Write your own web content. My Dozen ‘Do’s.

The core of your user experience. Way ahead of look and feel. Making sure you have well written web content is the single most important element in making your site perform for you.

Your written content drives your SEO.

It has to hold people on your site when they first arrive, preventing them ‘bouncing’.

It has to engage them, reassure them, inform them, befriend them, persuade them and, ultimately close them.

So here are my Dozen ‘Do’s to help you. Whatever kind of site you’re writing, these should help.

But before you get into these, let’s take a minute and look at 3 big web copywriting mistakes to avoid.

3 big web content writing mistakes to avoid.

For me (and I write content for 100 or so sites every year) the three big mistake to avoid are:

  • Cramming too much copy into your pages. Don’t. Search engines like 300 plus. But a page should be as long as it needs to be, Sometimes it really is all over after two sentences. As a rule of thumb, though, I think of a short page as being around 80 words, an average one as being 300, and a long one as 700 or so.
  • Not thinking properly about the elements that make up the page, and what the individual roles of these are and how the copy for each should work.
  • Getting the tone of voice wrong – too stuffy, too corporate, too formal, too informal, too pompous, too vague, not professional enough.

Keep clear of these, and your web copy will be off to a great start.

My 12 tips for writing good web content.

So here are my Dozen ‘Do’s.

  1. Be clear about what each page is about. At the planning stage, for every page in the site, pre-compile a carefully thought through list of bullet points that detail what that page’s main copy section will cover.
  2. Think about how the page templates work. A page isn’t just the main copy block. It has other elements that will help you get across everything you want to say, and take people to where you want them to go. They may or may not be unique to the page you’re writing, but you need to think about all of them carefully.
  3. Be clear on page purpose. Some pages are there to inform. Some to build trust. Some to sell. Some to entertain. Decide what the job of the copy is and then write for that purpose.
  4. Underestimate your reader. People aren’t usually upset to have what they already know confirmed. But they get lost when a subject is written about in a way that they can’t understand. It’s better to underestimate how much your reader might know about the particular subject.
  5. Don’t compromise your expertise. The greatest expert on a subject can and will explain it in simple terms, and that’s good. But simple doesn’t mean inaccurate. If you are writing B2B, or for expert consumers, make sure you use the language and glossary used by the profession, or by people with that interest. Otherwise your copy will make those readers feel the site lacks expertise and so credibility.
  6. Break the copy into short, interesting chunks. Break the subject into a few chunks with a separate heading – and perhaps graphic treatment – for each. A page of 500 words of copy, even with subheads, can look quite offputting. Four chunks of 100-150 words each is far more inviting.
  7. Write simply. It’s not only readers that read your content. It’s search engines, too. Both like short sentences, built using simple words in everyday use. Avoid complex subclauses. Things aren’t more valuable, of higher value or more ‘professional’ because you use unnecessarily complex language to describe them.
  8. Keep your writing natural and informal. If you have brand guidelines, read them once then forget them. Take a common sense approach to the brand, but mainly just write in written English that echoes spoken English. And in short, single sentence paragraphs.
  9. Don’t obsess on outmoded SEO ideas. Don’t try to write guessed keyterms into the copy. Write about the subject of the page naturally and informatively. Where you can include likely – or, even better, properly researched – search terms naturally only, do so.
  10. Have headlines, not just page titles. A site isn’t a card index. Write bold, confident and helpful headlines for each page, rather than just the two word title of the subject that was used on the sitemap. The headline is a piece of communication between the site and the reader. The page ‘Title’ (e.g. About Us or Our Services) is a piece of navigation info to help people (and search robots) find their way around.
  11. Remember the calls to action. Don’t be embarrassed to urge people to ‘Call now’ or ‘Get in touch’. It’s not pushy and it’s not ‘desperate’. But also write calls to action into the copy where they seem relevant, so they are a natural part of the content.
  12. Read and edit once it’s live. Copy feels totally different in a live site to how it feels on a copy draft. Make sure you have access via a CMS (or through developers so you can go back and edit once your copy is in the site.

So. Get to it and good luck.

And remember that the copy is never final! Go back and look at it whenever you have an opportunity and edit, update, improve. It’s the way.

How to leave your job and become a freelance copywriter.

