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Discovering the World of Copywriters: From the Outside In

Posted on Fri, Apr 14 2017 9:00 am by Caitlin Nugent


Meet the arbiter of arboretums. The expert on emergency room etiquette – yes, it’s a real thing – and the maven of manicures. Never knew such experts existed? Neither did I – at least not until recently.

Through my career, I’ve been the graphic designer and at times even the illustrator, but never the copywriter. At work, copy came to me almost anonymously, usually by way of a project manager. Ping! An email would come in, “see attached copy,” it might read. But I never really considered where the copy came from, or how it came to be. But then I got curious. I wondered whom these Johnny-on-the-spots and wordsmith wonders really were, and how they did what they did.

About a year ago, in an attempt to learn how to wield the power of one of these mysterious experts myself, I moved a half step away from my training in art direction and design and discovered for myself the inside world of the copywriter.

What I found, and am still uncovering, was that the real message builders and storytellers of the advertising world are often the copywriters. They are the arbitrators of a bandwidth of topics so wide it would make one’s head spin. Straddling daily between truly transformative insights and downright boring facts and figures, I discovered that it’s the copywriter’s job to become a kind of intermittent or temporary expert. Moving quickly from one topic to the next, with an amnesia-like change of focus, these behind-the-scenes experts quickly seek the facts and then build the story.

Love It. Forget It. Repeat.

Just like writers of other genres, I found that copywriters must curiously, and completely, fall in love with what they have to write about – if only temporarily. It’s the copywriter's job to be the expert. They must be, at once, the fact checkers and the revealers of flattering angles. One topic at a time.

Bending and swaying between the loose framework of top-five lists, bulleted benefits, and arresting headlines, I discovered the depths to which copywriters will go (think edits – many, many edits) in order to make meaningful connections for the reader – all with a voice of assertion and authority.

And along this journey into the world of wordy-words, I’ve noted a few things. It’s always been my feeling that good copy is the art director or designer’s best friend, because it’s the story, the message. It’s what we use to bring the design to life. But what I didn’t realize (until flexing my own message-making muscles) is how difficult it can be to make that story happen in the first place.

Truly, to tell and to sell is the name of the game – everything from light bulbs to tires. But to do so authentically, the copywriter must never divert or deceive. Copywriting is born from the same creative place as all good writing – a place of curiosity.

Do The Job – Write.

With my newfound perspective in mind, I’ve been gradually edging my way into this world, and finding that copywriting is a lot like design in its process. There is a story and a message that needs to get through. For copywriters, the job is to turn one-dimensional information into a narrative that illustrates a benefit for the reader. If the message has been delivered with care and the story has been told in completion, then it’s ready to be turned over to the world.

When I’m writing my own copy, I ask myself… were the messages delivered clearly? Will the target pay attention? And take action? The audience is not just any consumer, they are the intended focus, the very ones for which the copywriter has been thinking so much about. If the copywriter did their job – you’ll know.

Said the copywriter to the world… “Do you copy?

Roger that.

Caitlin Nugent is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and contributor for Carry On Magazine. She has a background in the world of graphic design and art direction, and her writing and design work have been on exhibit at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Nugent was also a student at a recent Loft class called Copywriting Intensive: Building Your Portfolio, taught by Mary Ringstad. This piece was collaboratively written for that class and The Writers' Block blog.