What makes a good copywriter?

Nick Harland
February 2022
simpsons typewriter

If you plonked a 1990 copywriter into 2023, they would probably struggle to be a successful copywriter. That's because the skill set of a copywriter has changed dramatically over the years. So in 2023, this is what makes a good copywriter.

When football introduced the backpass rule in 1992, there was uproar. Goalkeepers, who up to this point had only been required to use their hands, suddenly weren’t allowed to pick it up when somebody passed it back to them. This meant they had to adapt to the new rules by becoming more proficient with their feet.

That means if you plonked a goalkeeper from 1992 into the modern game, they wouldn't have a lot of the skills you need to be a good 'keeper in 2023. They would struggle, and probably fail.

Joe Lewis Soccer GIF

It’s kinda like that with copywriting too, though not really, because we just like including football references where they’re not wanted or needed. But if you did plonk a 1990 copywriter into the modern world, they would probably fare about as well as those old school keepers. That's because, just as with goalkeepers, the skill set of a copywriter has changed dramatically over the years.

So in 2023, this is what makes a good copywriter.

1) Technical know-how

Copywriting has evolved so much that copywriting is now pretty much the bare minimum skill expected of a copywriter. Yeah, we know that sounds like an extremely stupid thing to say, but it’s true.

If we’re asked to write the website copy for a client, it generally means that we would also have some input into the entire structure of the website. Because if we’re shortening sentences, removing passages and reorganising existing copy, it changes how people interact with the website. For this reason, copywriters should have a good understanding of UX Design. After all, well-written website copy should not only increase conversions and clicks, but also make it easier for people to navigate through your website. It’s all in the same boat, really.

And of course, if you want your copy to be found by anyone then you’re going to have to understand how to optimise it for search engines. That doesn’t just mean shoehorning target keywords into the body of your text. Good SEO copywriting requires an understanding of who your user is, how they find your website and how they read your content.

2) Adaptability

Good copywriters are adaptable copywriters. They should be able to write in a wide range of styles, formats and tones. So they should be able to easily move between a stupendously wondrous tone of voice and a very simple one - sometimes even in the same sentence. Equally, a good generalist copywriter should be able to write in a number of different formats. That could range from a 2,000-word case study to a three-word push notification.

If you’re looking for a copywriter, take a look through their portfolio first. Take note of whether they’ve shown they’re capable of writing different types of copy - emails, landing pages, blogs. Also, try to look at the tone of voice they use in each sample. Is it markedly different, or could you tell it was written by the same person? If so, it may suggest they’re not able to adapt to a different tone of voice that effectively.

3) Knowing your audience

You can be as good at the process of copywriting as you want, but if you don’t know (and understand) your audience then you’re always going to be held back. That’s because your audience shapes the tone of voice, format and purpose of each and every piece of copy you write.

Sometimes, it’s obvious when a different audience requires a different tone of voice. A student life website is likely to have a pretty different readership to a luxury jewellery company, for example. So you would adapt your tone of voice and content accordingly. But other times, the differences are more subtle.

Let’s take the example of a bank. At first glance, you might assume the tone of voice of a bank should be very formal, professional and solid. And it’s true that most of them are. But a number of new, online-only banks (Revolut, Monzo, N26) are pitching to a younger, more tech-savvy audience, so they change their tone of voice accordingly.

4) Being able to write well (duh)

Not all writers are automatically good copywriters. Writing for the web is entirely different to writing a novel or an academic essay, so you’ve got to adapt accordingly. I guess the key difference is that copywriting is all about persuading the reader to take action, which isn’t necessarily always the case for ‘normal’ writing.

But there are some writing skills that every copywriter should have:

  • Good spelling and grammar. Spelling errors and poor grammar immediately damage the credibility of both the writer and the business. You just can’t get away with them. That means no typos, or mysterious, commas in your work.
  • An understanding of things like flow, cadence and coherence. A sentence that’s too abrupt can feel oversimplified and can kill the flow of a piece. On the other hand, nobody likes a sentence that seems to go on infinitely, like you’ll often read in a Dickens book, where the author seems to go from one meandering thought to the next, without ever seeming to get to the bloody point, and so it just goes on, and on, and on. Good writers, and copywriters, know just the right time to finish a sentence, and how that affects the overall flow of a piece.
  • An understanding of literary devices. Alliteration. The rule of three. Similes and metaphors. Good copywriting is all about balance. You should be able to use these kinds of devices when necessary, without making your writing too fluffy and vague. But when used effectively, they can really help your writing stand out from the crowd.

5) Taking pride in your work

It’s a funny thing to say, but as a business you should almost be happy if you have a debate with a copywriter about their work. It shows that they care about their work, and as an extension, care about your company. They don’t want a poor piece of copy to be published, because it reflects badly on both of you. So fighting over commas and scrapping over shortened sentences isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But more than that, it shows that they’re confident. Accepting every change without argument - even if they think they’re right - suggests they’re unsure of their abilities. If you meet a copywriter who believes their way is the right way to do it, it’s probably because they’ve done it before and know that it works. That's the mark of a good copywriter.

6) An ability to set realistic deadlines

A good copywriter also shouldn’t be afraid to tell you that a project will take longer than you’d hoped. This suggests two things: firstly, that they’ve done similar projects before, and so know how long they’re likely to take. Secondly, that they’re not going to rush things and potentially cut corners. That can only ever end badly. Again, this is more a sign of confidence in their abilities than them being a slow or inefficient writer.

And, before you ask, we’re not just saying this to give us some leeway in the old deadline department. If you fancy seeing for yourself, get in touch to learn how we can help with your copywriting needs.

Nick Harland