For everyone who is a freelance copywriter, there are days when the security of employment looks incomparably attractive.

But if you’re employed, the idea of quitting your job and working for yourself as a freelance copywriter can look even more appealing.

If you’ve always been an employee, the desire to leave behind bosses, office politics and fixed hours for ever can be particularly strong.

But for lots of people in this position, the most frightening and challenging part of pulling this off isn’t really to do with writing, or with what they know about marketing, or even with how to go about finding work.

It’s to do with how you’ll be able to  organise your life to cope with the transition from the security of a regular salary to the insecurity of freelance project fees.

Like most challenges though, it looks less intimidating when you break it into chunks.

Step 1. Understand your situation

The first thing to do is take a cool, clear look at your situation, and in particular at your fixed costs, and see what you can reduce and what you’re stuck with.

Everyone needs a certain amount of money each month, and you need a clear idea of how much that amount is  for you before you walk away from the security out of your current job.

(Don’t be too sentimental about that security though. If you think about it, lots of employment for copywriters is actually fairly interim, anyway, meaning lots of writers have to go find a new role every year or two as it is.  So it’s really not that different to being a freelance copywriter to begin with.)

Whatever your monthly outgoing, there’s still no real reason to turn away from the idea of a freelance life.

You just need to be aware of what you’re putting at risk, so you can think about how you’ll cover yourself if things take longer to get going than you hope.

Step 2. Be realistic about what you need.

If you’re in your first job, maybe in your early to mid twenties, your costs each month are probably quite manageable.

You’ll maybe have rent and bills to pay, plus the cost of your food, clothes and entertainment. Even though that still mounts up to a decent amount for most people, it’s about as good a position as you’ll ever find yourself in.

What you’re being paid in your job probably isn’t all that much either.

So the amount you’ll need to make from copywriting to cover your costs and match your salary won’t actually be that high.

If you’re fifteen years into your career, on the other hand, you’ll have more of a challenge.

The commitments that most of us wrack up during a decade or more of comfortable employment mean that you may have a mortgage, loan repayments or even some dependents to think about. And that’s before you get anywhere near having any fun!

So if you’re going to turn your back on your salary, you’ll need to be able to hunt down and complete quite a lot of well paying copywriting to carry on hitting your target.

Step 3 – Write some copy for free

I usually figure that new plans need a year to get going.

It can be less, and sometimes it’s more, but a year is a fair crack at making something as big as a career transition happen.

So think about this. Let’s say you have a £24k salary.

And, to keep it simple, let’s also say you have a £24k overhead, but you would like to walk out the door and start a new career as a copywriter.

You need to ‘phase’ the transition.

Right now, the job is paying you £2k a month, and you have no income from copywriting.

But let’s say that next month you spend a bit of time trying to turn up some small copywriting work from family and friends? “Can I rewrite your website for free?” “Would you like me to write you a little brochure?”

That kind of thing.

If you hate the idea of doing anything for free, then you could try your hand on People Per Hour or Elance or a similar site, but without any track record at all, you may struggle even there to land anything.

And the point of this is not to earn. It’s to get together some samples of actual work you’ve done for live clients.

By the time the month ends, you’ll have made no money from copywriting, but you’ll still have your £2k from salary. And, just to be conservative, let’s say exactly the same happens the next moth as well.

Step 3 – Write some copy. Make a little money.

So, we’re now into the third month.

This time, you’d try to get one small assignment that you could do out of office hours, and maybe make £200 from.

So you’ll make £200 from copywriting and so need only £1800 of your salary to make up your £2k. (You’ll still be getting your full pay packet of course, so this month you’ll have £200 extra. Result!)

Step 4 – Getting to 50/50.

After that, you just keep going the same way.

You have to try to get yourself to the point, after six months or so, where you’re fairly consistently earning   £1000 a month from copywriting.

If you can, then you’ll be making half of your monthly need from copywriting.

It’s better not to overstretch though. You’ve got to be able to drum up the work consistently. If that seems to you like something you’ll have trouble doing (and it’s harder than the writing itself), then it’d be rash to walk out of your job.

If you do feel you’d struggle to hit your work target consistently, then you’ve uncovered the fundamental truth of all freelancing.

