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The ten commandments of copywriting

Writing copy is an art - but there is method in the madness. Here are ten golden rules all copywriters should follow.

1. "Copy is not written. Copy is assembled" - Eugene Schwartz 'Copyassembler' would be a rubbish job title, but Schwarz is right. A copywriter takes all the materials in a brief - tone of voice, communication objective, product features - and assembles those elements in a way that will make the audience sit up and take notice. And then take action. A strong brief makes this process a lot easier.

2. "A lot of copywriters think they're good judges of their own work. I know I'm not." - David Ogilvy By way of illustration, here's a joke a graphic design friend likes to trot out now and then.

Q: How many copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Copywriter: '*^%$ off! I'm not changing anything'.

Not all writers are protective. But everyone finds it hard to spot weaknesses, let alone mistakes, in their own work. Hence copywriting agencies, who have someone review the work when it's sent, are more popular with big brands than lone freelancers. Find out why it pays to go plural.

3. "You must be as simple, and as swift, and as penetrating as possible" - Bill Bernbach Even when a copywriter is grappling with a complicated message, the resulting copy should always be as simple as possible. Anything else is a copywriting sin.

4. "When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic but creatures of emotion." - Dale Carnegie A copywriter might look dead behind the eyes, but that's just the caffeine. In fact, they're highly sensitive to the emotional benefits of a brand or product offer, and it's emotion that moves customers from A to B.

5. "Begin strongly. Have a theme. Use simple language. Leave a picture in the listener's mind. End dramatically." - Winston Churchill A great copywriter is a great storyteller, just like Churchill, who not only mastered the art of the withering put-down and the droll one-liner, but also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It's not essential for a copywriter to be a military strategist. But they should know how to write a good speech and craft a compelling story.

6. "Having too many ideas is not always a good thing." - Paul Arden Authors of fiction are in a constant war with their editors, but a copywriter needs to exercise creative self-control at all times. In fact, learning to kill your darlings and self-edit is one of the quickest ways to become a better writer. But it's not easy (see above).

7. "Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room." - Jeff Bezos Writing copy means getting inside the minds of the audience when they encounter a brand: what do they actually think of your company? Find out why taking a long, hard look in the mirror is essential for preparing a copy brief.

8. "Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." - Bill Bernbach All copy tries to get the audience to do something. Good copy succeeds. We've written about the secret to writing persuasively here (and pre-suasively here) and we regularly give a Guardian Masterclass on persuasive writing. So if you're looking to up your influence game, these are the droids you're looking for.

9. "Don't tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it." - Leo Burnett Writing copy is about identifying some feature of a product, and then extracting an emotional benefit. People don't buy fast cars, they buy exhilaration. Repeat after me: benefits not features.

10. "Do not put cleverness in front of the communication" - Paul Arden. It takes a quality copywriter to resist the urge to be smart with language. Wordplay and double meaning work sometimes, depending on your audience, but if cleverness obstructs the message, it's got to go.

Copywriters know all this. Sometimes we even remember to apply it. Juggling all these rules isn't easy. It's a tough job and someone's got to do it. Give me another coffee will you?


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