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A confession: I was wrong about copywriters who ‘love words’

Andy Maslen, writer

I am a writer

I admit it. I’m a sham.

Until a week ago, if anyone asked me what I did, I always said I was a copywriter. The end. A tradesman, not an artist. And definitely not a ‘writer’. I was wrong.

And I was wrong to write blog posts criticising other copywriters for their love of words. OK, for advertising their love of words on their websites.

Because I love words. Always have done. I wrote poems and stories as a child. I carried on at university, writing stories for the official student paper – Palatinate – and satirising it in a samizdat publication I put together with a couple of mates – Fellatinate.

I wanted to be a journalist when I graduated. I wrote short stories and poems in adulthood and even won a couple of small mentions in competitions.

So why my hostility to copywriters doing just the same as I had?

My friend Dr Sian Lewis is a neuroscientist. She wrote the foreword to my latest book, Persuasive Copywriting. She’s also a pretty acute, and astute, judge of character. Sian also reads widely and introduced me to Carl Jung’s concept of the ‘shadow’.

If you ever find yourself railing against some facet of someone else’s personality, or character, or behaviour – and that railing seems, at least to others if not to you, somewhat out of proportion to the offence – the Jungian interpretation is that this is a side of your own personality that you can’t, or won’t, accept.

Suppose you rant about people with tattoos. It’s not hurting you, or anyone else, with the possible exception of the tattooee. So why make such a fuss? Is it possibly because this ostentatious display of their individuality reminds you, subconsciously, of your own peacock-like tendencies? Tendencies you regard as frivolous? Possibly. So you disparage them in others rather than accept them in yourself.

I believe now that I wanted to do down my fellow copywriters for their professions of love for the English language because it was a love I shared. But, crucially, one I felt unable to express in anything other than a commercial trade.

To acknowledge their infatuation with writing I would have to acknowledge my own. And then do something about it.

Because the truth is, apart from a couple of failed attempts at creative writing, I haven’t written anything for my own pleasure in the last 12 or 13 years.

I used to blame my lack of writing on the exigencies of fatherhood. Too busy, too stressed, too damn exhausted to think about making stuff up.

Then, when that excuse wouldn’t wash – babies turn into toddlers who very quickly turn into budding young men who can go for hours without needing anything from me – I told myself, and anyone else who’d listen, that writing copy used up all the words I had. Also bollocks.

I took up the piano and claimed all my creativity went into that. Er, no.

Then a few things happened within the space of six months or so that changed everything for me.

First of all, the wonderful Katherine Wildman, a friend and fellow copywriter, recommended Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott to me. This is a gem of a book about writing and includes the epic advice, “write shitty first drafts”.

This simply means don’t worry about the quality of your first draft until you’ve written it. My italics. I found this single line massively liberating. At a stroke it silenced the army of critics, Twitterati and Amazon reviewers jostling in my brain and clamouring for attention.

Then I read Flow by the virtually unpronounceable Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (if you’re interested, you say it Me-high Cheek-SENT-me high-ee.) He advocates that we devote time to activities that are enjoyable rather than merely pleasurable. And although reading is enjoyable, writing is even more so.

Further, he says (and I’m paraphrasing here) don’t worry about being published – which, incidentally, perfectly echoes Anne Lamott’s advice. It’s the writing itself that produces flow.

Finally, I woke up and smelled the coffee. I am a writer. It was my wife and creative partner who told me. “You’re a writer who runs a writing agency to pay the bills.”

On holiday earlier this year an image came to me. Naked men standing on a clifftop, soldiers standing behind them, about to jump across a gap to a tor jutting out of the ocean. It seemed like the first sentence of a story. I got back home and grabbed a notebook and a sharp pencil. Then I just wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. The words were spewing out of the end of the pencil so fast I blunted it.

I grabbed another pencil and kept going. And every time I paused, worrying if a word or phrase wasn’t a bit too commonplace, I just ignored that inner voice and ploughed ahead with the sentence. I’ll fix the damn thing later.

I’m still going, rising most days at six to grab a quiet hour when I can find out what happens next. Which is tremendous fun, because I discovered I didn’t know. My protagonist is coalescing from bits of my own personality and other bits I’m inventing. He gets to do all kinds of cool stuff I wish I could do. And I’m finding out what it’s like to share control of a piece of writing, not with a client, but with the characters who inhabit it. Wonderful.

I was at a party a few days ago. I guy I know vaguely asked me what I did. And do you know what I said?

“I’m a writer.”

“Oh, OK, what are you writing?”

“I’m working on my first novel at the moment,” I said.

Interestingly, he didn’t sneer and say, “Fuck off! You? A writer? You’re not GOOD ENOUGH!”

Which brings me back to copywriters and our love of words. If you scan your primary school poetry prize certificate and put it on your website, I don’t mind. Why should I? It’s not hurting me or anyone else.

Maybe potential clients will see it and marvel at their luck in finding someone so dedicated to language and who’s willing to put their gift to work solving their problems.

