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Do You Need Talent to Succeed as a Copywriter?


Can Copywriting Skills Be Learned?

Hi Susan,

You’ve been writing longer than I’ve been alive. Don’t hate me; I’m not saying that you’re old, just experienced.

I have a question.

Do you think writing, and specifically copywriting, can be taught?

Me? I think you can teach the basics of writing, the fundamentals. Just about anybody can learn to write something decent. Or, if not decent, then passable. But talent? Talent is a whole other thing. That you can’t teach. No way. So what do you think?

Tory

Hi Tory,

I agree with you. You can teach someone the mechanics of quality writing but some of us are more naturally talented than others.

You could apply that analogy to almost any specialty or skill — athletics, drawing, singing, playing a musical instrument, etc.

Look at LeBron James, Mariah Carey, Michelangelo. They were all born with an exceptional gift. But it’s worth noting that they took that raw talent and then spent decades perfecting their craft. They worked hard to get where they are.

Surely you’ve come across some of those lucky souls who arrived on this planet with a special gift. Perhaps it’s you. But if not, recognize that talent is a spectrum, and there’s always going to be someone who is farther along on the talent spectrum than you. Use their superiority to motivate you and not  a reason to stop trying.

Understanding Talent

I remember when I first began to understand the concept of talent. I was a kid at summer camp. We were watching a talent show.

One of the acts was two girls, best friends, dancing to a popular song. They were well-practiced, both doing identical steps at exactly the same time. But one girl had natural ability and the other did not.

The girl with talent was such a standout that within seconds I, someone who knew nothing about dance, could easily recognize her superior skills, as could everyone watching. It was hard not to be envious.

Talent Is Just a Starting Point

While it’s certainly nice to be born with talent–who wouldn’t want that–it doesn’t mean you can’t excel at something. Talent isn’t everything. Whether you’re talented or not, skills development and hard work are how you maximize your abilities.

You’ve probably heard about Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. His principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field. Most people aren’t overnight successes.

There’s No Substitute for Hard Work

When you see an athlete at the Olympics or hear a great song by a “new” artist, what you’re not seeing is the years of work that went into achieving that level of mastery.

Howard Stern, renowned shock jock and one of the most well-known radio announcers, frequently talks about how awful he was when he was a disc jockey starting out. He claims he had no talent, just an intense desire to succeed in the radio business. To achieve that goal he spent years and years analyzing his work, studying announcers he admired, fine-tuning his abilities, and practicing. If you practice at something every day for years, you will get good at it. 

I think writing, and specifically copywriting, is like that. In my own case, I feel like I maybe had a little talent—I certainly had the interest from a young age—but I’ve worked really hard to gain the necessary skills. That means writing every single day. For years. And that’s on top of a BS degree in journalism and an MBA.

I try to make up for any shortcomings by working hard. I’m a perennial student, always trying to learn new skills and build on the old ones. I study other copywriters to understand their techniques. I try to keep making progress.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy those people who are gifted and for whom writing, or any other talent for that matter, comes naturally. Who wouldn’t be? They make it look fun and effortless, while the rest of us have a struggle on our hands. But not having natural talent should never be excuse for not trying. It just means you may have to work harder. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Stop Competing; Start Improving

Whether or not you have talent, you can always be improving. Don’t get so wrapped up in comparing yourself to other copywriters. Focus on learning more, practicing more and reaching new heights with your skills. 

Read books and blogs. Look critically at other copywriters you admire and study their techniques. Be receptive to critiques and learn from your mistakes.

No matter your starting point, nor how advanced you eventually get, keep refining your writing abilities. There’s always room for improvement. You may never be an Ernest Hemingway or David Ogilvy but you can still be successful and proud of your growth along the way. 

If you’re fortunate enough to have been born with writing talent, don’t waste it. Put it to good use. Start doing the work and watch your abilities soar!

Gain New Skills

Regardless of talent or lack thereof, you should continually push yourself to leave your comfort zone. Try to do something new, knowing you may fail, at least at first. That’s how you gain new skills. You may surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. But first you have to try!

Let me give you a few copywriting examples from my experience. Occasionally I get calls from clients asking me to take on assignments that aren’t in my wheelhouse. I used to hesitate, not wanting to say yes to the work and then provide a sub-standard product. But every time I’ve taken on a hard assignment, despite being intimidated at first, I managed to get through it. And, even more importantly, it’s opened up new doors for me. Here are a few instances that come to mind:

  • I took on my first high tech client fearful that I lacked the technology experience to do the work. I was afraid of embarrassing myself when talking to the engineers who’d invented the products. But I soon became familiar with the lingo and understood the client’s business. I realized I didn’t need an engineering degree to understand a product’s features and benefits. Today, technology companies are some of my best and biggest clients.
  • A client asked me come up with a name for her company’s newest medical device. I’d never named a product before, but I figured it out. In fact, it ended up being a fun assignment. The client loved my name suggestions and said they were ideas she’d never have come up with herself. Sometimes, being a layperson isn’t such a bad thing. I now frequently take on branding projects that include creating product names.
  • Another client asked me to take a brochure I’d written for his company and turn it into a video script, which he could then have produced. I was hesitant, having no recent experience writing a video script. (I’d written video scripts before, but that was 20+ years ago.) Once the client showed me a few examples of what he had in mind, I knew I was up to the task. And now, I find myself writing video scripts all the time. It’s opened up a whole new area where I can attract different clients, offer an additional service to existing clients and grow my business.

So what should you do if you have the opportunity to do work that forces you out of your comfort zone? Say yes, and get to work.

The hardest job is always the first. That’s where the learning curve is steep. But with practice, regardless of natural talent, you’ll have acquired and perhaps mastered a new skill. Who knows what wonderful opportunities it may lead you to!

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