why you should love and value copywriters
September 9, 2009
Everyone knows copywriting – any kind of writing – is a strange profession. Writers aren’t like other people. They’re like race-car drivers who drive your bottom line. You can shove them around a bit and they just keep coming back for more. They act like creatives but know how to talk like business people. They do what they do whether you love them or not, so why bother? Here are six reasons:
1. People are suspicious of writers. What is it that we do? Anyone can write copy – every café-owner-stroke-menu-writer, or admin assistant who does the staff newsletter, knows that. So people saying they’re writers, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Novels, sure. But working documents?
Well, creativity is work too. Even in the overpaid nirvana of Hollywood, writers are often the first people to get sacked. Trust me, I’ve read a few books, and this is the most common twist in the tale of a screenplay. In movie producer Art Linson’s book on producing, A Pound of Flesh, the chapter called “Working With the Writer” is a litany of suspicion and fear. Because you can’t quantify what writers do. But movies do get written and made.
ABC Copywriting wrote recently about the creativity we forget about, when we’re so busy talking business. Novels, don’t forget, are working documents. Their writers are often under contract. And the line between “creative writing” and “following the brief” is so thin that it’s imaginary. Your annual report has its structural arc, stories to tell, tone of voice to beguile your stakeholders. It comes down to words – as Jonathan Swift said, 200 years ago, “proper words in proper order.”
2. Writing is a lonely life. ABC Copywriting, again, writes heartrendingly about the plight of the freelancer:
Obviously, you write alone. But you also do your marketing, your finances and your planning alone. Not to mention your worrying – over deadlines, volume of work and pricing. And, of course, nobody understands. No-one else knows what it’s like to deal with criticism, non-payment, timewasting, mind-changing and downright rudeness – alone.
Sigh. So true. Even in-house, the writer – like a cheese – stands alone.
3. We know things other people don’t know, like punctuation and grammar and how tone of voice works. We like things normal people don’t like, like poetry and Russian novels, and books about making movies. We use words people don’t understand. We think we have a say in how an organisation presents itself to the outside world, because we are communicators. Like thrifty housewives we can make the same information go six ways.
4. One of the things people don’t know about us is how much we hate writing. Oh, we love it! But it’s very hard, and nobody likes doing hard things all day. In fact, the great novelist Thomas Mann put it even stronger than that. He said: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”
Why is that? Because we want to get it right. We know the pitfalls. We want it to be perfect. Because once we start working on it, putting the contents of our brains into it, we become as one with it. It has to shine.
My friend A___ was sitting in my kitchen yesterday, and he said: “You know, I always got good marks in school. I wrote well. I was good at it. Then I decided to be an actor. Why? So I wouldn’t have to write! ‘Cause that stuff’s hard! I’m an okay actor. But now I’m a copywriter and a web editor, and I love editing text, making it work, making it better. And why do I love it? ‘Cause it means I don’t have to write. ‘Cause that stuff’s hard.”
(For the record: A___ is also a short story writer.)
Even Art Linson, the suspicious film producer, gets this. Deep down, he knows he needs us, and that we have a hard job to do. “If it doesn’t move you, it doesn’t move you,” he says of reading the draft script. “It is your task to tell him. It is the writer’s responsibility to figure out why.” That’s hard.
And we do it.
I read Stephen Fry’s blog the other day, as I sometimes do, and it was about finishing a piece of work, meeting a deadline, and how hard it is to write:
It took my friend Douglas Adams to encourage me to go further [with writing] and he did this by pointing out that the reason I had never managed to finish a novel was that I had never properly understood how difficult, how ragingly and absurdly difficult, it is to do. “It is almost impossibly hard,” he told me. It is supposed to be. But once you truly understand how difficult it is,” he added, with signature paradoxicality, “it all becomes a lot easier.”
Fry goes on, for the benefit of anyone who may have given up on their writing: “Perhaps you can start again now, in the knowledge that since the whole experience was so grindingly horrible you might be the real thing after all.”
5. We also love writing. This is our tragedy. We must be masochists, because we keep coming back! We love words, structure, grammar, messaging, audiences. We love readers – whether they are service users, poetry-lovers, magazine editors or or CEOs.
Writing is hard and often painful, and sometimes feels like pulling coils of rotted old rope out of our brains. But I love it. To me it is even more exciting than fixing up your broken-down text, stalled report or document that can’t get into third gear. I’ll tighten and oil and polish it until it’s as perfect as I can make it – and your readers, reading it, will never smell the grease or hear the engine. It’ll just take them where you want them to go.
6. As the old song went: “It’s only words,/ and words are all I have/ to take your heart away.”
So the next time you need something written, why not make the copywriter a cup of tea – and pay them as much as the designer?