The 5 Characteristics of a Top-Notch Copywriter

Glenn Reeves

Brian Kurtz, the direct marketing brain behind Boardroom publications for decades has worked with many copywriters, some of them the all-time greats.

Here’s some of what he suggests you look for in a quality copywriter which I’ve adapted from his bestselling book, Overdeliver, and mixed with my own observations.

1 – The Hunger to Constantly Improve

Becoming a great copywriter requires thousand of hours researching, studying, and practicing writing copy.

Gary Halbert, was acknowledged by his fellow copywriters at the time . . . and his clients as perhaps the best EVER.

His advice to copywriters was “Do one hour’s worth of road work every morning, right after you get up, for six days a week.”

Personally I do a minimum of two hours every night including several hours on a Saturday morning on a Saturday before starting work (I work 6 days a week on client projects).

But it’s not just about working more hours. It’s about harboring a dedication to the craft that is copywriting.

Every great copywriter puts in the work and gets the energy for that from their hunger to constantly improve.

Every quality copywriter has a swipe file with the best examples of the craft. Writing out great examples of successful advertising copy, direct mail, or advertorial copy by hand is the mark of a copywriter with the passion to improve.

Handwriting works the brain’s visual-motor memory which delivers greater recall, creativity, and abstract thinking . . . you internalize the deep structure of the copy that is not immediately apparent from either reading or typing it out.

The discipline this practice requires is born of dedication to the craft. And a copywriter either is or is not dedicated to working at this level.

Immediate benefits include the understanding that a copywriter must rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again to get a piece moving consistently along the path to improvement.

2 – Curiosity . . . & Research

John Caples defined advertising as a ‘believable promise’ delivered to the ‘right audience.’

‘Believable’ is a key word here.

To be believable you need to know your subject.

And to know your subject requires strict dedication to research . . . exhaustive research on a topic reveals the proof that is foundational to writing good copy.

Insatiable curiosity delivers the depth of research that is the basis for great copy.

Research ON the art of copywriting in general is important as well:

  • Reading — and re-reading! —the masters such as Eugene Schwartz, Breakthrough Advertising and John Caples, Tested Advertising Methods
  • Studying and writing out great examples of successful copy
  • Reading the work of great writers

Then testing: testing to see what works which is more than just a matter of curiosity . . . it’s essential to discovering what works in a particular case. Because each is unique.

My background in anthropology which draws on the insights of psychology, sociology, and social psychology to explain why people do the things they do feeds my hunger to explore what works in copywriting . . . and why.

If you are looking to hire a copywriter and they show little interest in research, it’s not a good sign.

The competent copywriter is obsessed with knowing everything they can about the audience they will be writing to.

If you need copy for a promotion that will go out to your list, you’ll want your copywriter to ask to look at any previous promotions to that list or that were used to create that list.

That’s an essential starting point to putting together a great piece that converts well.

3 – Understanding Direct Marketing Principles

The best copywriters are not merely writers.

They have in-depth knowledge of marketing, particularly direct marketing and can thus offer valuable insight and guidance on every aspect of their client’s marketing and business growth.

Because copywriting is an integral part of marketing it’s essential for a copywriter to have knowledge and experience of marketing principles and practices, particularly direct marketing.

Effective copywriting and marketing start with the reader or prospect. Anything else, and you are already on the wrong track.

Building email lists, communicating with the list, crafting offers through the prism of RFM and LTV are foundational to direct marketing.

Modern digital marketing takes most of its techniques from the direct marketing playbook although most self-proclaimed “digital marketers” don’t realize it.

A copywriter who can partner with you on all your marketing initiatives since they understand marketing’s past and present of you have come to the right place.

In short, you get a copywriter who is continually studying and learning from past masters and present trends

4 – Humility, Or Calling a Spade … a Spade

Since everything a direct response marketer does is measurable (otherwise he or she is not a direct response marketer), it’s soon pretty clear that some things we do work better than others.

If something works . . . we do more of it. If something doesn’t work, we change it.

We accept being right or wrong with equanimity and humility.

If you ask me about winners, I’ll surely tell you, just as I’ll tell you about the losers.

Taking a “loss” is lesson to be learned. Without making mistakes, you can’t get better . . . and every direct response writer can get better.

As a writer I have absolute confidence in what I do but (paradoxically?) have no ambition to be ‘the best copywriter’ you’ve ever worked with.

I just dig deeper into this fascinating practice of learning how to influence human behavior for the benefit of both the influencee and influencer.

5 – How They Share Their Success 

If you are looking to hire a copywriter, one of the first things you’ll ask for is evidence of success in writing copy.

A portfolio of work is important.

That portfolio, however, is the result of all the previous points, 1-5.

Look for the hunger to constantly improve, that curiosity to know, one manifestation of which is an absolute dedication to research. Look for that understanding of direct marketing principles, and that equanimity where a spade is simply a spade.

If the cost of hiring a copywriter bothers you, you’ve got the wrong thinking.

As I point out to my clients, the copy I write for them is an asset that generates value the longer it is in front of its target audience.

“It’s the only asset in your business, apart from the real estate your own, that appreciates in value over time . . . a value that is easily measured.”

That, as Brian points out, evinces a scarcity mindset.

Get rid of it and adopt an abundance mindset.

Copywriters have a unique talent, the ability to influence people in directions that support your business goals.

Pretty website design, beautiful brochures, and breathtaking magalogs are NOTHING without the words . . . the right words that influence more of the readers in the right direction.

To your direct response marketing success

Glenn Reeves

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