What We Look For In A Writer (And You Should, Too)

5 min read

Allow me to pull on my Old Man pants here.

I’ve been working in and around the marketing business for 30 years. I remember when art directors drew marker comps, audio engineers actually cut tape with a razor blade, and there was no such thing as e-mail. (Ah. Those were the days.) I used to pound out my copy on an IBM Selectric II–I literally cut and pasted my copy to make it right and handed it to someone else to make presentable. My ashtray was usually full, and my coffee cup was usually empty. I also used to walk nine miles to work, uphill both ways. But I digress.

What I’m saying is, I’ve been around the block a couple of times. I’ve reviewed lots of portfolios and hired lots of creative people. And, let me tell you: hiring a copywriter is tough.

It’s tough because copywriters are a special breed. Great writing ability isn’t enough: to make it as a copywriter, you have to come with all sorts of extras, including:

Curiosity. Most writers are curious, so this isn’t usually a problem. But if you’re not interested in digging and digging, teasing out interesting angles from assignments most people would consider to be boring, copywriting is not for you. As an art director friend used to say, “There are no boring products. Just boring copywriters.”

Resourcefulness. Not the same thing as curiosity. You not only have to want to know, you have to find out. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been handed an assignment with no background, little input, and minimal direction; it happens almost every week. A copywriter faced with this situation has to find the information somehow: search the web, make phone calls, make it up. Too many writers let the blank page (or screen–showing my age again) defeat them. Great copywriters don’t let a lack of information stand in the way of getting the job done.

Ideas. Copywriting is all about ideas. I’ve always been amused when a client tells me, “This job should be easy. For now, we just need some headlines.” The client doesn’t understand that the headline–the idea–is the thing that takes all the time. Body copy is easy to write–takes a few minutes. Most writers can handle it. But actually having great ideas–thinking creatively about the challenge and coming up with unexpected solutions–is a skill that’s much harder to find. Put it this way: anybody can learn the rules of writing. Not everyone has great ideas.

Fearlessness. Most advertising is pretty bad. Most advertising is uninspired. Most advertising is wallpaper, background noise. It’s usually not the copywriter’s fault. Great copywriters are fearless: they’ll show the client tough, smart ideas that address product benefits and talk directly to customer desires. Most advertising is bad because the work is compromised in the process of getting to market. But great copywriters keep putting out their best work, their best, most challenging ideas. Because great copywriters are also blessed with…

Determination. You’re going to fail. The client is going to hate your work–the work you sweated and slaved over to make perfect. The client’s going to turn your great idea into a so-so idea. Take your bold idea and make it safe. In the best case–thankfully, we’re blessed with best-case clients–you’re going to present three ideas you love and have to throw away two of them. I’ve seen it scores of times: copywriters get discouraged and quit. If you’re gonna last, you’ve gotta have thick skin. If you do, you have the chance to become great.

Restraint. It’s easy to tell a story with a lot of words. It’s harder to tell it with a few carefully chosen words. Try writing a 30-second radio spot and see how tough it is to tell a complete, compelling story that fast. Try writing a magazine ad with twelve words. Great copywriters cut and cut and cut. The most beautiful sentences I’ve ever written are floating out there somewhere, lost in cyberspace. I had to kill them so my ads could live.

Visual thinking. Copywriters cannot live on words alone. You have to be able to envision what you’re writing. Television spots are all about what’s on screen. Printed materials and websites all look like something. Even radio or podcast copy has to paint pictures in listeners’ heads. If you can’t see it while you’re writing, you’re not a great copywriter.

Versatility. Want to know what copywriters have to write? Everything. I have written all sorts of things: books, speeches, videos, plays, television commercials, coasters, brochures, matchbooks, mousepads, billboards, catalogs, magazine articles, websites, stickers on packages of underwear–if it has words on it, I’ve probably written something like it. I’ve written for everyone from tiny retailers to huge international companies, high-tech firms, manufacturers of heavy industrial equipment, doctors, lawyers–I could go on for a day. Sure, copywriters can specialize. But if you really want to have a great career, the ability to turn on a dime and change your style is critical.

Yes, I’m persnickety. Yes, I’m unreasonable. But over the last 30 years, one thing has remained true: copywriters are a major force in driving not only great creative work, but also smart business decisions. Great copywriters are great creative thinkers. They have to be to survive.

These are the things we look for when we hire a writer. When you hire marketing help, you should look for writers who have these qualities, too. Great copywriters are rare–but if you find one, I guarantee your marketing program is better and smarter for it.

Now…where are my slippers?