What do today's aspiring copywriters need to learn first?
Soon, I’ll be teaching an introduction to copywriting class. I’ve taught it before, but every time I teach the marketing world is different than it was the last time. I should mention my class isn’t part of a two-year portfolio school or a four-year college. This school is more of an a la carte program, where folks who currently have full-time jobs can say, “Hey, copywriting sounds like a sexy career and my spouse loves my clever texts so I’m going to go for it.”
Certainly, if my students do try to pursue a copywriting career, they won’t be entering the world of advertising I first entered. It’s now a world of content, social, native, experiential, and yes, the occasional ad or three. The basics aren’t necessarily the basics anymore. Or are they? What do aspiring copywriters need to learn first? Where should we start?
One thing I’ve noticed in the past is that for beginning students, their conception of advertising is a reflection of the ads they see on a day-to-day basis, which aren’t very good. It’s important for them to understand they need to push past the instinct to use clichéd phrases or think on the linguistic level of your basic mattress sale commercial.
So where’s the best place to start? I’ll start with some conceptual headline writing. Because we live in an era where the definitions and expectations of copywriters are getting quite fungible, I want to instill the idea that great copywriters need to express their craft unlike anyone else. They need to write headlines that have a rhythm and style all their own. Not the kind of headlines you find on listicles, blog posts, or emails, although I plan to briefly touch upon the new prevalence of those.
My students will also learn the fundamentals of great radio commercials. Not because there’s a huge demand out there, but because that’s where writers are unencumbered by graphic constraints or budgetary concerns. It’s pure writing, concepting, and imagination. With a surge in podcasting and services like Spotify, a writer who can perk up ears will have some versatile skills.
I’m also going to be realistic about the state of the industry. Because working copywriters need way more than a simple portfolio of headline-driven ads and radio spots. They need to understand that a “big idea,” if they have a good one, can be expressed through any number of media, digital or traditional. For part-time students, that’s a tall order. As one former student of mine said, “It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” which is exactly the kind of cliché I hope they avoid in their writing.
Most importantly, I expect my students practice writing — and rewriting — copy to make it all simple, provocative, and effective. Yes, we’ll spend a little time exploring social media and content writing. I think it’s good to open their eyes to the other paths that copywriting can lead to. For better or worse, the explosion in content has given rise to any number of ways people can make a living as writers. I’ll let them decide for themselves what they want to aspire to.
In previous classes, I’ve always been startled to learn how little would-be advertising professionals actually know about advertising. We live in a golden age of career information, copywriting advice, and marketing resources. It’s easier than ever for self-motivated people to learn where the creative bar is and how to get their work to that level. But it doesn’t often happen that way. So I take a portion of each week’s class and share new work from around the world. Often, they haven’t seen much of it, and it’s a revelation for them as to what’s really possible in our business.
Ten three-hour classes isn’t enough time for a would-be copywriter to learn it all, or put a portfolio together that rivals the best ones out there. But it’s enough to give students the sense that they need to aim to do better work than at least 95% of the advertising they see in daily life. Establishing that baseline is my goal. And much like we in the business constantly do, I suspect I’ll alter the syllabus and pivot where it’s needed (or requested.)
My hope is that slowly and surely, the light bulbs in their heads go on and they see the possibilities. So be assured, some of them are coming into the industry. Maybe they’ll be begging you for a job in a few years.
Now’s your chance to impart any advice you’d have for a new group of aspiring writers. I promise that if they don’t take that advice to heart, I have some brochures on law school they can peruse.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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