John the copywriter’s recipe for becoming a copywriter.

I’m often asked “What is a copywriter?”  It seems like people are extremely curious because one of the most asked questions on Google is “How to be a copywriter?”

I think the term copywriter is very confusing for people. They mix up copyright with copywriting. I often see it written down as “copy writer”, as in “SEO copy writer” or “freelance copy writer”.  I prefer: “Pay this freelance copywriter the money you owe him. It’s been six months now”.

The God Copyritus. Just to confuse things further, copywriting roles are fragmented into many subsections: digital copywriter, SEO copywriter, medical copywriter, financial copywriter, automotive copywriter, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) copywriter, concept copywriter… the list goes on and on. What’s the name of that mythological Greek monster with 100 heads with hideous voices that Zeus killed with a thunderbolt? Oh yeah, Copyritus. Nah, he only had 9 heads. Well, answers on a pigeon’s leg please. No. I mean a postcard. Showing my age here.

LinkedIn Rage. There’s a raging debate on this topic on LinkedIn at the moment. I would say 90% of copywriters agree that a good copywriter can write for any type of client. In any medium. I agree.

Cliff ahead. Sure, the learning curve may be steep at the beginning of some projects. What you gain, though, is the fresh perspective and inspiration of a new set of copywriting eyes. (I know a great male copywriter who wrote award-winning Tampon ads.) Good copywriters are extremely curious animals. They know a lot about a lot of things. They have a broad set of interest. And they usually have a finely-tuned wit. So don’t limit yourself by pigeonholing them.

Copywriting course will earn you a billion dollars working one day a year. Teaching copywriting is big business. And there are just as many scam artists out there as there are genuine courses. There are lots of copywriting courses that offer a great deal of solid and practical information to aspiring copywriters. I took one of these remote learning courses just to see how good or bad it was. I was surprised how much useful information was in there. “Never stop learning,” said my bald, wrinkled, depressed geography teacher.

Libraries are sexy. I strongly believe that group classes are more rewarding. I took the Advertising Writing course at Watford College in the UK. I was astonished just how many diverse ideas that a group of people can have based on one simple brief. We all learned from each other as much as we did from the course curriculum. Mind you, that was in the mid-80s before the Internet. In those days you had to go libraries to meet women.

Tokyo. Then I got a copywriter gig at Dentsu,Tokyo.  It was here that I used my first computer. For the first year, though, I was knocking out upwards of 100 ads each month on an IBM golfball typewriter. We wrote at least four ads a day. What bliss it was then to work on a computer for the first time and realise that you could change stuff without using Tipp-Ex (a brand of correction fluid).

Ouch! My fingertips and my teeth are bleeding. We had a library at Dentsu where they collected ads every day from all over the world. It was very inspiring. For a curious soul like me it was bliss. While Dentsu was something of a sweatshop, it was there that I really cut my teeth as a young copywriter. The only real way to learn is to do it. But it does help if you can write. I was a songwriter and poet before I became a copywriter. It brought a sense of cadence and rhythm to my words.

Be weird. You have to write in a bit of a weird way to stand out from the crowd. I don’t mean weird as in strange and antisocial. Although many copywriters do fall into this category. I mean you have to write in a way that touches people and makes them say, “Yes, that’s just what I was thinking. Only not in that exact way.” Good copy carries on the conversation in people’s head. It gets them nodding.

You can’t teach kidnaping. Write copy in a way that ambushes people and takes them by surprise. This is something I believe you can’t teach. Where these ideas come from I really don’t know. But they certainly don’t come from books and learning DVDs. Perhaps it comes from your muse. And the muse can whisper in your ear in the middle of the night. So a writer is always writing even when he or she is asleep.

Hotel Copywriter. I think hotel room reviews and copywriting have a lot in common. “Filthy and completely unenjoyable – won’t be back!”…“Avoid this place. Not relaxing”…”Not for young families”.  Writing is often hard and antisocial.  It’s a dirty business, too, when you have to sell your soul to an unscrupulous client. The results after all that sweat and throbbing fingers can often be disappointing. It can truly suck. Yet occasionally, the muse comes bearing gifts and you sit back and think, “Jeepers! Where did that come from?”

No it’s not “Easy like Sunday morning. ”If you want to become a copywriter, you have to first understand that it’s not easy. Certainly not as easy as they say in the copywriting course ads.  And you have to have some raw talent. Otherwise you are just polishing dog shit.

