What copywriters should (and should not) steal from the writers
When people ask me what I do I tend to say ‘copywriter’ and brace myself for the prolonged, awkward explanation. Occasionally, I’ll simply say ‘writer’ and brace myself for the crippling self-disgust.
I’ve met a handful of copywriters who bristle at the suggestion that they are just that. Generally, these lofty creatures lay claim to a more artistic branch of keyboard jabbery.
Almost invariably they go to great lengths to drape themselves in the frippery and mythology of writing – generally manifesting itself in the kind of self-representation you’d politely describe as ‘Diet Hemingway’. They rarely demonstrate a similar commitment to, you know, actually writing.
There are of course copywriters who have the kind of sickening brilliance and discipline that allows genuine art to flow from the same inky fingers with which they craft dishwasher instructions.
But, spoilt for choice between my laziness or my ineptitude, the idea of ever trying to present myself as a ‘proper’ writer makes me wince.
Yet while I’m painfully aware of the distinction, there are several lessons a copywriter can pluck from our more literary counterparts.
Survey the desk space of copywriters throughout the land and, aside from a jumbo packet of own-brand Jaffa Cakes, I’d imagine the most common adornment you’ll find is a copy of Orwell’s rules of writing stuck to the wall.
It makes perfect sense. Orwell’s rules, though perhaps designed for something more towering than the back of a cereal box, are a superb checklist for copywriters – a guide by which to measure the clarity and quality of our work, with a telling reminder about flexibility and the use of judgement.
There are several so-called rules for the literary world that can help a copywriter develop their craft. The theatrical principle known as Chekov’s Gun states that everything we write must have significance – namely, if you see a gun in the first act it must go off in the third. For a medium like ours, where purpose and persuasion are the main concerns, a rule that demands the efficiency of our words is deeply relevant.
Likewise, Roddy Doyle’s quip about keeping your thesaurus in a shed or behind the fridge – ‘somewhere that demands travel or effort’ – is a handsome piece of copywriting advice. Doyle’s belief that the word you think of first is most often the best is reinforced by the kind of anxious copy that reads as if every word has been ground through the synonym sausage machine.
I would, however, agree that a copywriter should be wary of too rigorously applying literary principles to our process. For example, a common novelist’s tip is to trust a reader to arrive at the desired conclusion with the slenderest possible direction. In reality, the majority of copywriting briefs require precisely the opposite approach.
And yet, with a discerning eye, there is must to be plucked from the authors, the screenwriters and the dramatists. Simple principles like cut until you can cut no more, or read voraciously, or never leave home without a notebook are the foundations for anyone hoping to exchange words for shiny objects. Elmore Leonard’s decree that you are allowed two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words would certainly make the copywriting realm a less giddy and disingenuous space.
I suppose if I had to pick a favourite rule I would paraphrase a man with a particular genius for scattering the alphabet on the page, W Somerset Maugham.
There are three rules for copywriting. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.