How I learned copywriting

June 30, 2016 •
Learning copywriting without booksLearning copywriting without books

A question from an aspiring copywriter

This morning an aspiring copywriter asked me:

“You mentioned you had no formal training in copywriting. Where did you learn the technique when you just started out? Books? The internet?”

As always, I ended up with an essay for an answer, so I thought I’d share it here…

My answer

No-one starts with a completely blank slate. We’re all customers, we’ve all dreamed of being business owners, we’re all writers at heart (even if we haven’t done it professionally before), and as writers, we’re smart and curious creatures. That combination right there is far more important than any books.

Also, I was a technical writer in the software industry before I started Divine Write, so I’d had a lot of experience converting complex subject matter into engaging English, and I already had a reader focus.

Of course, the experiences of other copywriters are important too, and shouldn’t be ignored. But I’ve found them most useful in solving particular problems. Headlines, for instance, were a weakness for me when I started out, so I read The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman. And when I was struggling with some business things, I read The Copywriter’s Handbook by Bob Bly (and some business writers) and spoke to some mentors.

I think if you worry too much about learning the ‘rules’, you’ll focus too much on applying them in your writing, and that will undermine your creativity and personal response to the job. You’ll also be far less inclined to BREAK the rules, which is one of the most important techniques you can use in your copy.

What do you think? How did you learn?

Feel free to comment...
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Tanja wrote on June 30th, 2016

I've always loved writing, so when I temped and did office work, I used to take on a lot of the writing jobs (sales letters and proposals) that other people didn't want. I also did a distance learning diploma course in communications (something that fascinates me) that included a couple of papers on professional and technical writing and writing for the web - which was the point I realised I actually wanted to do this stuff as a job. The next permanent job I got was as a communications co-ordinator, which involved a lot of writing for the company intranet, plus creating marketing collateral; and then finally, I got a job with the title "Copywriter", and learned a heap more about marketing psychology from the marketing team I worked with. So it's been a combination of academic learning and on-the-job training for me.

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Camilla Jones wrote on July 1st, 2016

14 years, day in, day out has honed my skills. But when I started in agencies, I was lucky enough to have a little mentorship from a great writer called Brooke Claussen (now CD of a Chicago agency and still a dear friend). I think I learnt more from reading her writing than anything else. I remember she did some print ads for RACQ and had to write for a trucker-type dude, a little old lady and a couple of other people who RACQ were featuring in their ads. From one page to the next, she was able to become a different person and truly, I don't know that I've met many writers who have been able to do that since. Somehow their own 'voice' hums along behind the words (I'm as guilty as the next writer of this, of course!). Brooke was like a sister and a mother and a best friend to me, a young idiot writer who really didn't know what the hell she was doing. Brooke gave me pointers that are obvious now, but that I didn't 'get'. E.g. - you're going to a meeting with Michael Hill Jeweller, be sure to wear some interesting pieces. They don't have to be expensive, just a talking point. It shows the client you're active in the world in which they operate. It was never a 'mentorship' as such - I just opened my eyes and ears and recognised a great writer and a wonderful person when I saw one. Since then, I've learnt from infomercials, books, people, relationships, the internet.... the list goes on and on. To be a great writer, you need to be curious, care about people and develop the humility to remember that for every iota you THINK you know, there's a tonne of stuff you don't. Truly, the older I get, the more I realise I don't know. And that's the beauty of writing. It gives you an outlet to document the process of life in a way that's accessible to all.

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Glenn Murray wrote on July 1st, 2016

Sounds familiar. In my technical writing roles, I wrote copy too, because the marketing people couldn't write. ;-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on July 1st, 2016

"...remember that for every iota you THINK you know, there’s a tonne of stuff you don’t"... Ain't that the truth?! For life, not just copywriting!

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Miranda Hill wrote on July 4th, 2016

By investing in myself through personal development (yep, that means parting with some cash sometimes) and diving head first into whatever course you invest in...suck it dry of every ounce of goodness and practice it over and over. Read, read, read. Not only novels, but literally stalk bloggers like a crazy person, read articles, scour your writing heroes websites for recommended book lists and read them all. Become a watcher. An observer. People have an uncanny way of telling you what they need to hear, you just need to be smart and look for the cues. Transport yourself into their hearts and minds and get to know them better than they know themselves - that's where the words will come from that influence the behaviour you're after. And don't be afraid to ask questions - what's the worst that can happen? Heck, you might just get an answer that changes your trajectory for the better. Lastly, be brave and courageous. Squash those limiting beliefs with an oversized boot. Your writing will be better for it.

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Glenn Murray wrote on July 5th, 2016

Well said! I found reading was (is) a huge part of my learning too. But not really other copywriting or articles/books by other copywriters. I mean writing from great authors. Particularly modern authors. They find very innovative ways to get into the reader's head and heart. Older writers did too, but it's harder to untangle those ways from the older style language. All sorts of authors too. I'm a fantasy buff, and there's so much good stuff there. Joe Abercrombie and Robin Hobb are two who spring to mind. Also some of the language in The Martian was great (although overall I didn't like the book THAT much).

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Steven "Shcteve" White wrote on January 14th, 2017

I am certainly in the early stages of figuring out the copywriting game. While I am no expert, I have been noticing that my skills grow as I sink time into actually doing projects. Paid or personal, writing seems to be the main factor advancing my ability. Reading up on Joe Sugarman has been a game changer and don't even get me started on Scientific Advertising. Loved that book.

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