Is copywriting a dying craft? 

Freelance senior copywriter Huizhen Tay on the many reasons copy is becoming a dispensable commodity, why it needs to be saved and what should be done to revive it

When I first got into copywriting, I underestimated the amount of craft that would be involved. After all, I was okay with the “writing”. I figured I could wing the “copy” bit – whatever that was. 

To my shock and horror, the crafting that takes place after ideating isn’t as easy as many make it out to be. 

The fact is, writing well takes time and real hard work. Punchy vignettes of thought that inspire, excite and create desire don’t appear magically on the page. Especially not in the first draft. I recall how I once wrestled with three lines of copy for six hours straight as a junior writer. 

And even with more experience now, I still sometimes find that an extra hour of editing can make a difference to my work in terms of a better turn of phrase or more nuanced expression.

But, to put it bluntly, no one really seems to care for good copy nowadays. Here are some signs that it’s fast becoming a dispensable commodity. 

The demand for production-line writers: In this “always-on” social media age, speed is currency. Fast writers who can churn out copy at a moment’s notice are increasingly prized over ones who labour preciously over 80 characters for a social post. 

Especially since it will only be casually glanced at by a busy consumer for a total of five seconds. 

“It’s so short,” people like to say, “So it shouldn’t take up too much time to write.” Sometimes, there are even requests for one to “write-on-the-go” at shoots or “come up with something quick” in 15 minutes because “a conference call with the client has already been set up”. 

But fast doesn’t always mean better. Fast can be sloppy. Fast can lead to grammatical errors and lapses in tone — sometimes embarrassing, irreversible mistakes that could compromise your brand image. 

Sadly, with tight budgets and poor planning, many clients seem to think that vending-machine copy is worth the long-term costs.

Fast also throws “traditional copywriting rules” out of the window. Rules such as waiting. Sleeping on it. And giving your copy room and time to evolve. 

To find a middle ground between business deadlines and creative excellence, I often try to write even faster, so that I can apply these best practices even when there is a time crunch. 

I’ve also come to recognise my “creative sweet spot”— the point where the work is good enough to be let go, even though I know that further editing could make it better.

But how I adapt is beside the point. The more pressing concern is, what value is placed on good copy nowadays and the time that’s needed to get there? 

The rise of planner-driven ads: Copywriting as a craft is also dying because power is shifting from the one who actually writes the ad to those who should only be helping to shape the idea. 

From the first few words of an ad, you can tell how much planner influence went into it. 

I recently saw an ad for an e-commerce site with the headline that said: “Play More”. Beneath it, a trendy-looking female posed with manicured hands. The body copy read: “It broadens horizons and ignites possibilities”. Marketing speak, basically. 

It sounded like the rough strategy of a planner in the very first brief.  

A good copywriter would have helped to make these abstract thoughts vivid and personally relevant to the consumer. Such that there would be minimal effort on the reader’s part to think – less of a barrier to action. And yet, keeping it provocative enough to invite the reader to imagine (in this case, the benefits of shopping more). 

A very rough starting draft could be, “Funky nail art that brightens your day can be a conversation starter and lead to amazing things like getting your first acting gig”. 

A bit of a stretch, at the moment. But a good copywriter will re-write this again and again until it vividly brings to life the idea of “broadens horizons and ignites possibilities”. Without making it so specific that it alienates some, or so general that it becomes relevant to everyone (and automatically un-sexy), all while making the reading of the copy a delight in itself. 

Sounds hard? Perhaps, because it is. It takes craft. Craft, together with good ideas, is the foundation of all advertising. It sells by seducing, revealing just enough to tease. If I can smell the strategy in your ad, it has failed. That’s why you still need copywriters — and good ones too.

The scourge of content marketing: As the demand for content marketing — and content writing — goes up, more copywriters are increasingly called to take on such briefs. Which also means that less time is devoted to the art of copywriting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is good reason for why content marketing should stay. Good content complements traditional advertising in building awareness and advocacy on a deeper level. Bad content, however, just adds to the white noise and media clutter we are compelled to ingest every day.

But when copywriters are called to do content writing as well, that’s when things start to get a little strange. While the skills of a copywriter and content writer are fundamentally similar (ie – proper spelling, grammar, etc.), they are stylistically quite different. 

Copywriters are trained to shrink. The simpler and more succinct an idea, the better it is. Think big ideas, witty taglines, punchy calls-to-action, etc. 

Content writers expand. They elaborate ideas and develop them in depth in long-form articles. There can be hybrid writers of course. But there will inevitably be some dilution of craft. 

When demand for good copy drops, supply will also drop. If there are not enough copywriters on the market now, there will be even fewer in the years to come. 

Just bad copywriters: Let’s not forget this. The changing demands of media doesn’t give copywriters a license to be less rigorous in their craft. 

Sure, throw in the odd millennial slang if that’s what your target audience needs. But that’s not an excuse to write sloppily.  You can always push yourself to make the copy better. Even if it’s only 80 characters for a social post that will be casually glanced at by a busy consumer for a total of five seconds. 

So, what now?

If you’re a client: It’s 2019, but still worth remembering – give creative work time. This should be the norm, not a beneficent exception. 

If you’re a planner or suit: Value-add to the creative process within your boundaries. 

If you’re a copywriter: Read the previous paragraph.

If you’re a content writer: Please don’t call yourself a copywriter. If you do both copywriting and content writing, identify which one you’re better at (or do more of), and make that explicit in your pitch.

If you’re not in advertising: Thank you for reading my article

Huizhen Tay is a freelance senior copywriter based in Singapore 


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