What Makes a Good Copy Writer? Five Traits to Look For

the copy writer mind

If you’ve ever shopped for a copy writer, whether on a freelance or employee basis, you know how hard it can be to choose one.

After all, while good copy writing is not an esoteric art, it’s also not common knowledge.

What you should be thinking about, once you approve a copy writer’s portfolio, is chemistry. You need to “click” with him or her, particularly if the project requires back-and-forth collaboration.

Nothing…  well, almost nothing… hurts a project’s outcome more than dislike or disapproval of the person you’ve hired to do a job.

Personal chemistry is — naturally — subjective. It’s also a two-way street. Although I don’t know you obviously, I can help you by sharing the traits ALL good copy writers have. By knowing what to look for, the selection process will be a lot easier for you.

It’s essential that the copy writer you hire HAVE all five of these traits. If he or she is missing even one, you’ll run into problems down the line. So in the early stages of exploration, when you’re getting to know a copy writer — in-person, on the phone, over email — ask questions that’ll flush them out.

A good copy writer is…

1) Curious: As an apprentice in the iron worker’s union years ago, I’ll never forget getting blasted by a foreman, 250 feet above the Manhattan sidewalk:

“What’re ya doin’? Watchin’ butterflies???”

Laughter. Howls. Jokes — from the 40-man crew.

The cranky, old guy caught me in the act of trying to understand what it was we were building. But my job as an apprentice was specifically not to think. I was to keep the crew stocked with supplies, nothing more, so they could keep working — like machines.

“Quit tryin’ to analyze everything… that’s how ya get hurt!”

The guy was right. Curiosity and analytical thinking wasn’t in the job description. A trained chimp could do what I was doing — without any back talk.

However, what works well in construction — tunnel vision, rote tasks — is disastrous in copywriting. A copy writer has to be curious. If he’s not, he won’t discover anything unique about the product or the audience he’s writing for.

Without a unique benefit… new twist… or juicy hook, the copy will be entirely predictable. And predictable copy might as well not exist; it won’t persuade anyone who wouldn’t otherwise buy the product.

2) Strategic: Fiction writers tell stories. Journalists report facts. Copy writers might do both, but the most important thing they do is push the reader, viewer, or listener to act.

In other words, they start with the end goal in mind — the call-to-action — and work backwards.

messy copywriter The call-to-action is what you want the prospect to do after consuming your content. It could be to read another article, schedule a demonstration, or buy a product. Whatever it is, the copy writer’s job is to make them do it.

In most cases, getting a prospect to do what you want them to do is exceptionally hard. In fact, even getting the prospect to finish reading, listening, or watching your content is difficult. That’s why the best copy writers will take the shortest path to the call-to-action.

Now, shortest path doesn’t necessarily mean short. Laying out facts mechanically to conserve words, or skipping important details before making an offer will neuter your conversion rates.

Strategic simply means starting with the end goal in mind. Working backwards, of course, dictates how the copy takes shape.

It also reveals new questions that must be answered in the copy before the reader will be tempted to take action (e.g., addressing the reader’s beliefs, biases, skepticism).

Copy writers who don’t think strategically leave information gaps in their work. And when prospects don’t have the information they want or need to make a decision, they drop out of the sales cycle.

3) Reliable: As Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up. No matter how talented a copy writer might be, if he doesn’t show up, he ain’t no good!

Obviously, if you’re hiring a copy writer in-house, then yeah, he should literally “show up.” That’s the minimum threshold for reliability.

But more than that, to be reliable is to produce the contracted deliverables on time. A copy writer — barring drastic circumstances — has to meet deadlines. At all times. copy writer deadline

Blowing deadlines is one of the reasons freelance copy writers get a bad rap. At one time — pre-internet — copy writers who missed deadlines were tolerated.

I should say, if the copy they delivered went on to make money, they were tolerated. Who were these tolerant companies? Large, direct mail information publishers.

Nowadays, even they won’t put up with missed deadlines. A copy writer who submits his work late will no longer be considered for future projects.

So be sure to ask a potential hire about his or her process for meeting deadlines. They should do more than give you their word (“scout’s honor!”) and explain the system they use to ensure work is completed on time.

4) Plain-spoken: A good copy writer writes to the level of the audience he hopes to reach — as a peer.

Plain words and “simple” language are relative. Easy reading to one audience might look like Old English to another.

Simple language is not flowery, indulgent, pompous, extraneous, or redundant.  As it’s been said, if you notice the words being spoken, it’s probably too complicated.

A good copy writer also uses words sparingly… economically. No more words than necessary.

Usually, but not always, good copy writers become good speakers. It’s one of the side benefits that come from writing and editing for a living.

5) Humble: A good copy writer knows that copy is only one part of any sales or marketing campaign. He doesn’t inflate the importance of copy, for the sake of selling his services.

Likewise, a good copy writer knows that even the best copy doesn’t always convert as expected. He will tell you that upfront and not make silly promises about conversion rates that he couldn’t possibly keep.

A good copy writer also takes criticism and suggestions in stride. He doesn’t flip out, for example, if you ask for a revision. Instead, he genuinely wants to hear where you’re coming from so he can explain himself (if necessary) and deliver copy that you’ll be happy to use.

So there you have it. Five traits all good copy writers share. 

Happy hiring!

And if you have an upcoming project that needs copy writing, I might be “that guy,” the one who makes you look brilliant. Contact me to schedule a no-obligation conversation.

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