Copywriter (noun): A person who writes the text of advertisements or publicity material.
Oxford English Dictionary.
While this definition is correct, I can’t help but feel it doesn’t do justice to the skill and talent involved in writing that ‘text’, which not only informs but often has to sell too.
One man who knows just what it takes is Tom Albrighton, who has been successfully doing the job for more than 12 years.
He’s also written a book, entitled Copywriting Made Simple, imparting some of his expertise in a bid to help other people wanting to break into this field.
I was delighted to be able to quiz Tom, who is based in Norwich, for my latest Behind The Book post.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your writing background?
As a child I loved reading and writing stories. I did an English degree at the University of East Anglia and worked at Jarrold Publishing, then at a small agency.
I went freelance about 12 years ago, and since then I’ve written copy for brands of all sizes, in the UK and beyond, and I also do academic editing.
In 2012 I co-founded ProCopywriters, the UK alliance for commercial writers. I stepped down from running it in 2016.
How is copywriting different from journalism?
For me, the biggest contrast is with publishing, since that’s my background. But both books and newspapers are about giving readers something interesting, valuable or fun that they’ll seek out and (hopefully) buy. In contrast, copywriting is about grabbing their attention and cultivating their interest or desire, so they’ll seek out and buy something else. So as I say in the book, it’s writing with purpose.
What made you want to write your book? Who is it aimed at? Aren’t you helping the competition, in a way?
I wanted to write a simple, accessible guide to copywriting that anyone could find useful, even if they didn’t write for a living. I felt that many of the books out there mainly focused on one type of copywriting (whether they admitted it or not), and I wanted mine to be as universal as possible.
I suppose I am helping the competition, but when it comes to writing work, I try to have an ‘abundance mindset’. There are plenty of copywriting clients and jobs out there, and we can all find our niche.
Reading my book won’t turn you into me, but I hope it will help you find yourself as a copywriter.
Did you have any worries about writing a book about writing?
Well, the biggest worry is making your advice consistent with itself. I’d be mortified if someone said, ‘On page 123 you say this, but then on page 234 you write this!!’ That’s why I spent ages editing the book – far longer than the initial writing.
I think, from the outside, many people think writing is easy (in my experience, especially journalism) and anyone can do it. What’s your take?
I think this is because nearly everybody writes as part of their work, using the same tools as the professional. So there’s no barrier to entry, no cloud of mystique around the act of writing.
Also, when you see something well written, whether it’s an ad or an article, it’s so easy to think, ‘Oh yeah, I could have done that,’ particularly when the finished text is short and simple. Then you try it yourself, and you realise that long and complex is a piece of cake, while short and simple is fiendishly hard.
The strapline for your book is “write powerful and persuasive copy that sells”. From a copywriting point of view, can you afford to take a stand against products/brands you might not agree with? Has that ever come up?
I wrote about a consumer credit product recently that gave me pause, although I still did the job. I’ve always thought that I I’d hate selling sugary food to kids – but nobody’s asked me yet. And I wouldn’t fancy writing about guns.
I’d applaud anyone who took a stand, but if you’re in a salaried post or supporting a family, that could be a tough call to make. You could argue, self-protectively, that it’s the companies and brands who are the real villains, and marketers are just messengers. Certainly, we can’t sell to people against their will. But at the same time, we are out to influence them. So we’re probably not without sin.
How did the idea for writing it come about? Did you pitch it to publishers before writing it? Or was it all done and dusted first?
When I stepped down from running ProCopywriters a few years ago, I fancied a new challenge. Since I’m a generalist rather than a specialist, a basic introduction was a natural fit. Originally it was going to be a little ebook, but it kind of grew.
It’s self-published (by Troubador), so there wasn’t any pitching. With quite a few copywriting books out there already, and no plans to write further books, I didn’t fancy trying to convince an agent to take me on. I also wanted full control over the editorial, design and production, since the book is my professional calling card and I know something about creating a book from my previous life.
What about the process of writing it? Did you take time off from your day job to write it?
Nope, I just did it in spare moments, mostly while Strictly or Britain’s Got Talent was on in the lounge. I’ve always spent some time blogging, as a non-work writing outlet, so I just repurposed those bits of time. Start to finish, the writing took me about two years.
Ever thought about writing fiction?
I thought this was a fiction assignment?
Do you have any top tips you can share for copywriters?
Be curious. Read widely. Take an interest in what’s going on, what people say, what they do. Think about how products or services work, and why people like them. That’s how you find the little things that bring copy to life.
Thank you to Tom for his fantastic answers. You can follow him on Twitter here and find out more about his book, Copywriting Made Simple, (including details of how to buy) here.
I was particularly interested to hear what he said about taking a stand on certain brands/products from a personal point of view, not only as a journalist but also in terms of blogging. Sometimes, especially in the latter, it can seem like you need to sell your soul to make money. From a copywriting point of view, writing about meat products as a veggie is probably the closest I’ve come to that.
What about my fellow bloggers out there. How do you decide what you will and won’t write about, especially if you are reliant on blogging for income?
Also, a big thanks to Anne for introducing Tom and I.