Ten Things I Learned About Teaching Copywriting

College students spend years learning how to write academic papers with impressive titles and long bibliographies that hardly anyone ever reads. Eventually, some of these students enter my classroom where I teach a different kind of writing. Copywriting.

In sixteen short weeks, they learn how to write to get people to do something. Like vote. Or buy something. Like a car. Or read something. Like this article, which is my take on how to help college students learn to be creative, to write better, to solve business problems with ideas. If you teach copywriting, take copywriting, or want to know more about copywriting, this is for you.

Thing number 1. Students have no idea how creativity happens.

As any professional copywriter will tell you, creativity is a discipline and the best writing is rewriting. But 99% of my students are convinced creativity requires inspiration, not perspiration. They don’t believe they can write better headlines just by putting in the hours. Until they try.

2. Students are incredibly creative when it comes to excuses.

Just when I think I’ve heard it all, a student will come up with a story so compelling for why s/he turned in an assignment late or missed a class I almost wish I could give them extra credit.

3. Make it about the NOW.

The best advertising connects with what’s happening in society in the moment. I use textbook examples and business cases to teach. But I also feel free to put aside the lesson plan and ask students why they think the Nike ad that just broke does or doesn’t matter.

4. Value progress over perfection.

In most courses, students do a class assignment, get a grade for that assignment and move on to the next assignment. In advertising, you revise over and over and over again, honing the creative. I give students the opportunity to rewrite and redo assignments, to progress the work and improve their grade.

5. Let them fail because you want them to succeed.

Advertising is sink or swim. Nobody lowers their standards to help a young intern or copywriter get by. I let students know I’ll provide the tools they need to make progress. But will also hold them accountable. Not because I’m a hard ass. Because I want them to be business ready.

6. Teach them how to polish the turd.

Sometimes you have to write a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. And sometimes the good stuff is buried inside a stinker. I teach students the art of critique: how to spot and articulate the good, bad and ugly — in a way that advances their own work and the work of others.

7. Have faith the light will go on — eventually.

Some students are quick studies. Within a few weeks, they understand what makes an idea or headline good. Others take almost the entire semester to “get” it.

8. Sometimes the light goes on outside the classroom.

If a student is still struggling halfway through the semester, a one-to-one tutorial can work wonders. I try to turn the meeting into a brainstorming session, applying the creative principles learned in the classroom to their stalled work. 9 times out of 10 this approach helps the student start to see the light.

9. The only way to learn copywriting is by writing lots of copy.

My students use assigned materials, lectures, etc. to help them learn how to write copy. But it really boils down to this: write, rewrite, repeat.

10. Very few students will become copywriters.

All advertising and PR undergrads at The City College of New York are required to take copywriting. Very few of them will go on to become copywriters. But they will all become better writers. Which means fewer poorly written papers, emails, posts, and texts in the world. You’re welcome.