good to find good clients who appreciate what you do – like in any job of course.

          But the writing and the researching part – the bit at the heart – that’s what’s truly enjoyable.

          • Michelle says:

            Hi I still dont understand exactly what a copywriter does and what qualifications do they need and where do they go to find work, advertise their skills, if you have absolutely no experience where and how do you start

  4. Marquita says:

    I found this website article to be very exciting and interesting. I am attending college right now, seeking a second career as an English/Journalism major, (coming from the legal field as support staff for over 25 years). One of my claims to fame is that I worked on the OJ Simpson criminal case, and “no”, he did not kill Nicole based on the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. I would like to know how to apply for a copywriter job, what educational degrees are required for the position, and what are the salary ranges for copywriters?

    Thank you.

    • Danielle says:

      Hi, Marquita. I’m a court appointed lawyer who, due to some changes in the industry in my locale, is no longer making enough money to survive and was looking at this, myself.

      Today I received an email from Writer’s Digest offering a 10 week course on sale (flash sale, they say, ending tonight). Perhaps, it will interest you. Let me know if you’d like me to forward the email to you.

  5. Fathima Shaw says:

    I kinda sorta wish I read this before I became a Copywriter exactly one year ago. Sums up everything that I do, basically. Also, I can write a Copywriter job description based off of this. Thanks guys. 🙂

    • Danielle says:

      Fathima, why do you wish you read this article before becoming a Copywriter one year ago? Have you not had the best experience thus far? And what was your path to becoming one?

      Thanks, in advance, for your reply.

      • Amber says:


        Were you saying the Writer’s Digest course would be sufficient training if someone were a fairly decent writer to begin with, or would someone need a college degree?

  6. I have heard of copywritting and copywriters, but never actually understood what it meant. Now I understand thanks to you, that these copywriters are writers that do a broad variety of things. I really like how they fit into their own little category, and don’t fall in with novelists and journalists. Thank you so much for helping me understand the term copywriter!

  7. Tina says:

    Does it require a college degree to become a copy writer? Is there a tutorial (training) place we could go that is not scum?

    • Clare Dodd says:

      Hi Tina,

      I expect there are professional qualifications in copywriting, although I have never done any. I think a certain level of either work experience or academic experience is useful as is a track record of your commitment to writing and ability to communicate clearly.

      Personally I think if you’re going to take a course to improve your copywriting you’re better off taking a writing course, for example I’ve done a few with Gotham Writers Workshop (they offer online courses) in non-fiction writing and article writing.

  8. Lavanya says:

    I find this is really interesting and informative article. I am an aspirant copywriter making my baby steps. Congratulations for all those established and all the best for those who are aspiring as I am. Thanks Matthew for the article. 🙂

  9. Mona says:

    I really appreciate this article, the definition has eluded me too. Where has this explanation been? Eloquently put!!

  10. I was curious about what copy writing actually is. This article has answered my questions. Not going to look further- Gonna snoop in on Facebook, ahem, between the deadlines;)

  11. Ossie Gee says:

    Nice article. I would also add that Copywriters are not really editors. They are gifted to write creatively as you mentioned. These skills include writing sales letters, slogans and catchword phrases for advertising campaigns. Hiring an editor to proof their work is also essential. In addition, some possess SEO (search engine optimization) skills.

    Some are also gifted with all the above skills!

  12. My Page says:

    P.S. – I wouldn’t have envisioned you as an Indian deity, but you do look “outrageous” in your chapeau.

  13. Angela Smith says:

    Great article . I am interested in finding out how one gets started in the field of copy writing. Any information on this would be great . Thanks so much.


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