You want to be a writer? First, be a copywriter. You need to tell a story, which sounds simple. If not a story, then at least something like a narrative. You need to catch (and keep) someone’s interest long enough to sell a product. There are hundreds of teachers who think they have a step-by-step solution for reader engagement.
None of them are as good as experience.
The end goal of creative writing is to make art. The end goal of copywriting is to sell. These are not at odds with each other. In fact, doing the latter should be mastered first. If you never learn how to sell, chances are you’ll never learn how to write.
Does it go against the grain of the sublime, the ineffable code by which all artists must abide?
There are plenty of articles about how adjectives will raid your refrigerator and adverbs will burn your house down.There are just as many about the evils of long sentences. Chances are you’ve already read about these rules or figured them out on your own, so there’s no need to dwell on them here.
Plenty of English professors couldn’t write a sales letter to save their tweed jackets. This is because knowing how to apply the rules is more important than knowing them. It’s also because of where their focus lies. Namely, in sticking to rules. Yet this is a minor transgression compared to the mortal sin many, perhaps most, amateuer authors make.
Their focus isn’t on a result, at least not on the kind that leads to immersion or memorability. Assuming you are working with a newsletter list or a social media channel, you are receiving nearly immediate feedback. You know, almost instantly, what hundreds or thousands of people think of your content (studying other people’s campaigns is not the same – trust me, their defeats will never be as memorable as your own). However crass advertising may seem, two facts remain: people need products and knowing how you are doing is priceless. It’s better to know if you are a bore before you begin cobbling together your million word saga told from the perspective of a canteen in the Crimean War.
Otherwise, you might find yourself bitterly wondering where ten years went.
“Those things that hurt, instruct.”
It’s true, but only when you know why it hurts. Without analysis, a mistake will come up again and again. Productive thought is impossible without the right metrics. Personal satisfaction is nice, but it doesn’t pay the rent. It also won’t make you better at your job. After all, you might be exceedingly proud of something others find dull, trite, or pretentious. Literati can remain delusional for a long time. Copywriters do not have this luxury.
Your friends and family are not the right people to ask for criticism. Neither are strangers on the internet. Even publishing houses may not be the right folks to ask. You don’t want a sample size of three, twenty, or one hundred. You don’t want someone who already has an opinion of you. Our minds are weak and our first impressions can distort huge slabs of new information. Assuming you want to make money, you need to see how you do in front of a much larger audience. That’s where copywriting comes to the rescue. It’s best for your wallet and for your skillset.
Writing is a solitary lifestyle, at least during the work day. There’s nothing wrong with solitude, especially since it’s necessary here. But by becoming too self-involved we may lose sight of the fact we’re making art – assuming we want to have any success – for others. Conference calls are the bane of our existence – everyone’s. Even when they’re fun, they still feel like interruptions. Nevertheless, they hold us accountable for the fruits of our labor, or lack thereof.
At best, they are a checkup. They force you to confront your work on a regular basis, which is not a bad thing. Copywriting is not for the avoidant or the faint-hearted. Executives can be irritating. They might think marketing is like magic. It can be. Even then, they can ruin it by expecting the effort’s effects to grow exponentially.
You are always holding your reader’s hand. You have to walk gently with them and stay by their side. Self-indulgence leads to aimlessness. Your stream of consciousness is likely of interest to no one including, after a few months, yourself. Besides imposing weekly or daily deadlines, copywriting also forces us to step outside of ourselves. We are forced to produce quality content not for its own sake, but for others to consume (no, that is not a bad word!). There are clear goals that need to be accomplished and many people with vested interests in the success of our campaigns to appease. By contrast, making “literature” can give us enough rope to hang ourselves.
Does this mean ad-men and ad-women are doomed to pander?
Trend riding looks inviting, like a foolproof way to send inventory flying off the shelves. Emotionally charged waves are especially appealing. Many executives and inexperienced marketers want to ride them (the pandemic, an election, etc.). Nowadays big waves create burnout faster than many of us realize, and as many COVID-obsessed advertisers have recently learned. Good content is accessible and unique. Working within these boundaries is what gives copywriters creative discipline.
Authors fall for formulas. So do their audiences. Good for them. This isn’t to say that advertisers don’t do the same thing, but the nature of the business is a safeguard against complacency. New clients come, old clients leave, and the landscape never stops changing.
There is a lot of tripe out there and I have no desire to add to the pile. Total emulation may not be ideal, but we have to ask ourselves why a book or article or ad campaign is doing well – well, in this instance, means better than us. What do they have? This kind of questioning is more productive than blindly attacking the latest bestseller out of envy. This is not to say that Dan Brown’s style is worth replicating or, for that matter, imitating.
Yet there are elements, aside from a bestselling author’s business connections, that you may lack. Feedback is key. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Feedback from people with a variety of backgrounds is even better. It’s common to hear people say deadlines give them an extra push, as if they are unique in this regard. They give everyone a push. Assuming you are not a lobotomy patient, urgency is an incredible catalyst. The corporate environment can do wonders for reforming “artists.”
Keats’s observation about Shakespeare’s “negative capability” has been cited many times, and with good reason. There are poets, including Keats himself, who have written poetry as beautiful as the bard’s, but none who’ve managed to convincingly speak in as many voices. The ambiguity Keats was referring to stems, I would contend, from the bard’s ability to put himself in the shoes of his characters. In other words, Shakespeare would have been a magnificent copywriter. It is hard to separate literature from psychology. We have to understand these dynamics to make compelling characters and we have to understand how readers process our writing.
Many would rather die than go into advertising. This springs more from egomania than heartfelt objections to capitalism. Advertising is ephemeral and marketers are typically unknown outside of the industry. This is frightening to many authors looking for everlasting fame. Your newsletter is not going to be read alongside Homer and Virgil a thousand years from now. Chances are, though, neither is your epic novel or your slam poetry compilation. We are all familiar with mandalas, the elaborate designs Tibetan monks spend countless hours creating before unceremoniously wiping them away. I’m not attempting to be mystical or even particularly philosophical here.
I’m saying that the mandalas illustrate an important point: your art, like your life, will not last forever. Don’t let this keep you from making it. There are far too many people, young and old, who hold back because they feel a task is beneath them or otherwise “not right” for them. They are waiting for a spark of inspiration that will take them to the peak of Parnassus. This is not going to happen. Especially gifted writers are born with talent, but this is a craft. We hone and retool without end. Composing masterpieces by a mountain stream is a fantasy. We are in and of the world. We cannot turn away from it.
The rub is that the world does not just shape us. We can, if we master its lessons, return the favor.