Big IdeasBusiness Beyond FreelancingCopywriting

Copywriters aren’t wordsmiths


I once said, “I string words together that impact others’ lives. What could be better?”

Is it really about stringing words together in the right way and being a “wordsmith”?

That’s one level, and you can make a decent living if you consider yourself a wordsmith first and foremost.

But I think it goes deeper. Much deeper.

As copywriters, we’re more than simply wordsmiths, weaving words into appealing messages that get people to act.

You and I are a combination of private detective, psychologist, researcher, salesperson, presenter, marketing strategist,  and yes, writer.

People often ask me what it takes to succeed in this business. Within a 15-minute conversation, I can usually tell if they’re a good fit, and whether they’ll do really well or just average.

In a future post, I’ll share the exact questions I’ve started asking aspiring copywriting rock stars.

For now, I’d say if you possess some of these characteristics, you’re in the right business.

A good copywriter

  • Is fascinated by human nature
  • Has a strong desire to understand people and why they do the things they do
  • Asks the right questions
  • Listens well
  • Is good at anticipating questions and objections
  • Loves people
  • Isn’t afraid to be vulnerable
  • Would make a good private detective (and secretly wants to be)
  • Knows how to lead a conversation
  • Makes an interesting guest at a cocktail party
  • Knows how to sell, or is willing to learn (as much as some people don’t like that word, it’s the essence of what we do)
  • Could give a good eulogy for a friend (I’ll explain this in a future post)
  • Understands the dark side of human nature, but looks for the brighter side
  • Gets emotional occasionally
  • Generates ideas without waiting for a specific “assignment”
  • Can crawl inside someone’s head and see things from their perspective
  • Appeals to the emotions of others
  • Is pleasant to hang out with
  • Reads more than most people

Legendary ad man David Ogilvy said that the hallmarks of a potentially successful copywriter include:

  • Obsessive curiosity about products, people, and advertising
  • A sense of humor
  • A habit of hard work

Do you need all of these things? No, but the best copywriters I know seem to have most of them.

And, of course, you still have to take your ideas, craft the right message to the right audience, and get them to act. You need to get good at the art of copywriting.

Did I leave anything out? Which ones do you think are most important? I’d love to hear from you. Leave me a quick note here, please, and I’ll address this again in part II, “Copywriters Aren’t Just Wordsmiths.”

Steve Roller

Author Steve Roller

I'm a business coach, author, copywriter, world traveler (33 countries on five continents so far), and professional speaker. In addition to helping companies get more customers and make more money, I help other writers create profitable businesses. I offer one-on-one coaching, professional copy critiques, and live, in-person business-building workshops. When I'm not writing, coaching, or speaking, I enjoy nothing more than hanging out with my wife and four kids and planning my next adventure.

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Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • Renae B says:

    Im interested

  • Melissa says:

    Hi Steve. I think the one that requires cultivation is selling. Most of the other traits often come with a copywriter’s persona. But self-promotion is tough!

    The most important? I’d say infinite and enduring curiosity as well as the ability to get into other people’s heads. And the courage not to run from some of the scary stuff you find in other’s heads!

    Honestly, you nailed all that I could come up with. I look at your list and think who wouldn’t want to be a copywriter — I guess that means I’m home.

    • Steve Roller says:

      Yes, Melissa. The selling is definitely a learned skill, and the other things you mentioned – curiosity and courage – make a big difference. I’m glad you’re “home”!

  • A good article. I can say I have had a very varied life and met many different types of people. Have seen the dark side and the good side! Having a background in journalism and in market research and analysis, I am always looking for a story and everyone has one!!! Do let me know how I can help you, Steve!!!

  • edna says:

    I’d really like to help with some of your projects too. We talked about that last November when we met for lunch. Great article! Answers some questions I’ve had about copywriters versus writers or wordsmiths.

  • Shawn Maus says:

    Great article! The headline really grabbed me and I had to read on. I didn’t really look at myself as more than a wordsmith, but your list of characteristics gave me a new perspective. And, especially the Ogilvy comment about having a sense of humor – I think I have that one down! I can’t wait to see what part two has in store.

    • Steve Roller says:

      Shawn, I’d definitely say you have the sense of humor part down. You really do have what it takes to be very successful at this, now it’s just a matter of channeling it and refining your skills. Look forward to getting together again at some point. Best wishes until then.

