My answer is: YES AND NO.
“Ohhh come on,” I hear the inward groans coming from you and every other reader who will stumble upon this article. But hear me out! In this article I’ll list 7 traits that (I think) make up for good copywriting, and you can decide for yourself if a strong command of the English language is, in fact, required to meet these traits – or not. Fair? Let’s dive in.
part 1: WHY GOOD ENGLISH ISN’T NEEDED FOR GOOD COPYWRITING
Copywriting is about content
A lot of copywriting today is really content writing. Every business, large or small, and every entrepreneur, no matter if they make 5 figures or 8 figures, needs content.
The argument here is that information itself might actually be king, and not the way it is actually presented. A blog article on a website called In English With Love suggests that “if you have specific interests or areas of knowledge and if you know (or you’re ready to learn) how to empathize with and engage readers,” that you will be able to make an income as a new writer, whether or not English is your first or second language.”
As the article puts it, “Content writing allows people with knowledge and expertise on a particular subject to connect with readers and provide valuable information or solutions to their problems.”
As long as you’re able to write about what you know in a way that other people can read, it’s pretty much good enough. No fancy university degree or English proficiency certificate needed here, folks.
How many hardcore gamers have successfully made the transition to become video game journalists, bloggers and content creators? How many registered nurses now run a successful business specialising in medical copywriting? The answer is enough to show you that sometimes it’s what you know that is more important than how you phrase it.
Copywriting is about being conversational
Copywriting isn’t about getting every sentence grammatically or structurally correct either, is it? Pretty sure McDonald’s tagline “Lovin’ It” just hangs there like a very incomplete sentence which should, technically speaking, start with a noun, such as “We are loving it”. It could even very well be a question – “Are you loving it?” But right now, as it stands, it doesn’t feel like it’s ‘correct’ English in the slightest!
To prove this point further, copywriter Mark Mehling shared on Quora how he had sent the first book he had written to his high school English teacher. You already know how this will go. He received his book back in the mail – with corrections!
“You cannot have one word sentences.” Really?
“Never use contractions.” I can’t believe it…
“Even some of your contractions are wrong…” Ain’t that the truth!
What this proves is you can write really great copy that is perfect in the eyes of an English teacher, but as Mark puts it,
“Copy without marketing is a nice story. Marketing without good copy is a waste of money.”
Somewhere in this wonderfully written, grammatically-correct story you’re trying to write, “marketing and language skills must come together at the crossroad of persuasion and influence.”
And a huge “indispensable tip for all bloggers and copywriters,” in fact number 5 on Copyblogger’s Short Guide to Good Copy, is to “Write in a natural way.”
Conversational writing – speaking “the language of your audience” makes you sound like “a real person,” someone people can know, like and trust. Someone who could potentially hold the key to the solutions to their problems.
This is the reason why exophonic writers – or writers who learned English as a second language – might enjoy a unique, advantaged position. They never had to go through the rigours of school and have had “the bad English” hit out of them with a ruler across the hand. They can actually write English the way they speak it, and hear others speaking it. And this is exactly what it means to speak “the language of your audience”. When your audience hears the words they use being spoken back to them in written copy, it immediately creates relatability and trust.
Copywriting is about creating results
Ever dreamed of hiring Dan Lok to write your copy for you? He might be one of the world’s most successful copywriters, but you should know that Dan Lok isn’t a native English speaker. Dan Lok, whom himself immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada, even admitted that he flunked English twice in high school.
What he will tell you though, is that “desire is more important than a degree.” There’s no better guy to tell you about this than Dan Lok himself, who “didn’t have a degree in journalism, or any type of professional, ‘traditional’ training.” But he quickly learnt that “academic writing is designed to educate the reader, and it’s often very wordy dumps of information, and it’s extremely dry or dull to read.” Copywriting, on the other hand, according to Dan, is “designed to sell,” and it’s “more of a ‘street smarts’ type of skill.”
So even if you could never write an English essay good enough to clinch an A on your report card in school, nobody cares! And your clients won’t care either as long as you can write content good enough to sell their services or products online.
In that sense, a copywriter’s worth might be better evaluated according to how well they can meet their client’s needs, rather than how “well” they can write.
part 2: WHY GOOD ENGLISH IS NEEDED FOR GOOD COPYWRITING
Copywriting is about control
Here’s the part where I will start batting for the other team. My team, if you will!
See, a native English speaker will understand puns, jokes, clichés and sayings that a non-native English speaker might not. As a copyeditor, I very often come across such mistakes in other writers’ copy.
I once came across “It’s as easy as feeding two birds with one scone.” This is not a new English cliché. Although it is likely that one scone would make a hearty meal for two birds, anyone who has watched birds eat food they’ve come upon knows that like Joey, birds do not like to share their food!
