Copywriting: First Steps

For my second post of my journey into copywriting I wanted to copy (get it?!) a brief from a recent assignment I was handed. Essentially it asked me: what have I learned so far?

We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto…

While copywriting so far hasn’t been all shocks and surprises, it has reinforced viewpoints I’ve held, particularly around what is important in laying the ground for such work. At the beginning of 2016, I said this would be the year where I laid the ground for whatever the next decade will bring. At the start of my thirties, this seemed an apt time to make such a declaration.

I began the year by admitting (quietly) that my knowledge of grammar and punctuation was at best embarrassing. At worst, it felt a significant barrier to making a career as a writer. Sensibly, I decided to begin studying it to remove this needless chip from my shoulder.

Through online resources (there are a lot) I found my way to some decent literature. This ranged from Lynn Truss’s well-known Eat, Shoots and Leaves to ones more designed for in-depth study, such as Collins Good Grammar. I do not say this to disparage Truss’s book, but I found that the tone of it caused me to feel I was missing out on certain pieces of information for the sake of comedy value.

I enjoy the study of both these inter-connected but discrete areas of language: grammar and punctuation. It has helped my confidence and has enabled me to gain more versatility over my writing. I also recognise there is a long way to go. If needs be, in a year’s time, I may get to a point where I’ll need to study Latin – we’ll see.

In copywriting, the need for accuracy is paramount. Being able to recognise mistakes and reconstruct sentences into an active voice, etc., are crucial skills to successful copy. So while copywriting tends to avoid using complicated punctuation, preferring short and simple sentences, furthering my understanding has felt like a very positive support to my studies so far.

As a result, my personal study has been given motivation by an external course structure. Everyone wins!

Get straight to the point, man!

The next lesson I’ve learned is related to efficiency.

Copywriting is efficient. Incredibly efficient. In fact, if there’s a long sentence in here, I’ll probably need to go and change it! Also, learning how we all scan read text first, and how different fonts, white space, alignment, etc., affects our ability to do this is fascinating. Suddenly my choices for word choice, sentence length and format are not just preferably stylistic, i.e., I just like how it looks. They are informed by a sense necessity and sound reasoning.

I look forward to learning more about this and start to understand better why certain copy just works better than others – for reasons other than the words used.

From the first couple of jobs I have done I have also had that tricky learning: there is always work that you don’t expect. Editing, proofing, correcting and formatting all take time over and above the content production and research.

For my first jobs I quoted prices based mainly on these last two points. I whizzed through the work faster than I thought, but then used the rest of the time – and some – on the preparation and finalising of the document. So, as a note of warning, always allow a reasonable amount of time for these tidying up elements. They are essential so they deserve notice in your planning.

Hear ye, hear ye!

Finally, as I look at the process of taking a brief – the preparation with the client which outlines the work to be completed – a pleasant cross-over occurred. In my improvisation work, I have banged on for years about how it is only a process of listening.

Improvisation becomes harder when there is too much or too little to hear. In the former is hard not to head towards hyper-stimulated chaos and the latter requires a concentration to hear the subtler provocations. Being a good listener is a process of removing the needy ego and placing it back as a boldness of action when the time’s right.

So to see this being reinforced in the copywriting course do not be distracted, let your client finish, ask clarifying questions, etc. – was a welcome surprise. A chance to bring in skills from another area to this one, admittedly with a different outcome.

To have this as part of the work feels like it brings a sensitivity to communication, dialogue and connection. If asked before, I would have worried that this industry would be too hard, fast and selling-orientated to have room for investment in relationship between people. And yet here is a window showing me otherwise.

So far, copywriting has proven its depth and the need for long-term investment. To become truly versatile and effective will take time and practice, and study outside of its obvious boundaries seems necessary too. Most edifying has been the chance for transfer of skills from seemingly far away, and I look forward to seeing what else I can bring in!

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