Part of the fun of working for a great agency is being encouraged to think. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about.

What Makes A Good Copywriter?

January 31, 2013 Jeff Bradford

Although words are not absolutely necessary to effective marketing – indeed, purely symbolic, non-verbal actions can be very effective – good copywriting skills are nevertheless essential. If you can’t write, you can’t communicate, and if you can’t communicate, you can’t persuade.

The ability to write coherently, convincingly and correctly is so important that the Bradford Group gives a writing and proofreading test to every job applicant. We’ve found this to be a much better predictor of success than resumes and writing samples. The former can be inflated and there is no guarantee that the latter were actually created by the applicant or weren’t heavily edited.  However, when you provide someone with a list of facts and ask them to decide what is important about the facts presented and to write a five-paragraph story about it, as our writing test does, it pretty clearly separates the wheat from the chaff.writer cartoon

But what, exactly, makes a good writer? I submit it requires the following:

1. Good Thinking

If you can’t think clearly, you can’t write clearly. I would go so far as to say that good writing is primarily the transcription of good thinking. An artful style, a large vocabulary and impeccable grammar can’t mask sloppy thinking. By good thinking, I mean demonstrating a clear progression from one thought to the next. The connections between thoughts can be logical or emotional – or a combination of the two, which is generally most effective, and takes the most skill.

The ability to write coherently, convincingly and correctly is so important that the Bradford Group gives a writing and proofreading test to every job applicant.

2. Concern for the Reader

The purpose of all writing is to be understood. This means the form of the message has to match the needs of the recipient, like two puzzle pieces fitting together. Good writers write to a particular reader – who could represent the entire world or only people who have something in common, such as level of education, or upbringing, or political leaning – and make it easy for that reader to understand what the writer is trying to communicate. Good writing is not about the writer; it’s about the reader.

3. Economy

Concern for the reader translates into not making him work any harder than is absolutely necessary. So you get to the point and make every word count.

4. Emotional Intelligence

Getting the argument right is only half of the challenge. It’s important, of course, to present readers with the reasons you’d like for them to take some action – as these reasons can be used to rationally explain why they have taken the action you suggest. But it is emotion that moves people to act. Writers who can’t tap into readers’ emotions can’t make things happen, so why bother writing?

5. Good Reading Habits

I’m a lifelong awful golfer. One of the first of many golf teachers I’ve consulted over the years said that practicing without instruction is like “pouring concrete over bad habits.” The same applies to writers who don’t read good books. I always ask job applicants what they are reading. If they are not reading or they’re reading junk, I can pretty much predict that they’ll fail the writing test. How can you possibly learn to do something as difficult as writing well if you haven’t seen others do it? How would you even know what good writing looks like?

6. Having Fun

You can’t be a good writer if you don’t love language and enjoy finding the best words and the best ordering of those words to communicate what you want to say.

PS: It is almost a truism that anyone who is serious about good writing must read Elements of Style by Strunk and White. An annual re-reading is recommended. (Fortunately, the entire book is available free online at the link above.)

photo credit: Mike Licht, via photopin cc

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