One of my favourite books on advertising and one of my favourite book titles is It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be by Paul Arden. This, for me, hits the nail on the head.
Attitude is everything.
Just as you don’t master Mandarin or the guitar or surfing in a day, you don’t become a great copywriter overnight.
You’ve stumbled upon this humble blog because you wish to hone your craft. Good intentions, a willingness to learn – great places to start IMHO.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a little humility.
Hone writerly habits
To hone your craft, you have to hone daily habits.
Will Durant wrote, ‘We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’
Take David Hockney. From early childhood, he painted every day. It was ‘like cleaning my teeth’, he said in a recent interview. Consider any of your favourite artists or writers or performers or sportsmen and women – anyone who has excelled in their field – and you will see a similar story. Lifelong learners tend to be the high achievers.
And there is an art to forming good habits as opposed to bad.
I would recommend Charles Duhigg’s brilliant The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change. Most habit-forming behaviours begin with our hankering for obvious and instant gratification. Seeing such cycles and routines for what they are can be liberating, especially if you can recalibrate them to establish more productive actions that go on to become habits which take little or no effort. They become just part of your usual, unthinking routine.
Free yourself from distractions
Turning to our phones first thing in the morning has become a habit for many of us.
I went through a phase of obsessive reading on the subject of endurance running. One particular line has stuck with me: ‘To run like a Kenyan you have to live like a Kenyan.’ And there is a great truth there. These guys don’t start their days on gizmos and gadgets. They don’t take a car or public transport to school or work. Kenyan schoolchildren develop the daily habit of running. They often live spartan lives and running is at the very centre of that. Not distracted by fast food or late-night boxset binges or those screens, they thrive as running machines.
You may have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé, but you can’t do everything.
Your time, energy and attention are finite and precious resources.
If you suspect that you squander time, do a thorough audit of where your time goes. For a couple of days, say, or even a week.
Then consider where time is lost unnecessarily. Consider time torn off and wasted.
Many rely on to-do lists, but a ‘don’t do’ list is just as useful.
I watch little television. I use social media for work only.
What keeps me sane? What replenishes me? Family and friends; running, reading and writing.
Rediscover the lost art of sustained concentration
The ability to stay with something for a length of time is key to writing anything of worth.
Too much brainsnacking on the internet and social media and tech have, to some extent, eroded our ability or willingness to think deeply or independently. It is time to reclaim that.
These lines from T.S. Eliot, published in 1936, are as relevant as ever:
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Four Quartets (‘Burnt Norton’)
Keep your eye on the prize – specialise
Now is the time to specialise. Now is the time to immerse yourself in your craft.
For a time, in the early days at least, immersion is the name of the game.
And so …
The simplest way to improve the quality and fluency of your writing is to increase the quality and frequency of your reading.
Samuel Johnson said something along the lines of, the mark of an amateur is someone who writes more than they read.
Read the greats
Your writing is a distillation of what you read.
So read the great copywriters. Some initial reading might include:
Brilliant Copywriting – Roger Horberry
Everybody Writes – Ann Handley
101 Great Copywriting Ideas – Andy Maslen
Write to Sell – Andy Maslen
Read anyone who is interested in language.
I would recommend anything by David Crystal. Perhaps start with The Gift of the Gab, which could be read alongside Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. They provide a crash course on the ancient art of persuasion, which is what copywriting is all about.
Develop the habit of dipping into these books throughout your working day.
Read anything and everything
Insatiable curiosity marks out the best writers.
Ideas are the lifeblood of copy. Read whatever floats your boat.
But be aware of the need to challenge yourself in terms of content and depth. Life’s too short not read the very best most of the time.
Read to steal
Yes – it’s okay to steal stuff.
We all rely on the same 26 letters.
Words and phrases circulate and are endlessly recycled.
Of course, you can’t take swathes of copy wholesale and publish it as your own wit and wisdom.
The idea is make them your own. Recycle. Refashion. Mix and match.
You can never have too many words, phrases, images, ideas tucked away.
You never know when they might come in handy.
Take refuge in the idea that the best artists began as great plagiarists. To turn once more to T.S. Eliot, ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’
There’s no need to reinvent the sandwich. True originality comes from what you do with your ingredients.
For the sheer beauty and the music, poetry is invaluable.
It will also teach you the art of compression, and the pithy phrase that sings.
The best copy aspires to poetry.
‘Happiness is a cigar called … gives you wings … taste the Rainbow...’
Note, say, the subtle use of assonance – pure poetry which makes the message sound so right.
Develop the habit of playing with words
As children, we love wordplay, in the form of nursery rhymes and riddles and jokes.
Chopping words up is the best way to learn spellings and word origins. Learn about words, as opposed to simply learning words.
The ‘Great minds like a think’ advert for the Economist is one of my favourite spins on a well-worn phrase.
A lot of headlines take the familiar and give it a twist.
Develop the habit of doing this yourself.
Other games include choosing 3 random words from the dictionary and putting them into the first sentence of a story or social media post, or playing yourself at Scrabble.
The mind is a muscle: exercise it.
Read and watch comedy
Wit, inversion and manic invention are key elements of comedy.
John Hegarty sees irreverence as central to ‘Turning intelligence into magic’, the subtitle of his book Hegarty on Advertising.
David Ogilvy advises: ‘The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.’
Read current affairs
There is much to be said for Epicurus’s dictum: ‘We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday cares and politics.’
I follow the policy of news binges followed by news blackouts.
A copywriter has to stay current and that means staying on top of current affairs.
And don’t be sniffy about news sources. Read and learn from the best columnists, but don’t ignore those tabloids – they know how to shift print.
Accumulate reading matter
A reference library is essential.
Much of this stuff is personal, but for me, as a copywriter, I would include:
One good dictionary
New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors
New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
The Collins Good Writing Guide
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
Random reference browsing often leads to the best ideas.
David Ogilvy would grab a dictionary from his shelf when he was stuck for ideas.
Collect good copy
Whenever you spot something of merit, write it down.
Use Evernote or Word or go old school and keep a folder of clippings.
Then you can return to it as and when you like, rather than forget about it. You will see something new every time. And it will slowly inform and infiltrate your own copywriting.
Write as your target audience thinks and speaks – that’s the copywriting mantra.
This means paying attention to conversation around you, on the street, in shops, on public transport.
‘Always enter the conversation already taking place in the customer's mind,’ Robert Collier advises.
Listen to the radio
Local and national, highbrow and low.
Jot down words, phrases, ideas, topics of conversation.
Much of my social media posting begins in this way.
Carry a pen and paper with you everywhere you go. It worked for Leonardo da Vinci and he enjoyed a fairly productive and varied output as an artist whose interests ranged from invention to anatomy and astronomy. It would be quicker to list what he wasn’t interested in.
Today, he might well use a voice recorder or the notes app on his phone.
But also learn to switch off
There is a danger to that restless half-waiting for the next big idea. The next big idea often arrives when you have stopped stressing.
The current vogue for mindfulness says much about modern life and our worried distractedness.
Don’t miss what is in front of your eyes. Learn to switch off. Say it quietly: there is more to life than work.
Get out and meet people
Freelancing suits introversion over extraversion.
Copywriting entails – you’ve guessed it – hiding away from the world to get on with the writing.
Beware the lure of the cave, however.
Be open to anything and everything. Get out and about.
Mark Shaw’s brilliant Copywriting: Successful writing for design, advertising and marketing quotes George Gribbin:
‘A writer should be joyous, an optimist … Anything that implies rejection of life is wrong for a writer, and cynicism is rejection of life. I would say participate, participate, participate.’
And those are worthy sentiments with which to finish.