Because it is a gift, and we’re lucky enough to share it. But don’t bottle it up and only use to sell widgets. Write something for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a long-form piece, either. Why not write about your favourite restaurant? Or a poem about your parents? Or start a blog? Something else I mistakenly railed against, ironically on this blog.

Remember, the words you write for yourself are the words you own.

Categories: Copywriter profiles, Freelance life, Structural tools, Style, and writing.

3 Responses to A confession: I was wrong about copywriters who ‘love words’

  • Joanna Tidball
    April 28, 2015

    Hi Andy. I thought I’d go retro and leave a comment on this post, rather than a simple retweet or reply on Twitter. I hope others will do the same, because I doubt I’m the only person it’s left a mark on.

    Lots of things you say resonate with me. When people ask me what I do for a living, I often say, “I’m a writer”, but immediately caveat that with something like, “but not a creative writer, I don’t write books or anything”. Seemingly, I’m anxious to avoid anyone thinking I’m claiming such a grand term as ‘writer’ for myself! But writers come in many different guises, and I am one, so I will endeavour to resist the downplaying reflex! Jung (and you) may guess that I do dip into creative writing, in fits and starts, and do want to pursue this further. The advice to bash out a shitty first draft is excellent. I shall endeavour to do that, and I wish you luck with yours.

    Flow is a great concept. If you ever need to see flow in action, just look at a young child absorbed in drawing or some imaginary game. That focus, that ability to get lost in the moment, with the world passing by around you, is inspiring. It’s a shame we grow out of it so easily. It’s difficult with all of the demands of work, family and other responsibilites, but we should all try to make time for whatever it is that brings us flow.

  • rentaquill
    April 28, 2015

    I started out by describing my job humbly, saying, “I’m just a copywriter”. That became ‘I’m an independent copywriter’, a far more assertive phrase. There was a short era during which I projected ‘commercial copywriter’ as my mots du jour, followed by a protracted spell of bleating about the minutiae in an attempt to un-knot the knitted brows. “I’m a copywriter, someone who writes commercial copy for businesses that need to communicate better,” that’s what I’d say. Or, “I’m a copywriter, scribbling out the boring bits and pieces: please, tell me, what do you do – ooh! isn’t that fascinating…?!” is what I’d mumble instead.

    For about 20 years or so, I erred on the side of caution: I did not want to entertain either the commitment or the responsibility, or the potential for shame and disappointment that most definitely would come hand in hand with being ‘a writer’ per se. It felt like a copout, using the description of what I love doing most as being a way to characterise my day-job.

    But then I started making a living at that job.

    I worried less about a penchant for pedantry and insatiable thirst for language, in all its nuanced forms. I painted patience upon my own countenance if people challenged my predications, simply because they comprised phrasing and punctuation with which people are less familiar – or if my delight in choosing the right words was tempered by a need to abuse others, sometimes. Sic. (Or sick. Whichever way you prefer to read these things: much depends on your lexicon and diaphragm.)

    Slowly, my confidence bloomed.

    I accepted that writing is most definitely a part of what I do every day. I am, therefore, a writer.

    In truth, I am also a lion-tamer and a herder of cats; I orchestrate and (occasionally) castrate as I go, when it’s necessary. I juggle; I wait; I balance; I anticipate; I speak volumes and say what’s on my mind, I stay uncharacteristically quiet and keep my own counsel (most often when I’m asked to share it). When I do stop managing, directing, accounting, explaining; thinking, designing, structuring and checking – sometimes I pick up a pencil. And then I sit down with a piece of paper.

    In recent years, this has happened far less often than it should. Woe is me. Et cetera, etc.

    And why is that? Well, like a drug-induced high alongside the exponential scintillation of seeing more and more pay-me-now drafts signed off, I am terrified – beyond words – of the depressing low that appears when I acknowledge there’s no brief for my own work. There’s no measure of its quality, except my own standards and expectations. Instead, there’s a hesitancy that I experience, when my blank page shouts at me louder than the nascent protagonist who’s crouching down, there, waiting for me, impatiently, in the darkest corner of my imagination. And I am nervous of letting myself down by writing the wrong words, first, despite being the one person for whom the first draft is perfectly acceptable if it’s totally shit.

    Quite recently, I promoted the idea of writing twentyone tales: one for each classic genre. It was a misdirected self-aggrandizing attempt to kickstart a piece of fiction that had stalled, fatally, over a decade ago. My idea of fun, I suppose. Much touted, never completed. Work got in the way – and there’s a small amount of irony, therein. As an exercise, the 21 were intended to be an outlet for the creativity that I’d stifled in favour of servicing other people’s needs…

    … what bollocks. I’m too old for that shit now. And I’ve accepted that writing is most definitely a part of who I am, every day. I write, therefore I am.

  • Geraldine
    April 28, 2015

    Really enjoyed reading about your ‘epiphany’, Andy. Even though I have no urge within to start writing fiction – starting my own blog last year plugged that creative need to write for me not for clients – perhaps I should start saying “I’m a writer” anyway? Usually when I tell people I’m a “copywriter” there follows a lengthy explanation as to what it entails, i.e. nothing to do with the law!

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