Actually doing the work is easy and enjoyable. That’s the part you love, and want to do. But getting the work in to begin with, week after week, is hard. It takes lots of time, can be a bit lonely and it calls for skills that have nothing to do with writing.

(However, if you’ve got a background in Sales, or in CRM, for example, you may find this less of a challenge.)

Step 5 – Quit your job. You’re a Freelance Copywriter.

One day, you’ll get to the point where you’re happy that you’re pulling in a fairly consistent amount of work each month, and your evenings and weekends are getting eaten up by it.

At this point, the only thing that’s really stopping you from making your full £2k target each month from copywriting is your job!

For as long as you’re doing it, there just won’t be enough hours for you to chase new work, bring it in and actually do it.

And this is when you have to be brave, tell your boss you’ve decided to try working for yourself, and hand in your notice.

There’s no getting away from it: it’ll be scary.

But you’ll have done everything you possibly can to pave the way out of employment and into freelance life.

Oh. One more idea.

During your transition year, it’s only sensible to try to save the money you earned from copywriting (while you were still getting a salary), along with anything else you can stow away.

That way you’ll have some money in reserve once you start your freelance life, should you find you hit a slow patch.

And that’s about it.

There are other ways you can make the move, and everyone’s circumstances are different. (You may be reading this thinking, “If only I only needed to make £24k!”)

But the point is that you’re really not trapped in employment.

Plan. And jump!

Copywriting Tips. 11 Great Things To Learn.

Convinced that being a copywriter is your true calling, but finding there’s a little more to it than you’d imagined? Don’t get disheartened. Here are 11 copywriting tips (and in particular for tips for aspiring copywriters): 11 Great Things To Learn that will stand you in good stead for ever.

1. Learn about marketing.

Copywriting is a commercially purposed business function. In the vast majority of cases the reason someone’s happy to pay you to do it is because what you do will help them, in some way, to sell their products or services. You really can’t be a good copywriter unless you learn as much as you possibly can about what marketing is and how it works. You’re not going to learn everything there is to know in a hurry. But you need to know enough to be able to contribute to your clients’ marketing efforts when you advise them, and when you’re actually writing for them.

2. Learn to write with the rhythms of natural speech.

Forget about writing within the conventions of whatever you think ‘good writing’ should be. Learn to write the way people speak. Business today – even in sectors like law and financial services – is far less formal than it used to be. People who read what you write have short attention spans and just don’t want to read stiff, formal text any more. Write well, but teach yourself to hear a voice speaking your copy as you write it. It may be a more or less formal, sophisticated or cultured voice, but the natural rhythms of speech will give you copy that’s easy to read and communicates clearly.

3. Learn to listen to a briefing.

The briefing you get from a client, whatever form you accept it in, gives you a lot of pointers as to how to go about doing the job. You need to learn to really listen to it, and to spot the subtext in what’s being said as well as the text itself. Clients often let slip little concerns or secondary objectives when they’re briefing you. Spotting them and knowing how to deal with them, or include them in the copy you write, will get you satisfied clients.

4. Learn to spot the things that are missing.

Many of the clients you’ll work with won’t be professional marketing people. They’ll be business owners. So writing a brief for a copywriter won’t be something they have experience of. Learn to go through what your client does tell you, and spot the things they’ve not told you but which could make a big difference to the copy you write. If it seems to you that they’ve not told you about some aspect of the business, or the context, and you want to know, then ask them. It may get you the piece of information that makes your copy properly convincing, or compelling or plausible.

5. Learn to focus on the story you’re trying to tell.

Every business has a pile of stories, and most businesses aren’t very good at separating them out. Learn to focus in on the specific story that needs telling. And learn to clear all the other bits of storyline out of the way. If the story you ought to be telling actually has multiple  components, that’s fine, but keep your eyes on the overall take out. When someone’s read your copy, they should be able to go off thinking… “This company could do this for me”, or “If I buy that it’ll take care of such and such“.

6. Learn to read what you write through someone else’s eyes.

What you know or think about something can be a positive danger when you’re writing copy. It’s vital that you learn not to assume that your level of knowledge or understanding about something is the same as your reader’s will be. It won’t be. They may be an expert, or they may know nothing about whatever you’re writing about. But your job is to see the subject through their eyes, not through your client’s , and certainly not through your own.

