01
Sep
09

Copy and "Writing"

[September 1, 2009]

The “writing” in “copywriting” is misleading. It causes many people to assume that copywriting is primarily about “writing” itself. Based on that assumption, they conclude that copywriting, journalism, PR and creative writing all require exactly the same skills.

In reality, copywriting is a separate discipline, as distinct from these other fields as they are from each other. It requires specialized training, experience and a unique set of talents—only a fraction of which involve the mechanics of manufacturing prose.

Training.
Copywriters need exposure to art, music, dance, literature and science—anything to help them see “life, the universe and everything” in a broader perspective. They need to grasp as many realms of human experience as possible.

That’s because, at any given time, a copywriter may need to write intelligently about pasta, banking, fleas & ticks, bottled water, women’s health, childhood diseases, dairy products, “and more.” A degree from Google News is not enough. You actually have to know a thing or two.

Experience.
It takes savvy to reach a compromise with your team without compromising your message to consumers. It’s something you can only learn by experience. Experience also teaches you how to collaborate with clients. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.

Talent.
A copywriter’s talent is a knack for recognizing the deep structure in human communication. Copywriters read a brand’s underlying message and instinctively translate it into emotionally compelling Copy. It’s a talent rooted in key personality traits.

One of those traits is empathy for the human condition. Another is an ear for pacing, rhythm and color. After all, a good copywriter, like a good musician, needs to encapsulate a world of thought and feeling in a few aphoristic phrases. Copywriters also need a vivid visual imagination, to help art directors break the spell cast by tidy-minded “best practice” gurus.

Why the Confusion?
Since copywriting has such distinct characteristics, I can’t understand why so many industry professionals believe that “a writer’s a writer.” Maybe it’s because copywriters sometimes mimic news articles or create fictional narratives to promote a product, sell a service or celebrate a cause.

What we need to realize is that an advertorial or info-tainment piece is only the shiny wrapper on a branded messaging strategy. It may be deeply touching or deliver valuable information but it only exists to make the brand more memorable, more “real” and more trustworthy.

Striking that balance between format and deep structure takes a rare combination of talent, skill and experience. That’s the main reason your cousin’s nephew, who’s “good with words,” is not necessarily destined for a successful career as a copywriter.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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