How to Tell if You’re a “Natural Born” Copywriter

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A personal confession: I don’t just like being a copywriter. I also happen to like copywriters in general. As people, I mean. Why?

Before you accuse me of being too kind to my own, consider.

How many copywriters do you know that seem extra welcoming and easy-going, as well as willing to answer questions and offer advice?

I know more than I can count.

What’s more, speak with them once, and they’ll usually remember what you’ve talked about. Introduce somebody and they’ll be happy to shake hands. In restaurants, they almost never snarl at a waiter. And I don’t know a single one among them who would ever kick a dog.

Every profession demands or at least cultivates certain character trains. Why should the copywriting field be any different?

For instance, I’ve found almost across the board that those colleagues of mine who happen to have those qualities… also seem to do better over the long run as copywriters.

Why? Simply because you need that insight into other people and what they’re thinking about to write all the best kinds of copy.

There’s a dark side to the typical copywriter personality, of course. At least in direct response, everything we do is measured to the penny. It either works or it doesn’t. And everybody notices, either way.

We’re hired, fired, and respected based almost entirely on performance. That can make one more than a little self-conscious. Even defensive and arrogant. In a debate, we can also be stubborn — simply because we spend so many working hours piling up proofs to back our claims.

What else have I noticed about copywriting types?

I’ve yet to meet a good copywriter who doesn’t have a good sense of humor, even though humor is something so rarely used — at least overtly — in direct-response sales writing.

And not just a passion for jokes. “It’s dry,” says my wife. We’re also observant. But sometimes, observant to a fault. That is, we can get caught up in subsets of details… while even bigger trends and events blow right past us, simply because they exist outside of whatever we’re focused on at the time.

Most copywriters I know also read widely. Some read history books, others read blockbusters, still more are sponges for trade journals, news clips, blogs, and popular magazines.

We like movies. And music.

In fact, we’re generally drawn to popular culture, even more than most, because it’s yet another way to soak up what our target markets are talking about.

Strangely, a lot of copywriters I’ve talked to don’t watch much TV, even though that flies in the face of what I’ve just said. Why?

Again, I can’t say for sure. But I can guess. TV eats up time, but gives back little in exchange. It’s also addictive. And that’s something else about copywriters. Like a lot of other writers, we can have slightly addictive or compulsive personalities.

Not necessarily the usual compulsions, either.

For instance, a lot of the copywriters I know are collectors. Of everything from puns and trivia… to chateaus and high-priced automobiles. For me, there was awhile there that I couldn’t help buying cheap used guitars. Until I acquired a few nice ones.

Which is another thing… I don’t know why, but easily 8 out of every 10 copywriters I know seem to play an instrument. And more often than not, that instrument is the guitar.

Not all of us are good, mind you. But we at least appreciate music. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat past 2 am, muddling my way through Dylan and Stones covers with fellow writers.

Copywriters are also a curious bunch.

By that I mean, we tend to be especially inquisitive. About everything. Even those things we’ll never write about.

David Ogilvy once said that curiosity was the key trait he looked for when hiring a writer. Be warned, if you don’t like asking questions, this might not be the field for you.

We’re storytellers. In print or conversation, copywriters love to default to the story form. Sometimes, more often than our listeners can stand.

The same goes for analogies.

We make — or should I say test — a lot of them. Analogy lies close to the core of creativity. A good analogy can make a complex idea sound simple. It can make an unfamiliar idea feel like an old friend. That doesn’t mean we always get the analogy right. But you can bet that when we don’t, we’ll try again.

A handful of the copywriters I know are doodlers or artists, yours truly included. That’s not a universal trait in this industry. But common enough to make it worth mentioning.

I think it’s because copywriting demands an especially strong mix of both left and right brain thinking. During the research mode, you’re all strategy and calculation. But then you need to jump to the other side of the divide, where your passion for the rhythm of word-craft resides.

Not everybody can do both.

Copywriters can be extroverted, but most that I know are not. On the other hand, we rarely shy away from a debate. We’ve got deeply felt opinions on everything, including a few things we don’t know much about… yet.

This list could go on.

But you more than get the picture.

There’s plenty about this trade that can be taught. But even the best techniques and tools aren’t worth much unless you’ve got the right kind of knack for this career in the first place. I’d be cheating you if I told you otherwise.

But let’s say you’re not at all like the person I’ve just described, but you still want to find your footing in this profession? No worries. Just like everything else, there’s always the option to simply do your thing and let the market decide.

Last modified: August 8, 2017

13 Responses to " How to Tell if You’re a “Natural Born” Copywriter "

  1. […] says John Forde, curiosity is particularly important for copywriters: David Ogilvy once said that curiosity was the […]

  2. […] by Dustin on Feb.26, 2010, under uncategorized How to Tell if You’re a “Natural Born” Copywriter […]

  3. Deanna says:

    Holy Smoke! That’s me! Good thing I’m a copywriter, huh?

    Thanks, John. I always look forward to your posts.

  4. Hey John, you certainly sneaked into my copywriter’s persona – feel like I’ve been sprung!
    First time I’ve visited – great website, thanks.

  5. jackforde says:

    Thanks… and welcome!

  6. Sean says:

    Woah! That is me to a T, and imagine that, I am looking to get into a junior copywriting position. Now if I can only land one…

  7. jackforde says:

    @Sean: Good luck Sean! If the position doesn’t materialize, try narrowing it down to that first assignment… and build from there. Anything you can get, just to get started.

  8. KevinRogers says:

    Great post, Jack. You really nailed the profile. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the guys and girls who do well at copywriting tend to do well quickly. If you discover this is a good match, then things can happen for you fast.

    That’s in part because of the generous nature of copywriters you mentioned earlier. Show a little talent and a passion for hard work and learning, and you’ll be amazed at the help you’ll get. (I sure was.)

    Now, back to eBay to bid on more pop cult figure bobbleheads.

  9. Hi Jack,

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog via Copyblogger. Fantastic post above that does an eerily accurate job of describing me!

    I’ve always loved writing, but, very much like the ‘copywriter’ you’ve described above, I’ve also always considered myself a pastiche — an almost perfect mix of left and right!

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Jeff Kuns says:

    After dropping my latest thrift-store-LP find on the turntable, I read this aloud to my wife (who sat grinning and nodding).

    If I could add one thing for Sean, and any other explorers who wonder if this is the right career move …

    Don’t ignore the resonance.

    I spent 12 years in a career I mostly hated with people I mostly disliked because (having no guidance) I thought copywriting would be too risky. What happened? The industry cratered, leaving me jobless.

    So, go for it with everything you’ve got.

    P.S. Tom Prisloe builds an amazing classical guitar at http://www.pavanguitars.com/index.html

  11. jackforde says:

    Thanks Jeff… and thanks for the guitar link too!

  12. “How to Tell if You’re a ‘Natural Born’ Copywriter” by John Forde…

    A personal confession: I don…

  13. “How To Tell If You’re A ‘Natural Born’ Copywriter” by John Forde…

    A personal confession: I don…

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