7. Learn to edit.

Editing is everything. No-one writes perfect copy, once through, straight off. Maybe the most valuable thing you can learn to do is edit your draft for cleaner, tighter copy with clearer communication in fewer words.

8. Learn to get an outcome.

Lots of copywriters write copy that rambles. Don’t do it. Learn to construct an argument, get in, deliver it and get out with the result that your client needs.

9. Learn to quote.

Quoting work isn’t about pulling a number out of the air, and it isn’t about trying to work out the highest fee you can possibly ask for and still get the job. It’s about working out how much you’d be happy to do the work for, though of course that can include thinking about what the work might be worth to that particular client. Learn to work out quotes consistently and accurately, so that you factor it every facet of the work you’ll have to do. Think about the time required to do the research, write and edit a draft and support the revisions. Think about any meetings you have to go to and the phone calls you’ll do. And think about the value of any intellectual property involved. Find a way to factor all these things in so that you can price up any job and, at the end of the month, find that you’ve earned however much you set out to earn.

10. Learn to understand.

Learn to make certain you really understand the subject you’re writing about, and the market surrounding it, and where your client fits into that, and where the reader fits into it.  You can’t get the copy right if you don’t really understand the ecosystem.

11. Learn to learn.

Learn to treat every project you do as a learning exercise. Every task, however brief or apparently dull, has a lesson to teach you.

When a client drags his feet on paying

Freelance copywriters, like freelancers in other industries, are generally small, self employing businesses.

As in any business, cashflowing is extremely important.

You need to keep the jobs coming in, you need to keep completing them and invoicing them, and you need the fees to keep coming through as a result.

Most copywriters work on either cash-on-delivery (you do the job, you invoice, they pay you) or 30 day terms (you do the job, you invoice, they pay you after 30 days).

It’s important for you to agree up front with every client which of these models you’re going to work to. (Many client companies say they pay suppliers at 60 or 90 days but, if you make clear that you are a freelance as opposed to a large concern which can afford to wait for its money, will usually be agreeable to paying you at 30 days.)

Whatever you agree on, make sure that your invoice clearly shows the date on which payment is due.

Now. Most clients, large or small, will pay you without trouble, when the payment is due. You may need to remind them that the due date has just passed, but that will usually do the trick. (In truth, some companies have active policies of not paying suppliers until they are chased.)

But what do you do when payment becomes weeks overdue, and a client shows no sign of paying up?

I’m assuming that the work was completed satisfactorily, and that the client has made no indication at any point of being dissatisfied or contesting that payment is due.

It’s happened to me only once or twice in all the time I’ve traded, but when it does I take a really tough line on this, and I’d advise you to do the same.

Mail all overdue payers 1-2 weeks after their due date, to remind them that payment is late. Mail again at weekly intervals for 2 more weeks, politely pointing out the increasing overdue period. After a month or so, if they haven’t paid, warn them by email that if payment isn’t recevied by a set date (usually another 2 weeks ahead), you will issue proceedings against them in the County Court.If the sum in dispute is under £5000, which will cover many freelance copywriting assignments, this can be treated as a Small Claim, and can even be done online.

After this, mail them again a few days before the date on which you plan to issue proceedings to tell them that if payment isn’t received “by Friday” proceedings will be issued.

If there is still no payment received, then you issue proceedings, either at the linked URL above or using paperwork from your local County Court. There is a small fee for doing this, but it’s reimbursable by your client on top of the money owed.

Once you’ve issued the proceedings, the Court will take it from there for you.

Email the client again to tell them that you have issued proceedings and that any further correspondence should only take place through the channel of the paperwork sent to both parties by the Court.

What happens next? My experience has been that, within a few days, you receive a formal notification that the client has informed the Court that he is sending you your money forthwith. Within a couple of days your cheque arrives and that’s the end of it.

The other possibility is that your client now reveals to the court his ‘reason’ for not paying. While this can happen, if it’s something the client has never previously raised with you, he’s unlikely to find it easy to sustain from here. After a little more toing or froing, my guess is that you’ll have your money.

A professional debt collector (yeah, scary!) with whom I spoke recently about this had a great way of looking at this.

He said that the money your client owes you is far less of an item on his agenda than it is on yours. The trick is to make it into an item on his agenda. Turn it into something he can’t avoid dealing with.

