Copywriting is a great way to use your writing skills to make a living. Nicolas di Tempora is a professional writer who has been teaching copywriting for years. He shared his industry insights with Ally Scale.
You have extensive experience teaching professional communication. What are some of the common traps writers fall into when drafting content?
Amazingly, most professional writers can’t answer the two most important questions before any writing begins: 1) What is the key proposition? and 2) Who are you talking to (and what are their hopes, fears and desires)? The trap is to dive straight into the writing with an over-active creative thrust and an under-developed understanding of the audience, subject and context. That explains a lot of the clichés, puns and information overload that pervade the communication spaces we move through. Another trap is not bothering to do your own research when the information you have is skimpy. Copywriters who investigate and think deeply can see the invisible and use creativity to make it visible to their audience.
In the last five years of running my copywriting courses, I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on preparing a Communication Brief and more recently incorporated social researcher Hugh Mackay’s ‘Ten Desires That Drive Us’ into the audience profiling with compelling results. The CommBrief is an invaluable Clear Thinking tool for focusing the mind (insight) and heart (empathy) on the job. It also gets everybody involved on the same page, making “the same movie” so to speak, and gives the writer full confidence in the creative direction taken.
The other trap is the tendency to write copy that reads like an infomercial. The great copywriters (Peter Carey, John Bevins, Jane Caro and Sean Cummins) have never written copy that sounds addy or spammy. Copywriting is a genuine dialogue with the target audience in the same way a journalist dialogues with their readership. It all comes back to the CommBrief — when you know your target audience like they’re sitting across the table from you, then you can begin to talk to them as one human being to another, instead of marketing-speak to “consumer”.
As a professional copywriter, is there a structured process you usually go through after you are given a brief from a client?
Yes, you need structure so that you can harness the imagination and direct the story. The structure I give myself and my students is The Anatomy of Body Copy — this guides you all the way, from conception to the completion of a piece of copy, be it long or short form. Students have found this alone really helps them steer their storytelling logically forward, from opening hook line to substantiation sentences to a conclusion that leaves the desired impression on the reader as they exit the story. This structure also has a psychological dimension to it —a conversation for relatedness leading to a conversation for possibility and concluding with a conversation for probability and action. My book, Copywriting in Action, demonstrates this in a series of case studies in the five most commonly used media — print, screen, radio, brochure and online.
No matter what project or medium, the first step in the creative process (after the CommBrief) is looking for the idea (story). Until you have that, you can’t go forward because it sets up the story, tone, style and attitude of the whole piece. That’s why we can spend 90% of our time generating ideas. The downside of this is that many copywriters are great with ideas but cannot follow through with the body copy. In an era of short form copy, there’s not a lot of opportunity for developing your copywriting skills anymore. Blogging is the last refuge of the long form copywriter.
What’s the role of the copywriter in today’s image-focused online environment?
Today’s copywriter is not much different than any time before, but they need to be adaptable to all media — traditional and digital. One day they may write web copy, tomorrow they may write a gaming app script and the next day they could be dialoguing with followers on social media. A copywriter needs to be an ideas person, a story builder who can engage their audience emotionally, intellectually and/or experientially. It’s all about coming up with story, meaning and value that resonates with the target audience and can be translated into all media. And because art direction is the flip side of copywriting, a copywriter with a capacity to visualise ideas is even more valuable. Sometimes an idea manifests as a visual, needing no words at all.
As a freelancer copywriter you need to adapt your writing for a range of different organisations. Is it essential to do your own research on an organisation’s writing style before you begin writing your content?
Absolutely. Just as a screenwriter writes on behalf of their characters, the copywriter writes on behalf of their client and brand personality. I often tell my students that copywriting is like method acting; you’ve got to fully inhabit the subject matter you’re writing about. In fact, you should know more about the subject than you’re writing about so that you come across with authority and credibility. A great screenwriter suspends disbelief. A great copywriter suspends disinterest.
The term copywriter has gotten a rise in popular culture after the successful television series ‘Mad Men’! In reality, what’s a modern day copywriter like?
There are so many different types of copywriters with varied backgrounds, politics and cultures that it’s hard to typecast him or her. What we all have in common is a love for ideas. We desire to know stuff so we can come up with ideas and write it into a few words that speak volumes and move people to action — from Mary Wear’s Make Poverty History to Lee Clow and Jessica Schulman’s Think Different to John Mescall’s Dumb Ways To Die to Sean Cummins’ Best Job in the World. We look forward to the next story coming our way to write about. We depend on clients to give us stories to write so we can practice our craft. It’s just that some copywriters, like Peter Carey, go on to make up their own stories.
About Nicolas Di Tempora
Nicolas Di Tempora is a professional copywriter and editor, qualified educator, director of the Copywriting in Action Online School and author of the highly acclaimed book, ‘Copywriting in Action: From Concept to Completion’. His collaborative teaching style embeds theory and practice to demonstrate the strategic and creative thinking processes involved in the various stages of producing a communication piece.
Update: Nicolas will be running a Business Writing workshop on Writing a Hi-Fi Marketing Communications Brief at the Small Business Festival Victoria in August 2017.
About Ally Scale
Ally Scale is a former Program Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She has just returned from Iceland where she completed a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature). She spends her days working as a freelance writer.