  • Sean says:

    I think a desire to educate is also important. Selling is essentially educating the right people about the right topic. It gets around the “don’t-sell-me” mindset.

    • Steve Roller says:

      Good point, Sean. You’re right, education is part of it, as long as you’re also finding out about your prospects and making sure it’s a good fit.

  • Hi Steve,

    No “wordsmith” here, but in your description of what it takes to be a great Copywriter; you nailed every “trait.” Even the ones you did not explain (I preached my Dads funeral)

    I hear you may have some upcoming larger projects. I am game. Drop me an email or SKYPE me at Webwriter777. Or simply call me at 318-325-7586. I look forward to your reply.

    Very Best Regards,

    Stephen Monday

  • Hi Steve,

    This is my first visit to your site after a friend suggested I check it out. I liked this post and am eager to read more. I think copywriters have to be curious about people, eager to listen to their stories and just as eager to tell them to an audience that might not hear them otherwise.

    I’ll return soon and also keep checking out the cafe on Facebook and Twitter.

    Thanks for providing this resource.

    – Jennifer

    • Steve Roller says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer, and glad to have you in the Facebook group as well. If you want to get updates and Cafe news, grab my free report on the website, too. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you.

  • This is a great article, Steve, and I think you’ve come up with a very vivid and comprehensive description of being a copywriter, and I find it hard to add to the list! The way I’ve come to understand myself in my evolution as a copywriter, is I am an artist with words. That’s something I’ve grown into – it’s quite a beautiful and fascinating life path – and yes, it’s beyond the idea of being just a “wordsmith.” I see myself drawing from a sensitive artist’s temperament, being a lover of beauty, as well as a traveler, philosopher, explorer and seeker; a poet and a journalist, and even a bit of a psychiatrist – and somehow I take various dimensions of my personality and I reflect back to my clients the words, messages and media of their own desire for self-expression, marketing and sales. I see sales as tied to appreciation, inspiration and motivation for something that improves quality of life.

    • Steve Roller says:

      James, that is the most comprehensive response I’ve gotten to any post in a long time. Wow! I love the description “artist with words” and how you see sales tied to appreciation, inspiration, and motivation. Thanks for your comments, and I look forward to more in the future.

      • Thanks for your response, Steve… I’ve grown tremendously in my work as copywriter through the Café, so I really appreciate what you’ve done in creating this space for fellow copywriters to share ideas and experiences. I can’t make the trip to Chicago in May, but I certainly intend to do one of your retreats in the future. I would absolutely love to be one of the copywriters you turn to for sharing new work opportunities with your growing list of clients. I really feel a resonance with your thinking about what it means to be a copywriter, and I think that creative identity influences how we are able to ply our craft.

        • Steve Roller says:

          Glad the Cafe is helping you, James. I’d love it if we connected at some point. Keep me posted on your progress, and let me know if I can help you with anything specific.

  • Kathleen says:

    Really thoughtful article, Steve. I’ve often found myself trying to hear that conversation in the prospect’s head so I can then focus on the benefits they are seeking. Sooooo important to listen to that conversation…even though it’s mostly unspoken!

    • Steve Roller says:

      We really do need to put ourselves in our prospects’ shoes, don’t we? It’s easier to do if you’ve been in sales before, because you know how people react and what they say. With copywriting we never really get to be there when the prospect reads our copy for the first time. Thanks for your comments, Kathleen.

  • Sharon says:

    This article definitely speaks to me. Copywriting is about reaching people and getting results, which requires an obsessive interest in people and a desire to solve their problems. It’s about offering something of value. In order to do that, we must understand what the reader finds valuable.

  • Jerry Jansen says:

    Looking forward to the copywriters’ life. But that path takes some learning and listening to others who have worn down that path.

    • Steve Roller says:

      Indeed it does, Jerry. Let me know if I can help you in any way, and keep reading these posts for more insights into staking your claim in the Wild West world of freelance copywriting.

      By the way, if you’re on Facebook, connect with me and I’ll add you to my Copywriter Café group there. It’s a lively, friendly group of writers who are always willing to help each other out with ideas, advice, encouragement, and feedback.

  • Jerry Jansen says:

    I just clicked to join Copywriters Cafe. Onward…through the fog…

  • Jerry Jansen says:

    Even though we winter in Arizona, we will always be Madisonians. We are UW grads and love it here.

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