A registered delivery Service of Claim from the Court, supported by the prospect of a negative County Court Judgement, is usually enough to do that. Good luck.

Web content. Whatever happened to structure?

I could simply be getting grumpier. It’s likely. But I keep coming across the same bit of nonsense and I’m beginning to think that WordPress must be to blame.

I keep getting calls about from people who are having a new site built (and so need web content), but who have little or no idea what pages their site will have. Or how the pages will be organised. In fact, my distinct impression is that very many of them have no idea about anything at all about their new site, as the developer hasn’t yet told them.

A site needs a site map.

This is as true now as it was five years ago, a decade ago, and two decades ago.

Before you begin to build it, someone should work out what information the site will contain, and how this should best be grouped to help visitors to the site to use it. Even in an age of deep-linked web-content whose visitors arrive on superbly targeted pages precisely matching their search terms, how can it possibly be a good idea to have a developer start building a site for you without you even know what’s going into it?

And what kind of developer agrees to begin building a site without having discussed and agreed with his/her client what’s going into it?

I fear the answer is that it’s a WordPress developer. (Or a WordPress-minded developer, anyway.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I am as big a fan of WordPress as the next person. But it has encouraged the idea that planning a site need involve nothing more than loading WordPress, picking a Theme and starting to hit the ‘Add New Page’ button.

This results in the misunderstanding that a site is really just an ever-mounting pile of ‘Pages’, and that deciding how to group or relate these pages, and working out a homepage and other page templates so that these pages will be offered to visitors in a way most likely to get them to do whatever the site owner would like them to do, is a secondary concern to be dealt with later. Or never.

Come on, new website owners. Take responsibility for organising a site before you start commissioning web content. For I promise you that your web developer will not.

The problem you share with Selfridges

I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to Selfridges in the West End of London?

Selfridges has a lot of entrances. It has entrances all along its face on Oxford Street. There are 5 of them. Depending which of them you choose, you will enter the store to find yourself confronted by handbags, fragrances, fashion jewellery, watches or sunglasses.

It has entrances all along its face on Duke Street. There are 3 of those. Enter this way and you’ll be greeted by handbags or women’s fashion.

And there are 4 doors on its face on Orchard Street. These will present you, on entering, with jewellery and fine wine, a brasserie or the Food Hall.

It also has a car park, and 3 entrances which open directly from the car park into the store. Enter this way and you’ll be standing in the Starbucks in-store concession, or men’s fashion, or women’s shoes.

Now imagine being Head of Merchandising at Selfridges.

You could take the view that while you have 15 entrances, bringing people into the store face to face with 12 different kinds of merchandise, you aren’t going to give a second thought to any entrance other than the main one on Oxford Street because “That’s the Main Door”.

You could say that. You could just wish that everyone would come in through that door, because that’s the way you wish they would.

If you did that, you really wouldn’t need to think so hard about what you put inside all of the other entrances. You could place quite dull merchandise there, because no-one would be forming their first impression based on what they found there.

You wouldn’t have to worry so much about displaying good signage to help people find their way into the rest of the store from each of these places, because you’d be imagining that no-one was going to enter through these doors.

Your life would be easy…in your own little world where all your visitors come in through the door you have chosen for them.

But let’s do some maths. 15 entrances. If we guess that the grand main entrance on Oxford Street accounts for 30% of all entrances to the store, then the other 14 account for 70%. If you ignore those entrances and pretend everyone comes in by the front door, 70% of your visitors will be greeted by disarray, poor display and inadequate signage. They might not buy so much.

Now, fortunately, you are not the Merchandising Manager at Selfridges with a store full of visitors coming through 15 entrances to worry about each day.

But if you have a website, with customers finding their own way into it via a page chosen for them by Google in response to whatever they happened to search for, it might just pay you to think as if you were.

These other people called Copywriters

I smell confusion. Its odour has been in the air for a couple of years, but now its stench is there every time I surf around and it’s time to reach for the copywriting air-freshener and dispel it.

Copywriters. We know what we are. We are people who write commercially oriented text to be used in corporate or marketing applications of one kind or another. We are likely to have commercial and marketing knowledge. We may be given more to an editorial approach, or may be intrinsically conceptual in our skills. We may be specialist in IT, financial services or pharmaceuticals, or we may be generalists, hoping that the next project will be fundamentally different from the last.

