How to Learn Copywriting by Reading

Learn to read ink on paperThere are two elements to being a good copywriter: reading and, you guessed it, writing.

Learning copywriting demands picking up the theory and analysing what’s already out there, plus trying stuff out for yourself and getting feedback on your work.

This one’s about the reading bit.

How to read like a copywriter

1. Internalise grammar, punctuation and spelling

There is a level of accuracy that can really only be reached with an instinct born of lots and lots of reading. It’s internalised, so thinking time is cut down, and you may not be able to verbalise the rule but you’ll damn well know when something’s not right. Then, you can look it up. Genius!

Best books for accuracy:

  • The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors – sadly, it couldn’t tell me if Beyoncé needs an accent (of course it does) but it is great for hyphens, capitalisation, English/American spelling and so forth
  • The Penguin Guide to Punctuation – a great reference book for when you’ve forgotten semi-colons AGAIN
  • The Elements of F*cking Style – this is a parody of the Strunk and White original that graced every editor’s desk for half a century, and it’s well useful for remembering the rules of writing

2. Analyse content structure

Whenever you read something online, try plotting its structure on paper when you’re finished. Think about where your attention was drawn as you scrolled and whether it was successful for the publisher.

Were the headings and subheadings in the right place? Was there a call to action? Was content split up well with images, features and bullets lists?

Check out my article on content hierarchy for help.

3. Watch social media

I’m not in the slightest ashamed to say that I’m on social media all day, every day.

I follow all the copywriters, authors and journalists I admire, scavenging tips from their brilliance and hungrily scarfing their every word. I also follow ad agencies, literary magazines, newspapers, awards bodies…anything that might glean a little sparkle of inspiration, knowledge or opportunity.

Along the way, you pick up turn-of-phrase, techniques for getting clicks and a flow of ideas, vocabulary and sources you’d never find alone. I’m constantly scouring Instagram, learning how to use words like ‘lit’ without being thought a mug.

4. Keep up with current affairs and culture

Writers need to read everything, including things they don’t WANT to read. It’s also important to have a feel for what different kinds of people are thinking about, outside our own fancy-schmancy, writerly echo chamber.

Follow all the big media outlets on Twitter: The Sun, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Metro, The Independent, The Daily Mail. It’s an education in itself to compare how they treat the same headline. Read the stories, analyse them and – if you dare – peruse the comments to assess how the general public is feeling.

It can be painful but it’s great for absorbing attitudes that may help you craft copy. And stop you writing for YOU instead of for the people you need to convince to buy a thing. Very important.

5. Fill your swipe file

A swipe file is a place to put stolen ideas, which are what anyone trying to learn copywriting needs to feed on. If you see a piece of copy you think really WORKS (even if you don’t know why), nab it. Eventually, you’ll get to know what you like and what other people seem to like – and you’ll learn how to write successful copy yourself.

Be a copy magpie.

Check out what else you can learn from a copywriter’s peculiar habits.

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