Writers in the commercial and business world often face some fairly unique challenges. As a freelance copywriter, the subjects that I have been asked to write about over the years have been rather diverse—I never thought that I would become an expert on wheel loaders, or offshore drilling, or chiropractic treatment. Nor for that matter did I ever envisage the need to become well acquainted with how solar panels work, how online casinos operate, or the implementation of sustainable farming practices.
But these are just some of the many topics that I’ve been called upon to write about as a freelance—all of which, I should point out, I knew absolutely nothing about beforehand. But the essence of being a professional copywriter is the ability to create copy that sounds convincing, both to the layman and aficionado alike, about industries, products and professions that are not necessarily your areas of expertise, while at the same time being informative, engaging and even—sometimes—entertaining.
All of which means you need to be able to learn quickly. It’s sometimes necessary to absorb a great deal of technical information in a very short space of time, and then get a significant enough grasp of the details that you’re able to write about the subject with some confidence. Solid research skills are therefore just as important for a copywriter as writing ability—you need to know where to find good trade intel that is useful and intelligible, and then to be able to extract information that is appropriate and relevant to the task at hand. A good eye for detail is crucial.
Asking questions—or perhaps not being afraid of asking them—is something that a copywriter needs to learn to do. When you’re being briefed on a job, it’s important not to leave the meeting or end the phone call without having a crystal clear understanding of what your client is looking for. If you need to ask a lot of questions, go right ahead. It’s sometimes tempting, especially with a new client, to exude an air of supreme confidence, to give them the impression that you’re completely across the brief when in actual fact, if it’s an industry or profession that you’re not experienced in, you may not have grasped what they’re looking for at all. I know that this is a mistake that I have made in the past. The thinking goes along the lines of: “If I ask too many questions, they’ll rumble that I really don’t know anything about how dog food is made and I’ll lose the job. Better keep quiet, take some notes, and try to look interested.” In the end, this does no-one any favours.
I find that most people in business actually like to talk about their work, and enjoy sharing their knowledge and expertise. I’ve never known a client to be put off by answering questions about their business. And getting as much information as you can before you start a job will make it easier, more enjoyable, and will ultimately help you to produce better copy. Good copy equates to a happy client, which in turn may well lead to further work, and so there’s nothing to lose by engaging in a discussion, asking questions and getting as much information as you can directly from the source. The ability to ask questions is an essential part of the copywriter’s skill set.
A professional writer needs to be able to create copy that is right for the intended audience, and so really understanding who that audience is, and what their expectations are, is crucial. In commercial writing, the audiences you need to engage with will vary widely. A piece for a company’s in-house journal, for instance, will have a very different audience to that of a press release about a retailer’s end of year sale. A blog for a small manufacturing company will be read by different people and in a different way to the website content of a health professional. Being a copywriter is all about matching tone and content to the audience.
This involves being engaged with the wider industry on a number of levels. Look at what successful companies, both large and small, are doing with their written content. Subscribe to some trade journals to see how technical and manufacturing industries write about what they do (you’ll be amazed to find that there are trade magazines for just about every kind of industry or business imaginable). Read business-related blogs and social media posts, check out film and theatre reviews, keep up to date with what’s successful and popular on online content curation sites. Understanding how to shape your copy to suit different types of audience is one of the copywriter’s key skills, as is understanding who will read your copy and how they will read it. Get a feel for how different types of texts are expected to work in different kinds of scenarios.
One of the most challenging aspects of being a copywriter is writing about products, or businesses, or even people, that are sometimes, quite frankly, rather dull. It can be a real struggle to come up with lively and engaging copy on a subject in which you have no personal interest. In this scenario, a useful approach is to read and research widely, well beyond the immediate areas that you’re covering. If, for instance, the brief is to write about a new piece of machinery there may not at first glance be a lot you can say about it. It’s new, it works, it costs this much. However, it can be helpful to look beyond the nuts and bolts into areas such as why this new and improved piece of machinery was developed, who will it be used by and where, what will be its benefits out in the wider world, and the other potential applications of the technology. If you can put the product you’re writing about into a wider context and perhaps bring in a human element or unusual angle, that can sometimes help to enliven your copy even when that product itself is not inherently interesting.
Commercial writing is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, and not every writer can do it. But it’s a competitive field and if you want to make a go of it you need to know what works and what doesn’t, and how to ensure that you are writing what it is your client wants to say. In the end, you are writing for someone else, and they need to be satisfied that what you write is accurate, relevant and does the job for which it’s intended. Not always easy, sometimes frustrating, but on the other hand it can also be very rewarding — plus, you can learn a whole bunch of stuff about a whole bunch of things you never imagined you’d ever need or want to know about along the way!