An English writer will understand that it’s supposed to be “killing two birds with one stone,” but only an English writer with a marketing background will be able to advise the client that it’s perhaps not such a great saying to use after all, if they’re not really the kind of company that supports animal cruelty. (And as it turns out, it was animal cruelty activists that came up with the new saying to feed instead of kill. Go figure.)
Only an English writer will be able to understand the allure of alliteration in advertising and why Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme’s just sound so good together, oh and throw in a cup of corner café coffee, and that would be just perfect.
Very often, psychology and rhetoric are used together to create impactful lines in marketing that will raise eyebrows, stop scrolling, suggest doubt, compel thought, create desire, and impel action.
In that line alone, I have engaged isocolon – a literary device that creates parallel structures in length and rhythm. It’s why it sounds so nice and balanced, and why a strong command of the English language is required to create copy that’s punchy.
There is a thought process involved in any good copywriter’s work. Copywriting is very intentional work; there are usually reasons why certain words are chosen over others. Connotation plays a big part in the thought process – what kind of feeling does this give, or what kind of impression does this leave? A non-native English speaker might not take all this into consideration as much.
According to a Hubspot article, one of the “The 9 Traits of Highly Effective Copywriters” is their ability to “defend their ideas where appropriate,” whether it’s just a word choice or the overall direction of the copy. The truth is, clients don’t always understand copy the way a copywriter understands copy. Isn’t that why you hire a copywriter in the first place?
Copywriting is about credibility
I came across this article about companies in Switzerland who are trying to appeal to their English audiences, but yet use non-native English speakers to write their website copy and blog posts.
The writer comically said this, “My first instinct is not to buy their products, but to reach for my red pen.” LOL
She’s right though. It’s not about writing to impress your third-grade teacher, but it IS about creating the right impression. Good English makes you look professional, and enhances your credibility.
Global Lingo did a survey that showed that 59% of Britons would not buy from a company with grammar or spelling mistakes on its website or marketing materials. They said that they “wouldn’t trust” the company to provide a good quality service, or would “consider the company to be unprofessional”. Others would be “put off due to an obvious lack of care.”
And rightly so! They invented the language, didn’t they, why should they put up with improper use of it!
Your potential customers don’t immediately get to hop on a Zoom call with you and realise you speak perfect English. Nope, your content is probably going to be their first point of contact. I quote the above article once again where she says that having a website with “less than perfect, readable and engaging English is like having a receptionist chewing gum… at the front desk.”
And her feet on the desk. With chewing gum under the sole. Probably some chewing gum in her hair too. LOL
Copywriting is about charm
I’ve said this many times but if your copy only informs and persuades, well, yes, great, but you’re also forgetting that it can charm. Showcasing the real side of your company, writing in your brand voice, telling your brand story – all of these are important in humanising your brand. And why is this important? Because “people buy from people.”
When people know, like and trust you, they’ll buy from you. Not only now but down the road. It all starts here, with this amazing opportunity to come off as a lovely human being-run company.
Not to say that people who lack good English writing skills cannot write in a charming way, but I’ve seen too many people rely on AI writers or copywriting templates just because it’s an easy way out, and because there’s this promise of success that hangs over it. Fill-in-the-blanks templates are about as charming as cardboard recycling Thursdays, and AI writers have the personality of Jarvis, nope sorry Jasper. (You’ll get it if you get it haha)
I’ve also seen way too many writers simply paraphrase from existing articles and submit it as their own work. It’s not plagiarism, but it also doesn’t add anything new to an article, no opinion, no tone of voice, no feel, no life.
Sorry, but you’re not about to knock anyone’s socks off just yet.
Copywriting is about closing chasms
Copywriting is about creating relatability. It’s about making friends, and influencing people, it’s about building a “tribe” (I hate the word, but there it is, marketing jargon pfft).
Not everybody knows how to do this, and not everybody has the luxury to focus on this either. It’s hard enough to focus on getting all that grammar and spelling right, sending your copy through Grammarly and ProWritingAid and Hemingway App… Then making sure your article is fact checked, your claims are accurate, your references valid. Next, you’re optimising your on-page content, trying to get your stuffed keywords to make sense…!
When do you get a chance to make your writing relatable? Native English writers have an advantage in that they never have to even think about constructing sentences, or expressing their thoughts directly on the page. They can immediately start thinking about how a message sounds (to their audience), instead of whether or not it sounds right (in English).
So is a strong command of the English language actually required to produce good copywriting? See now why I say Yes and No? Can you hire a non-native English writer to produce spectacular work? Absolutely. Can you hire a native English writer and get ridiculously subpar work? Absolutely.
The bottom line is that knowing your way around words helps, but it cannot replace actual copywriting skills. So just because your neighbour’s 12-year-old aced his English essay-writing exam doesn’t mean you should hire him to take over all the blog writing for your company’s website.
It’s more important to understand your company’s objectives, your client’s (if any) needs, and what you really want to achieve with the writing you outsource. After all, “knowing is half the battle.”
Looking for a native English writer for your content writing? Let’s have a chat over a cuppa!