Content Marketing · Power Words

Native speaker or not – what is (good) copywriting made of?

Native speaker or not – what is (good) copywriting made of? Or, what to look out for when hiring a copywriter

Ok, it’s confession time!

No. I’m not confessing that English is not my first language – although it is.

Nor is it that I turned my passion of writing into my self-employed career only after a 15-year detour as an employed web project and programme manager – although I did.

Nor, that I’ve made a successful living as a non-native English copywriter – although I have.

Finally, it’s also not that even after living in the UK for 17 years, my English accent still comes with… let’s say lots of Austrian flair – although it does.

The confession that I’m braving is this:  

When it comes to that first verbal contact with a potential new client (following their initial email enquiry), I have a little devil popping up in my head every time. It tells me that there is going to be at least an uncomfortable moment when the person on the other end hears my accent, and furthermore that he/she is going to draw conclusions about my writing skills (not being good enough) and as a consequence decide against hiring me straight away.

One of my excuses for this anxiety is at least one such experience. Only that the person who doubted my ability to write (good) copy wasn’t a potential client – who has likely seen my writing before enquiring – but rather someone I met at a small business workshop. The otherwise friendly lady herself was English and …a copywriter. She has never seen any of my writing – only heard me speaking.

So, in an attempt to heal my pain :) I decided to acknowledge it publicly so to speak. More importantly though, I wanted to break down the copywriting process into its smallest parts in order to identify any areas where a non-native accent may – or may not – matter.

What goes into (good) copywriting

Content strategy
  • Proposition – at the heart of good content is a clear and compelling (business or project) proposition. A copywriter understands that and asks the right questions accordingly: what exactly your product, service or cause is, what problems it solves, who for, why it matters and in what way it is special and unique. While this may sound straightforward for some, it can sometimes turn into a longer, somewhat soul-searching (and finding) process.
  • Goal setting – similarly, content creation nowadays often gets prioritised (blindly) to simply beat the marketing drum, to make more noise than everyone else and to chase clients. A copywriter knows that better content goals (e.g. to build authority and trust, increase brand awareness, visibility and reach) lead to better copy and content decisions and he/she can therefore steer the content strategy conversation in this direction.
  • Audit of status quo – finally, also vital to successful content creation and strategy, a health check of existing copy and content can provide valuable insights into strengths, weaknesses and needs for improvement. Here, a copywriter can analyse the quality and efficiency of copy content based on its structure, tone of voice, style, consistency and its status quo when it comes to SEO (search engine optimisation), the navigation and the user-journey it is providing.
Content design
  • Layout – choosing the right words is one thing, however a copywriter understands that the presentation of words, how they are formatted and structured, significantly impacts on users’ ability to both, understand and remember content.
  • User-journey – similarly, a (good) copywriter is skilled at connecting the dots, in other words ‘linking content’, in order to make the user’s journey to find the desired content as smooth and straightforward as possible.
  • Tone of voice (TOV) – TOV is how your unique personality is expressed to your target audience. As TOV guidelines are also vital for consistent brand building and growth, a (good) copywriter will insist on at least a minimum set of guidelines.
  • Style guide – similarly, while a style guide is an essential to support consistent brand building, depending on the scope and stage of the project or business, it may have to be extensive or short and sweet guidelines will do.
Copywriting skills and qualifications
  • Grammar – ok grammatical excellence is important, however as per one of my previous blogs ‘Grammar is not everything, in order to convey clarity, focus, professionalism and trust grammar is actually only part of a bigger whole.
  • Vocabulary – compared to a native speaker it is certainly possible that a non-native writer has a limited vocabulary. However, if simplicity and familiarity are key to making content easy to understand, both for users and search engines, could this even be an advantage?
  • Copy vs content – often used interchangeably, it pays to know the difference and similarities between these two writing terms, as I have been discussing in this earlier post ‘Content and copy: how these two opposites attract your ideal audience’.
  • Marketing –  as copywriting refers to writing for marketing purposes (as opposed to writing a novel), knowledge about marketing, branding and business in general is a must for every copywriter. In this day and age of technology, this extends to hands-on experience of using content management systems, social media, or also project management applications.
  • SEO, web accessibility – two specific areas of technical expertise, which while fundamental particularly for online content writers may not be as scientific as often suggested after all – as I concluded in this earlier post about search engine optimisation.
Practical experience
  • Portfolio – no need to elaborate, and native accent or not, a portfolio of clients and accomplished case studies most certainly demonstrates the capability and suitability of a copywriter.
  • Publications – in the absence of work examples – either due to the copywriter just starting out or due to client NDAs – writing can nowadays be show-cased easily via websites, blogs, e-books or even printed publications.
  • CV – speaking of starting out, it is well known that more and more people (including myself) start a second career later in life. For a copywriter every experience is valuable, especially also when it comes to subject matter expertise.
  • Subject matter expertise – although it is often said that a good copywriter is an all-rounder and can turnaround copy for everything and anything, personally I feel that specialisation, deeper knowledge and genuine interest in a subject matter brings better results.
  • Social media footprint – Ann Handley says: “If you have a website you are a publisher. If you are in social media you are a writer. And that means we are all writers.” So, another source to check out a copywriter’s ability – also personality and popularity – is their social media footprint, of course.
Personal qualities
  • Personal qualities – great knowledge and writing skills are all well and good, but if the copywriter lacks integrity, a can-do attitude, openness to learning and/or communication skills (with or without accent), the client relationship will be difficult and both, the process (how long things take) and the final copy will reflect that.
  • Cultural background – especially considering the importance of the strategic foundation, it seems that an additional perspective from a different cultural background could well be beneficial to producing good content. Some may even argue that a multilingual copywriter could kill two birds with one stone and produce copy in different language versions. (Although, speaking for myself, I must admit that I struggle a fair bit with my German writing by now, having spent about 95% of my working life here in the UK).
  • Mission statement and guiding principles – finally, as values also undoubtedly influence both, the client relationship and the copy content, it is a good idea to look out for a copywriter’s mission statement and guiding principles (sometimes also referred to as manifesto) and to check that it all aligns and agrees with one’s own underlining values.

Wow that seems one heck of a list! I can honestly say that I surprised myself here. Not only as the line-up of components that go into (good) copywriting looks impressive, but also going back to my initial intention, which was to highlight areas where a non-native accent may have a significant negative impact, my conclusion is actually that there aren’t any areas of great concern!

Now, I’m not trying to say that non-native speakers are the best copywriters. However, I do hope to have provided some useful guidance into the copy and content creation process and its success factors, and perhaps also for the hiring of a copywriter.

I should also add that my reflections may mostly apply to smaller businesses (as in large companies many of the listed areas are often split into specialist roles), and also more to online content writers, rather than for example copywriters who specialise in product descriptions, advertising or also printed publications.

I would love to hear from copywriters, content designers and strategists, creative writers, novelists, and of course employers, alike!

What do you sink about copywriters vis accents? :)

Need help with your content strategy, content design or copywriting?

If you need help crafting your web and marketing words, I would be delighted to work with you! I am Birgit Diggins – on social media known as BforBirgit – Content Marketing & Digital Strategist, and Copywriter at Power-Words

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