Portent Staff // Dec 7 2010
Copywriting is a career replete with pitfalls, from editorial visions gone awry to hair-pulling, forehead-pounding hours attempting to come up with synonyms for “elegant” that alliterate with “xylophone.”
There are good parts, too. Really good parts. I promise. But that is an entirely different post.
This is a post about the depths of despair all copywriters feel at some point during their career. Who am I kidding: some of these things occur on a weekly basis. These are my own copywriting nightmares, and some tips on why I’m not [quite] yet on suicide watch.
I, too, sometimes feel compelled to break pencils and stab them in my eyes.
Being a snob about the written word is your job – there is no way a misspelled word or an errant comma would ever slip by you.
In the fluster of tight turnarounds and imminent deadlines and that dastardly Cupertino Effect, there will be one or two mistakes that evade your watchful eye. You’ll send your copy along to your client, maybe with their product name misspelled, maybe with “stationery” replaced with “stationary.” It’s nearly inevitable and it will be downright humiliating when it happens.
What to do: Try to stay professional through the urge of self-flagellation. Apologize, edit right now, and make sure it doesn’t happen again… for as long as possible. How?
Reiterate, reinforce, and/or revamp your editing system. My favorites:
You have a coffee client. You love your coffee client. You immerse yourself in this brew of the caffeinated gods, sipping, slurping, and staying up all night, visions of becoming a barista on the side of your writing career.
And you finally have it: the perfect tagline for this coffee client, the one that will garner Don Draper’s approval and a place in the hall of ad fame alongside Bernbach and Koenig. You jot it down, send it off.
And then you realize why it’s so perfect: you read it on Starbucks’ blackboard last week.
What to do: This is just embarrassing (and it may or may not have happened to me). I have a feeling in some world of mega-advertising this could get you ridiculed right out of the room, if not sort of fired. Great ideas are recycled all the time, but c’mon.
Lesson learned: do a quick Google search on your tagline and variations of it. You never know what is seeping into your creative conscious purely by osmosis. Cryptomnesia. It’s the copywriter’s nemesis.
The best part of writing in an agency setting is that the work load is always varied, with a revolving door of new clients and new projects.
But still. There are times when you will have to hunker down and bang out about a dozen copies of the same content, from product descriptions to a batch of holiday newsletters. Your eyes get dry and crusty, you start recycling the same words and motifs and seasonal clichés over and over, you put it all off ’til the last minute. Something that would normally take you half an hour to accomplish stretches into three.
What to do:
Get used to it. It’s going to happen all the time.
What to do: Take a walk. Brainstorm with a co-worker. Write down whatever blah-writing is in your head right now, just for the sake of writing, and come back to it later. Take a nap. Just kidding. Be comforted by the fact that it will go away, eventually.
Dread the fact that will come back, eventually.
There is nothing more intimidating than starting a new project with no direction. You are nervous about offending (see no. 8), don’t want to waste your time by investing in a going-nowhere task, struggle with a jumping-off point.
It’s best to have a clear vision mapped out by your client: personas, brand, voice, goals. Sometimes, though, a client has no clue what they are looking for – they just know they will like it (or, as it may be, not like it) when they see it.
What to do: Don’t dive in gung-ho without the green light from your client. Depending on the project, this could mean hours wasted on something destined to be deleted.
Send a list of ideas to your client and get their input on the ones they’d like to see. Do more than send a list of blog post titles: send along a couple sentences describing your direction for each one. Be varied. Send ideas that span the entire scope, from irreverent to purely informational. Look at the tone that does exist on the site and brainstorm some ideas that exist within that voice, some that push the envelope.
I don’t care how liberal your liberal arts education was: there is no way you can wax poetic about both bridal gowns and B2B Chinese imports. And French furniture. And hiking in Alaska.
The more niche your client, the more specialized, the more foreign their product, the harder it is to write for them. Forget the blatant inaccuracies of a “How To” blog post written by a writer who doesn’t actually know how to; getting a single sentence down can be near impossible when there is no Wikipedia page to reference.
What to do: Get in touch with the experts themselves. Schedule a time to talk with your client on the phone, or write out a list of basic questions for them to answer over email. Send in drafts of your copy with the areas where information is vague and lacking highlighted. Get frequent feedback.
An excerpt from an email I sent to a client whose product utterly befuddled me:
1. How would you explain to someone unfamiliar with your industry what your company produces?
2. How would you explain it to a 12 year old?
3. What makes your product different from your competitors’?
4. Personally, what are your favorite features?
Like no. 6, not evening knowing what to type into Google is going to be a problem when a deadline is in two hours.
“Impossible” can also mean “frustrating” (contradicting facts), “convoluted” (the definition of the word includes the word you’re looking up!), and “boring” (tech specs anyone?). In the end, you’re in the same miserable research rut brought on by a tricky client.
The good news: nothing is totally impossible to research. Someone somewhere has written about what your client does, and that means you can too.
What to do: Read up and get inspired by what other experts have to say. Have questions about their articles? Write a post about that question. Or, write on a similar topic only better with your vastly superior skills – you know you have the chops.
What happens when you can’t find the facts you need to complete the post of your dreams? Should you just make ‘em up?
Tough to say. On one hand, trusty Copyblogger tells me that finding hard and 100% true facts isn’t the most important thing in good writing; on the other, this infographic got a lot of flak for a lack of source citations and transparent information.
My advice: do the best you can. When in doubt cite your information. And, if your facts are too difficult to compile, consider adjusting your vision to something that is actually possible to write.
It’s a writer’s version of putting her foot in her mouth: a joke, a tone, a tongue-in-cheek line, a full-blown snark fest that gets lost in the translation from writer to reader.
This happens the most often with:
As writers, we know that “funny and light” usually gets a better response (as in actual people reading the content) than “dry and mind-numbingly boring.” But we rarely get to decide on the voice and style of a brand. Our job is to enhance our client’s vision – even if we don’t really love it.
That mysterious voice (and let’s face it, sometimes the client can’t even decide on one, which means we writers are in are in a real pickle) can easily go awry. Commence offense.
Scenario 1: You make a pithy Jesus-meets-Jersey Shore reference, then find out the client’s CEO is devoutly Christian.
Scenario 2: You write a brilliant linkbait on the misadventures of Tiger Woods. Your client calls you mean-spirited. Ouch.
Scenario 3: Your tongue-in-cheek piece on Cyber Monday shopping at the office is taken as literal. Sarcasm, as it turns out, does not necessarily transcend a language barrier.
What to do: If you really believe in it, rationally and professionally stand by your work. Explain its merits and why you think it will be a home run.
Still, you’re probably going to have to do a re-write. Do it quickly. The second time around – and in all future work – exercise caution and a keen eye for editing. Stifle your funny bone and work towards beautiful copy without the bite.
Some people need to be involved with what you are doing, no matter what their motivations or qualifications. I have had headlines altered, facts changed, paragraphs completely re-written, silly things like “as well as” changed to “also”.
As writers, we’re used to the editing process. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes find it frustrating. Especially when the edits include typos, mis-information, and/or seem completely pointless.
What to do: Deal with it. Try taking a few deep breaths. These edits will never go away. Keep a log of what certain clients expect in their copy (e.g. where to include ™, when to refer to the company by its full name, whether they prefer “cost effective” versus “good value”).
Know that even then, there will still be changes.
It’s been known to happen.
What to do: Shed a tear. Shed two. Drink some wine. Get back to work.
I promise: a post on the good things about copywriting is on its way. Stay tuned!