Forget everything you know (about copywriting)

Jonathan Wilcock

I’ve been earning a living from writing, in one form or other, since 1984.

1984! That’s pre-Internet. Pre-PlayStation. Pre-Pret!

Everything I knew then is ancient history. The Ford Escort, Band Aid, Rick Allen’s left arm…

And logic tells me that everything I know now will turn to dust too, sooner or later.

Where it all began

When I started in advertising, I was writing mostly trade ads – peddling powders, potions and widgets to stockists, distributors and retailers. Reaching them in their printed industry magazines – The Grocer, Farmers Weekly, The Flange Wanglers Gazette…

A great training ground for moving into B2C – posters, print, TV and Direct Marketing. An arena of traditional media that kept the wolf from the door for a good 15 years or so.

Look out, here comes the Internet

Then someone unleashed the World Wide Web on a gullible public. Every brief suddenly asked for web banners and ‘viral’ videos. Everyone wanted Crazy Frogs, Oogachacka Babies and Subservient Chickens.

Somewhere around 2001, I was asked to write my first website. Then briefs started rolling in for email newsletters, blog posts and more websites. A lot more websites.

I’d gone from sweating over the ‘big idea’, crafting headlines and a few lines of body copy, to writing thousands of SEO–friendly words and getting to grips with the basics of UX.

And before I knew it, other new vistas opened up: whitepapers, explainer videos, case studies, e-books, brochures, packaging… wherever you could squeeze a word in, that’s where you’d find me.

Then a bomb went off in 2008

KABOOM: Brand development. Brand positioning. Brand Tone of Voice. Brand guidelines.

A whole new world to deep dive into; more stuff to learn, more stuff to un-learn.

Ay Caramba! Where will this madness end?

Thankfully, I’m perfectly happy bobbing along on the sea of copywriting fortune, allowing it to wash me up on whichever tropical shores it wishes. Mouthwash, chilli sauce, education, fashion, charity… keep ‘em coming.

Should I have listened to everyone who told me I needed to niche down?

If I had, I imagine the ride would have been a little smoother. But perhaps a lot less interesting.

I’m 37 years in to my career as a copywriter. If old Father Time is kind to me, I reckon I’ve got another 15 or so left in me. No doubt, I’ll be taking a few more side roads and having to learn more new things. It’s the nature of the beast. Re-inventing myself, and the world’s I inhabit.

As was then, so is now

So, is there anything I learned way back then, that I still rely on today?

Absolutely. And if I were a gambling man, I reckon this little list will stand me (and you) in good stead for years, perhaps decades to come.

1) Your writing is only as good as the brief allows it to be.

Ask all the questions, don’t put up with multiple USPs, get clarity on what it is you need to communicate, and to whom.

2) The person who signs the work off is as important as the work itself.

Be respectful. Try to understand the pressures your clients are under. Build relationships that give you room to be honest when you receive feedback that makes no sense. Work as a team.

3) The best copywriting starts with an idea.

Don’t just fill the page with words. Root what you do in a solid idea. A single-minded thought or positioning that drives everything you write. It will give your words focus and purpose.

4) Always keep a pad and pen by your bed.

Ideas are sneaky little devils. They’ll creep up on you when you least expect it. Be ready for them, ‘cos if you don’t write them down, they’re likely to run off and hide in the same cupboard where all the odd socks live. Never to be seen again.

5) You write for your audience, but you’ve got to get past the client first.

It’s important that you not only get your client on your side, but you also imprint the idea on them that the copy you write isn’t for them. It’s for their audience. The client may not like the colloquialisms you use, but that doesn’t matter. And if they get that, your job will be so much easier.

6) Good copywriting takes time.

Don’t agree to painfully tight deadlines. Don’t do it! As soon as you feel like you’re rushing, your writing will suffer. You’ll hit that deadline. The client will thank you. Then, when the dust has settled, they’ll only remember the quality of the work. Always, always allow time for the overnight test. 1,000 times out 10, you’ll find a way of improving your copy the next day.

7) The only way to get better at writing is to write.

At some point or other you’re going to have to put away your collection of ‘How to write like a pro and earn 6 figures before the cock crows’ books and get writing. That’s where the real learning begins – living by the keyboard, dying by the keyboard. And the more you write, the better you’ll get.

8) There’s a direct correlation between doing your best work and how much you enjoy doing it.

I was told, many years ago, that there’s no such thing as a bad brief. Whoever told me that, they were wrong. And they were right. A bad brief (hurriedly written, with no real direction or insight, or for a dull, me-too product) is an opportunity. A chance to dig deeper to find the golden nugget. That process in itself can be really fulfilling, before you’ve even got to the copywriting proper. But if it still doesn’t crank your doodle, do the best job you possibly can, then swerve similar briefs in the future.

9) If someone is prepared to pay you to write, you’re a lucky bugger.

How many budding copywriters are there in the UK? At last count, a lot – maybe more. It’s a career that many would do handstands in fox poo for. It’s easy to forget how blessed we are to pay the bills by stringing sentences together. Next time you see me whingeing about my job, please give me slap.

10) You make your own luck.

Coleman Cox (or was it Gary Player, or Thomas Jefferson) said, “I am a great believer in Luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.” Well, whoever said it, I reckon they were on to something. So stop shoikin’ and get woikin’.

If you grasp just one or two of these gobbets of battle-won wisdom, you should be able to ride the copywriting rollercoaster and live to tell the tale.

No matter how much you’ll have to forget of everything else you’ve ever learned.

Love and patience. x

Jonathan Wilcock

Brand voice copywriter with more years’ experience than you can count on your fingers and toes.