What do copywriters really do?

What copywriters do

At a networking event the other day I was asked (not for the first time) “Er – what does a copywriter actually do?”.  So, just in case you’d been wondering, I thought I’d tell you what this particular copywriter does.

First, a few things I don’t do.  I don’t write ads, like the copywriters in Mad Men, or direct mail (alias “junk mail”) or medical/technical/legal copy, all of which are copywriting niches.  Oh, and I don’t have anything to do with copyright law.

Nor do I copy.  I’m very strict about plagiarism, especially since a lot of my clients want me to rewrite articles they’ve seen elsewhere; I always rewrite them completely and add information from other sources, so that what I produce is an original piece of text even if it’s not an original concept.  The “copy” bit of “copywriter” is a technical term borrowed from journalism; it just means written matter.

OK, that’s a lot of things I don’t do.  So what do I do?

Well, despite the fact that my title includes the word “writer”, that’s really only a small part of my job.  I spend at least half my time researching and another chunk editing, so probably only about a quarter of my time is spent actually crafting copy.  A typical blog will take one to one and a half hours to research, 30-45 minutes to write, and another 45-60 minutes to edit.

The research could involve interviewing people, looking stuff up online or in books or trade journals, finding relevant keywords and phrases, and sourcing images that can be used commercially.

Once I understand my subject, I jot down points and block out what I’m going to say, especially if it’s a long or complex piece.  Finally I put fingers to keyboard and actually start writing.

Then I edit: correct the typos (I try not to do that as I write, as it slows down my thoughts), move chunks of text around to improve the sense and/or the flow, clarify anything I haven’t explained properly and generally tweak and polish.  I try to leave it at least a few hours (preferably a day) before proofreading it, tweaking a bit more if required, and sending it off to the client.

As a freelancer, I’m also chief-cook-and-bottle-washer for my business, so on top of writing I do the accounts, the networking, the social media posts, the client meetings, and everything else involved in running a micro-business.  And, of course, the Continuing Professional Development; I’m working on my SEO knowledge and skills at the moment.

What sort of people hire my sort of copywriter?

People who lack the time, or the skill, to write for themselves.  Writing doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, and even those who can write usually have many more urgent tasks clamouring for their attention.  Taking 3-4 hours to write a good blog post every week is way too much for their busy schedule.

My clients want blogs, newsletters, emails, Facebook posts and the like on a regular basis.  They need one-off handouts and brochures for exhibitions.  They want occasional scripts for videos, case studies, web content, awards applications, reports and white papers.  One client even wanted an autobiography.

Whatever they need, they want it in their style (what’s technically known as TOV, Tone of Voice), so that it sounds like them speaking and/or fits their brand qualities.  That’s why you won’t find my name on it: everything I write goes out under the client’s name.  I’m the “ghost in the machine”.

Sometimes clients hire me for copywriting training – teaching their staff to write good copy – which is great fun and very satisfying.  I love helping people become more confident and imaginative about using their new skill.  I’m aiming to do more of it in the future, both one-to-one and in groups.

I hope that clarifies what a copywriter really does – this variety, anyway.  Was it what you expected?  Maybe there’s a bit more to it than you thought?  Let me know in the comments below.

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