R-E-S-P-E-C-T (and how to win it for your writing)January 01, 2009
You know the old joke about consultants? You ask them the time, they borrow your watch and tell you the time, then bill you £100.
But year after year, companies (and governments) shell out millions of pounds, dollars, euros and yen to get the advice of expensive consultants.
The good ones are worth it – because they’re experts. They know stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff their clients don’t know, or never could know. And people listen.
Contrast that to your own experience as a writer. You spend many hours writing a piece of copy based on meticulous planning, research and thinking, only for your boss to whip out the red pen (this happens depressingly often) and start scribbling all over it.
So you have to act like an expert. A consultant if you prefer. Someone, at any rate, who people listen to and respect.
Seven tips for would-be copywriting experts
Here are my tips.
- This is a big one, but it has always worked for me. You have to be able to justify your word choice and how you’ve constructed each sentence. Why did you say “rock-solid”, rather than “guaranteed”? You must have an answer.
- Use quotations. Not necessarily in your copy (though it can work) but when explaining or justifying the way you’ve written something. Know your greats, from Claude Hopkins to David Ogilvy, Drayton Bird to Victor Schwab, Walter Weintz to Joseph Sugarman.
- Do your research. There are mountains of case studies, white papers and research out there, almost all free, that provide hard evidence of what works and why. One of my clients was shocked (pleasantly, I like to think) that using Courier could result in 20% more profits than another more trendy typeface in a mailshot.
- Understand how readability statistics work. You can prove that your version of a piece of copy is X percentage points more readable, ie understandable, than another version. And if people understand copy, they are more likely to act on it.
- Know your grammar. If you’ve ever met someone who says you can’t start a sentence with “And”, you need to know which reference book to throw at them (Fowler’s Modern English Usage will do).
- Log your own results. And get to know those of your peers. It’s amazing how many people will tell you to do something (or not to) because they “don’t like it”. If you can show them how this thing they don’t like produced better results they will, usually, back off.
- Read everything you can lay your hands on about copywriting. Magazine articles, ezines, books, white papers, reports, autobiographies. This is not simply a parlour trick – the ability to regurgitate what others have said. One of the reasons to hire a consultant is that they have the time to read, to amass inside knowledge and to synthesise new ideas from it.
And I’m telling you this because?
Writing a single line of good copy is hard, a whole ad, e-mail, website or mailshot fiendishly so. At the very least, your efforts should be worth testing, rather than being rewritten by someone merely because they are more senior than you.
But you can’t just stamp your tiny little foot and throw your quill pen out the window. If you want respect, you have to earn it.
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