All of these criteria fairly describe a copywriter. We write for other people’s organisations and businesses, using our skills to convey information the business itself needs to get across.

That’s what we are.

What we are not is people who operate elaborate programs which involve setting up hundreds of websites to earn incremental incomes from affiliate programs, or parked domain advertising, or so-called ‘business opportunity’ DVD publishing. Nor are we people who stage five day conferences in concert arenas to explain to people who yearn to be rich how we, ourselves, make millions of dollars, pounds, euros or dinars every year from our websites. No, sir. Such people are not copywriters, and it’s just plain confusing of them to appropriate our name.

There is a name for what these people are. They are internet marketers. Some of them, the best of them, are quite brilliant people who have combined their understanding of internet traffic with their ability to manage lists of willing acolytes to devise niche marketing strategies which have indeed made them very wealthy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But they are not copywriters.

So where does the confusion come from?

From direct marketing, of course. The internet marketers are generally operators of direct marketing businesses of one kind or another. And direct marketing depends on the skills of a copywriter to persuade a surfer or recipient that the landing page he’s on, or letter he’s holding, offers the immediate opportunity to purchase the answer to his wildest dreams.

So internet marketers do use the services of copywriters. And some internet marketers are indeed, themselves, superb copywriters.

But they really have to rid themselves of their identity confusion.

When they write the copy to sell their stuff, they are copywriting, sure enough.

When they sell their stuff, cut their databases, hold their seminars, they are internet marketers.

But only if they regularly take on and solve the problems of third-party businesses in need of communications expertise are they what you or I should feel OK with calling a copywriter.


That feels so much better.


Who’s in software and who’s not

I’ve been reclassifying the section of my website that shows which clients I’ve worked with in the past, and in which sectors they work.

Since we first configured the admin system for the site about five years ago, there has been a slightly unsatisfactory category named ‘Software Developers’. Into this have gone, to date, all companies whose output appeared to be software-centred. So that wrapped together both those companies that were in the business of developing solutions, to order, for other people; and those companies that were actually in the businesses of developing and marketing a product of their own, with a specific purpose in a specific industry sector, but which happened to be ‘software’.

It doesn’t work any more, does it? If we lump together everyone who makes something that is essentially software as being in the ‘software’ sector, fairly soon no-one will be in any other sector.

The world has changed and clearly a company which makes a specialist software product used across, say, the insurance industry, might be judged to be not so much in the software sector, as in the insurance sector.

So I’ve reclassified my sectors.

I now have a category named ‘IT – Solutions, Hardware and Infrastructure’, for everyone who develops commercial solutions for other people to order, manufactures hardware or provides technical infrastructure.

Everyone else goes joins the ranks of the industry for which their application or service is developed.

Cost or outlay – how to think about a sales letter

I quoted a sales letter task at the weekend for a man with a business that specifies and supplies high end commercial interiors solutions.

He had a sales letter that he’d written himself a long time ago and that wasn’t really, in truth, a sales letter at all. He wanted a new one.

So I sent him a modular quote, showing him what it might cost to do the letter, then what it might cost to produce a supporting leaflet to go with the letter. A la carte: see what you like, see what it costs, tell me what you’d like.

A few hours after receiving the quote, the man replied that he’d already spent most of his budget on printing folders and… and here’s the bit in which the thinking is totally beyond me… couldn’t justify the cost of copywriting.

Now lets put aside the question of why, then, he was looking for a copywriter to begin with.

What I don’t get is this.

Let’s say the man mailed 1000 companies with a new sales letter. And let’s say we got just a 2% response. That’s 20 responses expressing interest.

Now let’s say he was able to convert just 10% of these qualified enquiries. That’s 2 new customers.

Now I didn’t get as far as discovering what the value of a typical order is in his business, but I’m willing to bet it’s not low. So let’s be fair and imagine that one of these two imaginary orders were then to have a modest value of, say, £5,000, but that the other turned out to be a very decent contract with a value of £50,000.

These are just the first orders as well, mind. Who knows what these two customers may go on to be worth to this business in the future?

So let’s guess that the guy does £55,000 worth of business now, and a further … oooh… let’s see.. let’s just say as much again in the months ahead.

