What Does a Copywriter Do?

There's a sense of general discomfort among many copywriters because, frankly, people don't know what we do.

Some writers drop the 'copy' part from their job title because they don't want people to think that we just copy and paste content from one place to another - and if you've ever looked for an original music review, rather than a copied-and-pasted press release from the artist's PR representative, you might be forgiven for thinking that.

Others are unhappy because a lot of the commonly used job titles don't make writing sound like much of an artform; 'copywriter' is all about producing the required word count, 'blogger' is as much about photography, choosing the right subject and promoting it on social networks as it is about writing spot-on copy, and 'wordsmith' just makes us sound like typewriter-monkeys churning out page upon page of adequate text.

I'm currently toying with the title of 'lexician' - a tight and technical approach to constructing pages of text that don't lack the artistry of proper writing, but also combine the essential elements of structure that are needed in either hardcopy marketing materials, or search-visible online articles.

But it's not just the name that matters - it's what we actually do that can leave some would-be clients feeling a little confused. So, here's the breakdown of my usual approach.

The Brief

Every project starts with a brief of one sort or another. It can be extremely vague - particularly for long-term jobs, where we can nail down the content as we go along - or extremely specific if the client needs a precise topic, word count, delivery date and so on.

I work to an upfront price per 1,000 words, but I'll usually confirm the expected total price at the outset anyway, and I'm not too outraged if people want to haggle.

Once I know what the client needs, however vague or specific that might be, I set about sourcing the relevant information.

The Source

There are plenty of ways to decide what to write.

Sometimes the client sends me some information to use - maybe just a couple of bullet points that need fleshing out into hundreds of words, or maybe an entire brochure that needs trimming down to a couple of blog posts.

Sometimes I find the content myself, from press releases or information that's already in the public domain; I have access to several industry-specific press sites that most people wouldn't be able to use, so I'm often able to find source material that even the client wouldn't be able to get hold of.

And sometimes, if the client wants something truly original and authoritative, I just make it up. Not in some dodgy, it's-all-lies kind of way, but by writing a how-to guide that isn't already available, or an opinion piece that puts the client's view across on the chosen topic, if it's in any way controversial.

Whatever the subject, there's some kind of source material to be found, even if it's produced by brainstorming with the client rather than by trawling the internet.

The Text

The nuts and bolts of copywriting, put quite simply, is to take the source material and repurpose it to serve the client's needs.

In less legitimate forms of copywriting, such as article spinning, that can simply mean swapping every fifth word with a synonym so it looks like a different piece of text, but still says basically the same thing. I think it's fair to say most legitimate copywriters think article spinners give the rest of us bad names.

In more legitimate copywriting, however, it's about creating a single, coherent, grammatically correct and compelling section of text to fill the necessary word count, with the most interesting pieces of information picked out from the source material, and usually with some kind of overt or covert marketing message to persuade the reader to buy the client's product or order their service.

Many of us genuinely love writing, so you'll often see articles that don't have a marketing message as such, but are there just to inform or to highlight a particularly interesting subject - this very page, for instance, is hopefully shedding some light on the copywriting process, and was inspired by a previous non-commercial post from Paula Maher, entitled What Twitter Has Taught Me.

The Clients

A copywriter's clients can range from individuals, to small businesses, to charities, to big brands.

I prefer to work with smaller clients who might not have the budget available to approach a large marketing agency to handle their content production - I thrive on a more personal working relationship, and I think I serve that kind of client best too.

This leaves some of my friends sounding rather doubtful when I say that I don't really have any big-name, behind-the-scenes clients on my books, but won't go into too much detail about the people I do work for, but who have asked me not to shout about it.

Confidentiality - not 'secrecy' - is all part of the process, though, and while I've written for a couple of recognisable brand names (at least within their region or industry), I only talk about the ones who are happy to be named when it comes to recommendations, testimonials, and examples of past work.

At the moment I'm blessed to have a collection of excellent long-term clients who are happy to work with me on an ongoing basis to produce the copy they need. Some are direct end-user clients, others are agencies who resell my articles to their customers, but I'm appreciative of all of them in equal terms.

The Future

Who knows what the future may hold? As a writer in the internet age, I work with HTML on a daily basis - I'm composing this blog post in HTML view and adding the relevant bold tags and hyperlinks manually.

I've been creating websites since 1998, so I'm fluent in the everyday HTML codes that are in general use, and plenty of the less commonly used ones, too.

As major online brands like Google and Twitter continue to steer the internet into new territory, copywriters - particularly those who specialise in online content - need to be able to adapt to keep their clients (perhaps that should be our clients?) ranking highly in the search results.

While some agencies may suffer from inertia when responding to the changing internet landscape - and believe me, I've been part of an agency where death by committee was the norm - freelancers are often much more adaptable, even within the scope of a single job, let alone over the long term.

Right now, I'm feeling positive1 about what lies ahead for me, although I don't know exactly how my freelance copywriter career will progress from here.

I hope, however, that this post will help some of you to have a better understanding of what I do, and of the importance of my client relationships - both for my ongoing satisfaction, and for theirs.


Like many of my individual and small-business clients, I went self-employed in pursuit of a little more flexibility, to make my own decisions about what's right and what's not, after a five-year agency-based career turned sour and I was left with the choice to either compromise my principles, or simply quit.

It's been a reasonably turbulent road to reach a sustainable position as a freelancer, but I'm there, and the positivity I feel about my immediate future was summed up fairly well in the pub a couple of weeks ago.

My friend Bec asked what I would do as a job, if I could choose any career at all, and my immediate response was that I don't think I'd change - not because it's the absolute greatest job in the world, but because I enjoy what I do, the flexibility and freedom of freelancing, and I don't think there's any office-based job out there that could be more satisfying.

Bec's quite a positive person anyway, so she simply heard "If I could do any job in the world, I'd do the one I've got" and started repeatedly screaming "You're living your dream! You're living your dream!" in my face.

And you know what? I might be living in a rented flat, with no car or girlfriend, and very few hobbies of any discernible kind, but in a sense she's right - a decade after leaving home to go to university, I am doing what I always wanted to do.

It's not been the directest of routes, or the smoothest of rides, but I've reached my intended destination nonetheless.