Being a writer is the best job in the world. It is a craft and a calling. It is sheer frustration pocked with pleasure. We often celebrate our novelists and poets, but few know about the hidden heroes who slave over the difficulty of writing short-form, commercial copy. To all my copywriter chums out there – this one’s for you…
After years of writing copy to sell substations, financial services, bridges, emeralds ‘n opals, wastewater treatment plants, rail, real estate and everything in-between, I’m fairly confident that the following pearls of wisdom will help copywriters know that they’re awesome, and let those who don’t quite understand the value of their copywriters’ contributions know just what a gem they have in their team.
Writing copy is terrifying because to do your job well, you have to always take risks. It’s a role with all heart and it cannot be any other way or you become indistinguishable – we write to be heard. If you want to be heard make sure you have something worthwhile to say, never dumb your shit down.
Despite popular opinion, assume your audience is much smarter than you. Respect your audience, always.
Copy never sits in isolation. A copywriter manages multiple stakeholders’ interests, needs to be ‘on brand’ but, must reimagine it in a way that is fresh but doesn’t transgress some arbitrary boundary that always shifts (depending on who you’re dealing with from brand or agency). It’s always a circus, and writers are patient, invisible beasts.
Writers are outsiders and should remain that way – because when you’re not in the fray, you’re observing it (which makes for excellent material to be repurposed for some later project – as we are like thirsty sponges).
Everyday, to do your job well, writers expose themselves to ridicule, judgement and the dreaded red pen. This is why it is so important to fight your jealous nature and support other writers – because only another writer can truly understand what it means to see your work shredded by people who have no idea about what you really do.
Always team up with another writer to edit your work. correct each other privately. Praise each other publicly.
Remember that writing is re-writing. You will never get it right the first time. Those who expect such perfection are wankers.
Great copy can translate human experience into a sentence. Writers understand that everything is a text. A good writer can synthesise a concept into a few words. Know therefore, that few people can do what you do.
The most memorable copy sells ideas not products. If your sales colleagues try to convince you otherwise, remain steadfast. A wonderful Sales Manager once told me – the best sales people don’t need collateral to do their job. Their job is to sell themselves.
An artist has a blank grid. A writer has 26 letters. Remember that short-form copy is a dialogue between the reader and writer. Leave space for the dialogue to carry on after the sentence ends. This is how to achieve dialogue in one sentence. Study the masters of poetry and practice their techniques. Study Shakespeare’s sonnets – his quatrains, triplets and couplets are an incredible example of how a master unpacks big ideas in a small space.
Lastly, no matter what you write, always write yourself into a corner. Come out punching.