Why Writers Need Copywriting Skills

by Marg McAlister


Why is it a good idea for writers to develop skills in copywriting? Because (a) you can write much more persuasive press releases, back cover blurbs, website copy and brochures for yourself and (b) you can build a whole work-at-home copywriting business if you enjoy it.

First, what is copywriting? One of the handiest definitions I've heard is this: "copywriting is salesmanship in print". That sums it up nicely. You can 'sell' your own product, service or expertise, or you can create copy to sell someone else's.

When you learn copywriting skills, you are essentially learning how to switch on the reader's emotions. You are influencing that person to identify with the product. You want them to make a 'yes' decision. (If it's an editor, you want them to say 'yes, please send your book'. If it's a reader, you want them to say 'yes, this looks like a good read' and buy the book.)

Let's imagine you are an editor. You open the day's mail. The first three envelopes all contain query letters from hopeful authors.

Letter #1 is couched in fairly formal language. It outlines the story. It tells you that the author has worked hard on the book and really hopes that you will take the time to look at it. It is polite... but kind of bland. There's nothing there that excites you; nothing to make you think that this will be any different to dozens of other similar stories. And to be honest, it makes no difference to you whether the author has worked on it for two months or two years... you only care about the end product. You make a quick decision and scrawl "No thanks" on the letter, tuck it back into the reply paid envelope and toss it into the 'out' tray.

Letter #2 is quite a contrast. The author is bright and breezy and addresses you by your first name. She tells you that all her friends and family loved the story. Her writing group loved it too. She sounds enthusiastic (good) but overly-familiar (not so good). You skim-read to the last paragraph. She doesn't actually tell you much about the plot but finishes by saying "Would you prefer the full manuscript or a synopsis and some sample chapters?" That kind of grates; she is making the assumption that you will ask her to send it. You make another quick decision. Another 'no thanks' is on its way to the author.

Letter #3 is the one that gets the 'yes, I'd like to see your manuscript'. Why? Because the author presses your emotional buttons. (In the right way, this time!) She presents her story outline in a tone that reflects the genre and in a way that makes you want to read more. Her final paragraph shows that she is familiar with your publishing house and your list. She sounds confident and professional. You tick the letter and put it on a different pile for further action.

What has all this got to do with copywriting? Isn't this just a matter of learning what is required in a good query letter? Yes and no. When you understand the basics of copywriting, you know how to 'sell' a product in any medium. You instinctively choose appropriate phrases and words, whether you're writing a letter, a back cover blurb, a synopsis or website copy.

The Essence of Copywriting

When you undertake a copywriting course (or teach yourself via a book) you are learning to use WORDS THAT SELL. Many people think that this is all about writing a sales letter or brochure. That's true, of course... but the skills you learn will take you much further than that, as you can see by the "query letter" example above. A well-known copywriting maxim is this: 'Sell the sizzle, not the steak'. In other words, people don't really buy products - they buy the BENEFITS of owning that product.

You don't buy a drill. You buy the holes it can make. You don't buy a dress or a 'diet' shake. You buy admiration and feelings of satisfaction from looking good. You don't buy a book or a DVD. You buy a few hours of escapism and a world of romance or intrigue. Apply this to your own purchases. Ask 'why'. What might be the benefits of owning the products below?

Why buy aspirin? Why buy hair gel? Why buy an iPod?

If you were writing copy to sell aspirin, you would focus on the benefits (relief from pain, or FASTER relief from pain, or STRONGER pain relief) rather than the colour of the packaging or the price. If you apply this understanding of selling the BENEFITS of a product to your writing, you will be amazed at the difference it makes both to your copy and your acceptances.

Fiction and Copywriting

Will an understanding of copywriting help with fiction? I'm not even going to hesitate here. I'm going to give an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Yes, it will help. Why? Because every page of your story should 'sell' your writing. First to the editor, and then, after publication, to the reader. In the first instance, you want the editor to say 'yes, we want to buy your book'. In the second instance, you want the reader to 'buy' your characters, your skills, and your writing style.

If you understand how to press emotional buttons in sales copy, you'll carry across that understanding to your fiction. When you write sales copy, you are trying to make the reader feel that they can't do without the product. You want it to be so real to them that they can taste it, or imagine wearing it, or picture themselves using it. When you write fiction, you want your readers to feel that the setting or characters are so real to them that they can taste what the characters are tasting, feel what they feel, react as the characters would react.

An observation here: In seven years of being a tutor for distance education writing programs, I've had a number of students enrol who were copywriters or had a copywriting background. In nearly every case I found that their writing was fluent, persuasive and had a ton of emotional punch.

What to Expect in a Course or Book on Copywriting

Most copywriting courses or books have similar content. You'll find advice on typical sales copy, which will include:

1. The Headline (regarded by most copywriters as being the most important part of the sales copy... this is what readers focus on first. You'll use this in your press releases, web copy and on brochures/letters that encourage people to buy your books or services.) The headline seizes attention and shows the benefit of owning the product or using the service.

2. The Opening (a declaration, challenge or question that involves the reader and makes them keen to read on).

3. Body copy (this will include further benefits in the form of bullet points, price justification, special offers and image builders (that is, why they should choose you or your book)

4. Link Lines (transitions to link one part of copy to another smoothly)

5. Guarantees (why and how you guarantee success/satisfaction)

6. Persuaders and Clinchers (powerful reasons for the reader to take action)

7. Useful Phrases and Words to encourage a certain mood, attitude or to reassure. For example (from Word Power III), here are words that embody the theme of 'classic and traditional':

timeless, timeless elegance, legendary, painstakingly restored, historic, antique, as old as time itself, in the rich tradition of, redolent of a bygone age

8. Sample sales letters and/or sample sales copy.

A Summary of How Writers Can Use Copywriting Skills

  • To sell your published books: (press releases, website copy, brochures, flyers, newsletters or ezines.)
  • To query an editor (query letter, cover letter, synopsis, non-fiction book proposal)
  • To press readers' emotional buttons in either fiction or non-fiction; short stories or articles
  • To establish your own copywriting business (in a nutshell: learn the basics, do some work for free or at low cost, build up your portfolio and testimonials, then gradually increase your price as your expertise and reputation grows).

© Marg McAlister


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