Copywriter or wordsmith? Why there’s a difference and why it matters.
November 27, 2018
The term “copywriter” doesn’t mean much to a lot of people. And it means all sorts of very different things to the rest. So I and my colleagues frequently have to explain ourselves.
One of the most popular/convenient labels, both with copywriters and those who have an idea of what the job entails, is “wordsmith”. Personally, I’m very unhappy with it. There’s an old saying “If the cap fits, wear it”. Am I being big headed if I suggest it doesn’t adequately cover what I do?
Logophile (one who loves words)
The “wordsmith” label conjures up an image of someone who “knocks out a few words”. I’m surprised at how many of my colleagues don’t take issue with this. In fact, they embrace it enthusiastically.
A quick surf through copywriter websites will turn up a “lover of wordplay”, a “word nerd” and “someone who trades in words”. There’s a copywriter who describes themselves as a “weaver in words”, someone who’s “passionate about words” and a lady who has been “stringing words together professionally since 2002”.
One styles themselves as a person that “writes stuff”, another says they produce “beautifully styled English” and there are many who describe themselves as purveyors of “winning words”. I’ve even seen a “word wizard”.
A California-based copywriter has this testimonial on her home page: “A “Word Smith” isn’t even close to what Anna is, she’s a brilliant Wordmaster!”
For most on my colleagues, and indeed for most of those in the industry as a whole, the job seems to be all about words, words, words. Some get quite carries away with wistful reminiscences about how they were always writing stories in junior school. Others take a guilty pleasure in sharing their favourites: “Oooh, I do like a bit of Perspicacity, but unctuous and limpid are right up there too.”
I hate this word luvviness. It’s all a bit twee, whimsical and self-indulgent. It reminds me of Fotherington-Tomas from the Molesworth books and Private Eye – the effete schoolboy who skips around saying things like “hullo clouds, hullo sky”.
Setting aside my personal antipathy for such passionate professions of love for all things verbal there’s a very good reason for taking a less breathless approach. It’s not a good way to get business people to take you seriously. If you want respect from sales managers, number crunchers and consultants with MBAs you need to talk their language. Declaring a fondness for spelling, grammar and punctuation will simply fuel their suspicion that you are not sufficiently commercially aware to add real value.
Thinking is work
When I tackle a job, even a relatively small and simple one, the writing bit comes at the very end. There’s a lot of grunt groundwork and mental heavy lifting before I get hands-on with words.
Every job is different but whether I’m tackling a web page or a video script, a blog post or a press advertisement, I need the answers to a series of questions. These should be provided in the brief, but seldom are. That means I nearly always have do considerable research, information gathering and subsequent sorting myself.
What are these questions? I cover them in my book “The Authority Guide to Creating Brand Stories that Sell” but here’s a short list.
- What needs producing (poster, 800 word blog post, full page press ad, 8 page A4 brochure, landing page…)?
- What is the client’s objective (create awareness, get subscribers, visit website…)?
- Background information. What is product or service, features and benefits, who are main competitors, what has brand been doing previously, trends/issues affecting this market etc?
- Target audience(s). Picture of person that message is being aimed at. Demographics (age, income, occupation), relevant attitudes that affect their decision making, hopes, fears, needs, desires.
- What’s the single most motivating and differentiating thing you can say about this product or service?
- What facts can you add to the argument in support of the proposition?
- Tone of voice. Professional, warm, humorous, hard sell…?
Whether this information is provided or I have to dig around for it myself, this is just the first stage. Next I have to absorb that information into my brain and digest it. James Webb Young, the copywriter who wrote the seminal book “A Technique for Producing Ideas”, describes how one now must take “the different bits of material you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind.” I have to let this digestion process run its course then before the next stage – the stage where I synthesise these elements into something new.
The point is that I have to do an awful lot of work gathering, analysis and cogitation to arrive at what to say. There are no shortcuts. How you put it into words can only happens when the first part of the process is complete. That’s a lot of thinking. As Henry Ford once remarked “thinking is the hardest work a man can do. That is why so few are willing to do it.” In my experience, when clients brief copywriters they usually pass on a lot of the initial thinking work as well.
That’s one of the reasons why I feel the term “wordsmithing”, and the idea that “it’s all about words” is so misleading and dismissive – it ignores all that mental graft that goes in before the writing begins.
Weapons of mass persuasion
“Wordsmithing” not only fails to acknowledge the full extent of the input. It also misrepresents the output.
On the face of it this output is “just words”. Such an assessment, however, is naïve in the extreme. Think of a favourite book. Do you love the words, or do you love the way the words make you feel? If you recommend the book to someone and they dismiss it as “just a bunch of words” do you think to yourself “wow, what an intelligent, thoughtful and astute person?”
The output is not the words. It’s the effect the words have.
The words are just the means to the end. A means to grab attention, stimulate interest, create desire and move people. In “The Craft of Copywriting” Alastair Crompton writes that “The average Joe thinks the craft consists mainly of being clever with words. That is not what copywriting is about at all. I define it simply as ‘making someone want to do something.’”
Copywriting, even if you are writing a blog post on wedding tips, or sharing information about your guided tour around Versailles, is not about using words for their own sake. It’s about creating an emotional bond with people, it’s about persuasion, it’s about changing perceptions and it’s (although people are squeamish about the word nowadays) about selling.
The end is added value for the brand story. Value that attracts more clicks, likes, shares, followers, customers, referrals, fans, revenue. Value that makes it easier to recruit good people, boost prices and improve profit margins, reduce customer acquisition costs and customer churn, ensure that staff feel positive and engaged.
Builder and architect
Words are just tools and raw material. The copywriter uses them in the same way a plumber, a chippie, an electrician and a chippie uses a combi-drill, an angle grinder, and a wall plug. This makes a copywriter a tradesperson, someone who works on-site, on the tools – a skilled manual labourer.
But is that all they do? Personally (and I know this sounds pretentious), I generally find I also have to be an analyst, visionary, creator, interpreter, designer, story-teller, psychologist, salesperson, advocate and wit. I’m not just “on the tools”. I’m also a brand architect.
I find “Hegarty on Advertising” a very thought provoking book. He describes the creative process as “turning intelligence into magic”. Any copywriter that describes themselves as a “wordsmith” is advertising the fact they are unaware of this magical dimension to successful brand building.