So in total, the sales letter he couldn’t justify the cost of might have pulled him £110,000 worth of sales.

Given that the fee for writing it would have been significantly less than 1% of this, how on earth can he have reached the view he did?

The answer lies in his choice of the word ‘cost‘. “We can’t justify the cost of the copywriting.”

To think of this, up-front, as a cost, he must be expecting zero return! In which case… why bother?

But sales letters are an investment, generally quite an effective one, producing handsome return on the outlay.

In this case, even my conservative calculation suggests he might have expected an almost fifteen thousand per cent return (that’s about 150 times) on the fee.

I don’t see how he could afford not to!

The edge of copywriting

When I used to work in ad agencies and write TV commercials, people outside of the business would often ask, “So what part do you do? Do you write the words?”

I would then explain patiently to them that though I might have described myself as a copywriter, the remit of my job extended from understanding the client’s marketing objective, or on occasion problem, through helping my strategic planning colleagues to find an appropriate and inventive way to tackle this problem; and from there through taking responsibility for translating the ensuing strategy into an impactful, clear and arresting creative strategy and then executing that into powerful commercials whose plot, action, characters, situations, images, music, titles et al were all my responsibility (in partnership with whichever art directors I was collaborating with at that time).

Not only was that responsibility ours at the start, in our office, while nothing existed save for a blank script page. It was ours in pre-production, once an idea existed, but that idea needed to be found a director and a production company; it was ours on the shoot, where we were guardians not only of the integrity of our creative idea, but also of ensuring the delivery of those elements necessary to ensure the client of proper communication of not only his message, but also of his brand. Finally, it remained our responsibility in Soho’s cutting rooms and post-production suites, where a commercial is so often lost or made.

So my view is that ‘copywriting’ describes, at it’s broadest but yet most useful definition, the business of thinking through, organising and then presenting any information at all required to place a case before the world. It’s an advocacy skill, none too distant from that of a barrister. (I spoke recently to a provincial circuit barrister who told me that he frequently receives the file containing the details of the case he is to represent in court only the evening before appearing. Now if that isn’t the same as copywriting…what is?)

Why do I raise this now? Because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where the edges of copywriting actually lie for each of us. Not just in our lives as marketing folk, but in our everyday and private lives, too.

This, in truth, is where the title of this blog – ‘all copywriters now’ – comes from. The idea that in an age where everyone is an accomplished disseminator of communication messaging, all of us now need to ‘be’ copywriters, taking control of and responsibility for the messages we put out into the world.

But what are the limits of those messages? Do they, indeed, have limits? Let’s try out a few based on things I’ve done myself, or known friends to have done, over the last few weeks.

Was a recent financial restructuring that I wanted to organise, and which required me to present my intentions clearly and positively to several different organisations, a copywriting task? Yes. I believe it was. The same case, put together less carefully and presented less persuasively might well have had an outcome less in line with my objectives than was achieved.

Was a friend placing his profile on an online dating site (answering their questions, selecting a photo of himself to upload to their server) engaged in a copywriting task? Too right he was. He has a clear message to put across to a tightly defined audience, and every word he wrote, and each nuance of the photo he selected, would be picked apart by that audience in making a decision as to whether to ‘buy’ his offer or not.

Is a sixth form student engaged in a copywriting task when he fills out the ‘personal statement’ section of his university application? Yes again. Within an imposed limit of 500 words, his job is to convince admissions officers at the educational establishments of his choice that he is the kind of student they are looking for. All his achievements to date, interests and thoughts will count in his favour if presented cogently, or count for nought if hastily listed without any sense of purpose.

You need to complain to the council about services? Isn’t it a copywriting task to come across as a reasonable and responsible citizen with a fair-minded approach yet with, too, an intelligent insistence on what one knows to be one’s due?

You want to negotiate a pay rise, insist on a refund, explain away an indiscretion, explain to a child, mediate in a dispute, advance a cause, project a wholesome image on your Facebook profile or do any of the pile of other things we all need to do every day in the course of living our lives, you need to be able to pull apart the facts, select the most salient (and sometimes, of course, only those beneficial to one’s case), and then present them with impact, guile, energy, seductiveness, persuasiveness or any of the other weapons of war we copywriters wear on our belts.