Never ever dress like a copywriter. And you have to put in the hours. Often by yourself. In the cold ivory tower. And you can’t listen to music because it’s off putting. And girls won’t talk to you because you wear unfashionable combinations of worn out and outdated clothing. As the saying goes: ‘Art directors get laid more, copywriters get paid more’. It’s just how it is. Personally, I look like I’ve been dipped in superglue and thrown through an Oxfam window.

Did I write this? Why do I write if it’s so lonely and women think I have a “Fashion bypass operation?” It’s that out-of-body experience of holding something great in your hands that you wrote. While at the same time forgetting the sweat and pain, anguish and misery of putting it together in the first place.

Writing is easy. Just sit at your typewriter and open up a vein. Before you get the wrong idea, writing can be such fun. And sweet, sweet joy. If you’re in the writing zone, the words come easily. You knock it out effortlessly. You think, “Wow, I’m on a roll baby.” That’s when you have your God moment.

God is a backwards Dog. The more experienced you get, however, the more you realise that this is just an anomaly. God also spells dog. And you’re soon out on the streets wagging your tail and looking for a new assignment.

Bullshit. Wrapped in snake oil. People who tell you, especially those who are running copywriting courses, that anyone, literally anyone, can become a copywriter are talking bullshit. Wrapped in snake oil.

“I’ve never read a book in my life”, said my copywriter trainee. Proudly. I was recently asked to mentor a junior copywriter. To my great surprise he told me that he’d never read a book in his life. Yet he wanted to become a digital copywriter. I asked him if he’d had any training as a writer and he told me that he trained as a music journalist.

If it ain’t broke, break it. His grammar was all over the place. But not in that engaging way some people write with no training. And he lacked any distinct style. No rules were broken because he didn’t know any. I don’t know what to make of the fact that he’s never read a book. I really don’t.  People in the digital domain are like that. They’re different.

Burn all the ebooks (Just kidding). I personally couldn’t live without reading. I have a vast library at home and on my iPad. It gives me immense joy, not to say deeper appreciation of the well-turned bon mot. You can also travel through time and different dimensions, and learn useful stuff like plumbing and writing.

“Grammar,” he said, “is that a band?” What shocked me, however, was his lack of knowledge of the simple rules of grammar. I suggested that he bought The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. I saw it lying next to his desk a few weeks later looking distinctly unloved and unread. I should have bought him The Elements of F*cking Style: A Helpful Parody. Think ‘Jackass’ meets grammar and you’ll get the picture. It drags English grammar out of the ivory tower and injects its lip wrist with a much-needed dose of gutter smut.

Is that the class bell I hear? So there you have it have it. To some folks copywriting is easy. You don’t need to read books, know any grammar, or have the remotest inclination or desire to know how to spell. I suppose in this post Mad Men epoch it sounds cool to say that you’re a copywriter. But are they copywriters? I really don’t know the answer.

Your first step as a copywriter doesn’t have to be in a pile of bullshit. I suppose I would have to say that you have to start somewhere. That you have to bullshit  your way into the business. Then cut your teeth for a couple of years on any brief that’s lying around.  Because primarily this is a business of bullshitters, who carefully wrap their crap with snake oil.

No. Not always. Thankfully, there’s the top 10% of copywriters who are brilliant, and keep this industry interesting and exciting. And if you’re a junior copywriter it’s worth hooking yourself up with one of these stars.

My tow hook is broken off by the way. I must get down to the garage and fix it.

About the author: John Richardson


If you’re looking for a writer with a proven track record for creating effective International communications in all media, then I believe I can be an asset to your organization. Born in Yorkshire, England, I’m an award-winning copywriter who is lucky enough to have worked in London, Tokyo and Amsterdam. This global experience is reflected in a portfolio of international campaigns in all media—digital, traditional and direct— for major global clients and agencies.  I’m a very intuitive copywriter and I’m able to find the marvellous in the mundane on even the most challenging accounts.  I possess strong conceptual, presentation and people skills and have a reputation for being a hands-on, creative problem solver. The price tag for hiring me has got to be staggering, right? No. I’m very affordable. Contact me for a friendly quote.

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1 reply
  1. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Hi John, I love this post! Do you have any advice for an aspiring freelance copywriter? I come from a background of sales and recruitment but in my spare time I actually have a soul and have written comedy for stand up comedians performing in sh*t London pubs. It’s brilliant. Unlike your protege, I absolutely love to read anything I can get my hands on and have an extremely curious mind, which has brought me in a roundabout way to copywriting. Now I just want to write weird stuff which touches people and makes them think – which is why I wouldn’t touch journalism with a barge pole. Love to hear your advice. Thanks.

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