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?

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15 Responses to “why you should love and value copywriters”

  1. Andy said

    “…and pay them as much as the designer?”

    I’ll admit, I just laughed out loud at that. Fantastic piece though. I might print it out, frame it, and leave it on my desk.

    With the last sentence highlighted, of course.

  2. Aisleen said

    Well said (and written!) Sometimes these thngs just need to be said…

  3. uninvoked said

    Agreed. I think if every writer put down the pen for one day…the world would erupt in chaos. I know there was a writers strike for a while, but the reality is the competition is so cut-throat getting another writer is always going to be easy.

    What we need is an evil overlord to help us gain new respect..

  4. A marvellous piece. Every bit as well written as I’d expect!

  5. James said

    “We know things other people don’t know, like punctuation and grammar and how tone of voice works.”
    Well your ‘tone of voice’ in this sentence is indicating insufferable arrogance and blatant mendacity.

    “We like things normal people don’t like, like poetry and Russian novels, and books about making movies.”
    Are you saying here that normal people can’t enjoy reading say Poe, or Tolstoy ? Or is it your exclusive domain ?

    “We use words people don’t understand.”
    Such as ‘hubris’, ‘narcissism’, and ‘plagiarism’ perhaps ?

    • msbaroque said

      Hello, James! Well. You’re more than welcome to read all the Tolstoy and Poe you like, of course.

      Actually the main word I had in mind was “axiomatic,” which I used recently in two meetings, and nobody in either meeting – which included senior management – knew the word.

      And if you let me know what you think I plagiarised, I’ll disabuse you.

      Anyway, congratulations. You’ve just posted up Text Pixel’s first nasty comment!

  6. Ravilious said

    I’m a proofreader at a well-regarded digital company. The idea that copywriters ‘know things other people don’t know, like punctuation and grammar’ is wholly news to me.

    I work with copywriters who cannot use the word ‘complement’ or distinguish a colon from a semi (colon).

    I’ve been in the publishing business 35 years (in all kinds of roles) and the smartest people in the room were always the proofreaders.

    • msbaroque said

      Hi Ravilious. Hey, I had no idea this post was going to be so controversial! I have nothing but respect and admiration for proofreaders. I’ve never worked in a place that had dedicated proofreaders, but I’ve worked with subs, and they are also a breed apart. Fierce and proud. It should also be said that I don’t actually think anybody knows everything. (A position with which the subs might also disagree!)

      In practice, I’ve worked in a lot of places where I was the sole comms or PR person in a meeting, or on a team, or was in a comms team in an organisation dedicated to other things – like, for example, policy. In one job I was the communications manager of a small team, battling against the idea that any professional writing is by definition “spin,” or that people like housing surveyors, youth workers, even middle managers, do all the “work,” while the writer only “makes it pretty.” The post is intended as a lighthearted look at how comms professionals are viewed by those other people.

  7. Ooh, enjoying this debate immensely. It seems to me that Katy struck the perfect tone of voice – for we copywriters are, indeed, arrogant (though usually only mendacious when we’re paid to be).

    One thing I will take issue with is the statement that copywriters use words that other people don’t understand. I would restate that to: “we know how to use words that other people understand”. That doesn’t mean we use them – on the contrary, the secret to great copy is using words that all your readers will understand. It seems to me that it’s the non-writers who use words other people don’t understand. Words like “leverage”, “synergistic” and “ideate”.

    But then, I’ve barely read a word of poetry since graduation, and I’ve never read a book about making movies. What’s more, my only experience of Russian novels is having almost finished Crime and Punishment.

    Perhaps I’m a normal person after all?

    Nah, like Katy, I bloody hate the hard slog that is writing – I must be a pro.

  8. Ben said

    Scuse the digression, but that crack about paying us all the same as the designer got me thinking. Does one face more competition as a copywriter or as a designer? Sometimes it seems to me that I can’t walk to the local shop without tripping over a dozen designers; but copywriters seem rather thinner on the ground.

    Thoughts on the usual postcard…

    • Agree, Ben – I definitely think designers are ten-a-penny, where we writers are a much rarer commodity. Also, I’m fairly sure that I’m paid more than most of the designers I’ve worked with, but that might be down to my speciality (financial writing).

      The thing is, most people think they can write (generally they can’t), but technology gives designers the edge. As any designer will tell you, all clients think they can design, just like they think they can write. (Typical scene: Client” “Can you change that blue to green?” Designer: “Why, will green sell more products?” Client: No, I just don’t like blue.”)

      Trouble is, clients generally don’t have a clue in Quark or Indesign, so designers are seen as less dispensable than those of us who simply type for a living . . .

  9. Ben said

    Clare, you’re bang on. The day I learnt to leave the design to the experts was a good one for me…

    I’m not complaining about what I get paid either.

    I find the best way of showing people there’s more to writing than meets the eye is to forget the language for a moment, and then show them how the structure works. “Okay. So, now you’ve shoved that information in, what connects it to the paragraph before it? Or after it? Oh, nothing? I see…”

  10. byrneseyeview said

    While most of this is true, I have to second the notion that copywriters often don’t know the rules of grammar especially well. Copywriters write to convince people, and convincing them doesn’t mean impressing them with your knowledge of the subjunctive. In fact, good grammar can be suspicious; does he know his way around a semicolon, or is this tightly-edited missive going to put one over on me?

    I’d encourage you to look at some of Gary Halbert’s stuff. For a while, his direct mail offerings went to more homes than the phone book did. And yet, Gary had an alarming tendency to assume that the ellipsis… didn’t just mean that words had been omitted from a quote… and couldn’t just be abused to imply a long pause… but could replace nearly every form of punctuation!

    Gary died rich, and he probably died happy. Ogilvy, one of the most admired copywriters of the last century or so, also thought good grammar was a waste of time. I happen to disagree, but I wouldn’t want to overestimate its worth.

  11. ripley said

    Diligent copywriters are convinced that there is a single best solution, and they’re driven to find it. Like Coleridge, they want to achieve ‘the best words in the best order’.

    (Oh, I copied that paragraph over from another part of this site – it seems to sum up the pretentious and spurious notion many copywriters have of themselves.)

    I have never understood why ‘words’ are distinguished from ‘spelling, punctuation and grammar’. To me, they are inseparable and interdependent within this thing we call ‘writing’. They are the tools of the trade – just as a composer hangs notes on that five-bar gate thing, just as you won’t get far knitting without the knitting needles.

    Some copywriters seem to think they’re too good to spell and punctuate accurately; some seem proud of their grammatical ignorance.

    Perhaps TS Eliot could get away with scribbling ‘The Waistland’ at the top of his newly finished poem (being in a hurry to get to the bar). For the rest of us – being neither Coleridge nor Eliot – it just looks stupid.

  12. Stephanie said

    Well, I’ll bite on the “compliment/complement” comment… I had often used that word in conversation, but had never actually written “complement” before. I had no way of knowing! Thank my teachers for my ignorance, and thank my marketing manager for the edit.

    And yes, I am an in-house copywriter and I DO stand alone. Or sit alone in my Copy Cave. 😦

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