What is Copywriting, Anyway?

by Andy Edelstein on January 20, 2012

Since bringing my craft to the legal profession, I’ve been struck by the number of blank stares I’ve gotten—even from some marketing people—when I call myself a “copywriter.” No, I don’t file copyrights—or trademarks or patents, for that matter. Indeed, the two homonyms couldn’t be more different.

What I am is a writer—specifically a writer of, duh, copy. What this means, traditionally, is that I am trained to write advertising and, by extension, all manner of marketing communications. What I do is, more or less, what the character Peggy does on “Madmen.” We both take a product and—using words as our principle tool—we figure out a way to convince someone to try it.

The difference is while Peggy writes for consumer products—shampoos, toothpastes, cameras, etc.—I generally write for business-to-business products. These days, for me that means law firms.

While toothpastes and law firms would seem to have little in common, the skills required to write for them are, in fact, remarkably similar.

Both require a messaging strategy that has been drawn up ahead of time—whether formally by a marketing team, or informally by a copywriter left to his or her own devices.

Both require the skill to turn that strategy into meaningful communications that can fight for awareness in the marketplace—in the face of withering competition and dwindling attention spans.

Both require a feel for the “target audience,” for the needs, wants, hopes, and fears of the prospect. The first question I ask at any law firm I write for is “What keeps your clients up at night?” If my subsequent writing doesn’t address that question in terms a client can relate to, I haven’t done my job.

Both require equal parts substance and style—what you say and how you say it. You can say something brilliant, but if you can’t say it brilliantly, no one will listen. Or, as David Ogilvy—the patron saint of copywriters—once said, “Nobody was ever bored into buying anything.”

Of course, Peggy writes traditional advertising: print and broadcast. And while I do, in fact, write more advertising than I would have expected, it’s still more the exception than the rule. Far more of my time is spent on brochures and websites, case studies and practice descriptions.

Even so, the task is the same. An industry brochure should be at least as compelling to its audience as a 30-second TV commercial is to its viewers. A case study should be as rigorously disciplined as a magazine ad. A practice group description may never make a good jingle, but it doesn’t have to read like a legal brief either.

And yet, all too often, copywriting comes as an afterthought. The bulk of a law firm’s marketing budget usually goes to design, with little or nothing left over for professional writing.

This will surely change. As the new realities of law firm economics continue to raise the stakes, scarce marketing dollars are being forced to work harder than ever. Design can only do this up to a point. Ultimately, your communications will be called on to engage, to entice, and to convince your prospects that your firm really is worth a try.

And for that, you need real copy from a real copywriter. Accept no substitutes.

Andy Edelstein is a copywriter specializing in law firm advertising and marketing communications. He can be reached at andrew.edelstein@verizon.net

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