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Three terrible reasons to become a copywriter

By Andrew Boulton

September 27, 2017 | 4 min read

Looking back at the archives of this column, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d sooner be jimmying the barnacles off a narwhal’s anus than working as a copywriter.

ping pong andrew boulton

The truth is that I adore my job, in the way dead-eyed men in wax jackets and sensible slacks adore their repulsive children.

But, when I am asked for advice on joining the industry, I cannot help but be realistic about its hazards – in the way that an airborne cow cannot help but be realistic about the impacts of a tornado.

So, without wishing to further reinforce my standing as an inky misanthrope, here are what I believe to be the three very worst reasons to want to be a copywriter.

1. People say I’m really good at writing

There are, broadly, two life stages a copywriter goes through. The time when criticism gnaws out your delicate little heart like a malevolent crow, and the time when you just pretend that it doesn’t.

Arriving into the world of copywriting having experienced nothing but the unqualified praise and awe of your family, friends and teachers, is a little like turning up to the Olympics because your granddad lets you win at table tennis.

I am, of course, not saying that your talent for writing somehow precludes you from a life in copywriting. But, if you expect that copywriting will simply become an extension to your unbroken series of alphabetical triumphs, you might as well start practising how to cry very quietly in a busy office toilet.

2. I’ve got loads of creative ideas

Creative people should be copywriters. People with amazing imaginations and the ability to find unexpected ways to express familiar sentiments should absolutely be copywriters. People who would sooner lose a thumb than sacrifice an inch of their magnificent vision, should not be copywriters.

Copywriting is fundamentally an exercise in creative compromise – and finding ways to satisfy a brief, a client and a customer need leave little room for indulging your own private yearnings. Copywriting, you will discover, is unsympathetic to yearners.

By all means, you may scowl, and flounce and fully embrace the whole ‘ignored genius’ bit – in fact we rather insist you do. But if, with a deadline looming, you’re not prepared to scribble down the marketing director’s nephew’s shit suggestion for a headline, you won’t be terribly popular.

3. I want to tell people I’m a ‘writer’

As a terrible reason to get into copywriting, number three is peculiar, frequent and disgustingly easy to spot.

Understandably, given some of the giants who built not only the values but also the myths of copywriting, there is a certain glamour attached to what we do. Externally, at least.

But, weirdly, I see more young writers who treat copywriting as a surrogate for their loftier, more literary pretensions. Almost as if copywriting is a neat way to tell people you’re ‘a writer’, without the hardships and inconvenient squalor of actual bohemianism.

And actually, that’s entirely fine to allow people to assume your contribution to the written universe is something more poetic than an instruction manual for a hedge trimmer.

But, if copywriting is merely the outlet for the bad novel you’ll never write, as opposed to an extraordinary opportunity to discover how powerful and persuasive words can actually be, then I’m not sure how jolly it’s going to be for you.

(Oh, and if you’d like to know, I was all three of these.)

Follow Andrew on Twitter @boultini

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