Imagine a conversation between you and a new acquaintance at a party perhaps, or a business dinner.
The new acquaintance: So, [first name], what do you do?
You: I’m a writer
TNA: Ooh! That’s interesting. What do you write?
Now let’s rewind and replay the conversation again.
TNA: So, [first name], what do you do?
You: I’m a copywriter?
TNA: What’s that?
Fact is, society values writers. They hold a mirror up to our souls. Or some such guff.
Writing is a noble (if usually poorly paid) profession. An art, if you will. With a proud history, stretching back to the days when Og Smith scraped ‘Mammuff’ on a cave wall with a burnt stick.
Which tends to leave those of us who are in trade with just the tiniest chip (or perhaps snacking solution) on our shoulder.
After all, we write too, you know. Sometimes with considerably more skill than those hacks jostling for pole position on Amazon.
And because we DO write, using the same materials and tools as our more elevated cousins, we can succumb to the oldest and worst problem in the book.
We fall in love with our writing. Which we can’t afford to do.
Here are the people who can afford to fall in love with their writing.
Poets and novelists with a private income.
Everybody else has to write for a reason. And a reader. Usually a critical one.
Falling in love with our writing is a problem because we aren’t hired, commissioned or instructed to write because our client loves reading.
They come to us because they have a problem.
A business problem, usually.
Now these vary of course, but typically they fall into a handful of categories.
Poor quality employees.
Not enough sales leads.
Poor cash flow.
And they believe that with the right piece of copy – on a website, email, brochure or sales letter – they can fix the problem.
So far, so good. That is the essence of our promise.
“Hire me and I will make your problems go away.”
But as I said, writers (even copywriters) do have this tendency to get involved with the materials and forget about the goal.
If you’re any good, and I’m sure you are, you’ll be adept at hearing the music in your writing where others are deaf.
You’ll see patterns where others are blind.
You’ll feel the emotions where others are that medical condition when you touch things but can’t feel them.
All of which is fine IF you remember WHY you’re writing.
Then you can put all your skill, all your talent, all your ability into writing something that will work. (And if it’s also beautiful, that’s a bonus.)
Seven symptoms to watch for
Here are seven signs that you’re falling in love with your writing.
#1 You write something that isn’t Plain English. And you don’t care.
Even if you’re writing for PhDs, senior engineers or CEOs, Plain English is still the gold standard.
Since your reader very rarely actively wants to read what you’ve written, complicating your syntax or vocabulary is only making it harder for them to get your message.
#2 You write something you know your reader won’t understand but you leave it in anyway.
A follow-on from #1 really. There’s a word you know the meaning of – love, in fact – but your gut tells you will be a stretch for your reader. Recondite, for example.
It’s too good to lose, plus it echoes the word three before. Ah, they’ll figure it out from the context, you say to yourself. Er, no. They won’t. They’ll feel irritated, embarrassed or bored. But not intrigued to know more.
#3 You use humour whether or not it’s appropriate.
“The New Esperanto Bible is the first time the Bible has been both translated into Esperanto and annotated in both Greek and Hebrew. And that’s the gospel truth!”
Is not the way to win sales among God-fearing folk.
Humour, notoriously, doesn’t travel well. So for copy designed to cross borders , it’s verboten.
But even within your national or regional boundaries, how sure are you that your deliciously inflected wordplay is going to raise a giggle from the person on the Clapham Hybrid-Powered Tram?
More to the point, did your client hire you with the brief, “Make ‘’em laugh”? No, I didn’t think so.
#4 You can’t explain why you wrote something you way you did except to say “I like it”.
If you think of the kind of writing we produce as being akin to joinery (a metaphor I like because it suggests craftsmanship but not artistry), this symptom becomes worryingly obvious.
Every word you choose, every punctuation mark … every paragraph break, every clause you make, every liberty you take, I’ll be watching you. Er, I mean, should have a defined and explainable function within the overall goal of getting your reader to do what you want them to.
Did you use ‘remuneration’ instead of ‘pay?
Did you use a semi-colon instead of a full stop?
Did you let a sentence run on for 28 words?
Fine! Great! Super-duper!
As long as you can explain why.
#5 Your writing makes you smile.
Actually, this isn’t so bad in the great scheme of things.
If you have managed to wrestle a sentence into shape that balances a strong terminal word, alliteration and a rhythmic pulse, and you included the client’s Twitter handle, well done.
You probably owe yourself a little smile. But…
If you did all that and left the client’s Twitter handle out, not so good.
#6 A client asks you to change something and you react defensively.
Oh, dear! Feeling sensitive about our ‘art’ are we?
This is one of those moments that we have all experienced.
And I freely admit to having come very close to throwing my toys out of the pram on more than one occasion.
(Not for a while though. In fact I was hugely pleased recently when a client complimented me on NOT reacting defensively to criticism.)
#7 Ignoring test results.
“Yea!” sayeth the Lord of Business Writing. “Verily, I shall smite mine enemies who conducteth scientifically controlled A/B tests, glean data as significant as the commandments on my stone tablet (or smartphone), then ignoreth them, for they ‘prefer doing it this way’.”
How to cure yourself.
Suffering from one or more of these symptoms?
a) You are not alone.
b) Follow my remedies and cure yourself.
The first remedy: keep testing yourself by asking – how will this sentence, paragraph or page bring me closer to my goal?
Write your first draft without worrying about rules, symptoms or anything else.
But then, when you read it back, be your own sternest critic. Let nothing past your filter unless it has some commercial value.
The second remedy: check the readability of your copy. If it’s on the low side, consider the impact this will have on your reader. Change it if possible.
The most likely culprits will be long words and long sentences.
The easiest way to check readability is to enable the readability statistics in Word (should you be in thrall, as we are at Sunfish, to Microsoft for your word processing software).
Or, cut and paste your copy into this online readability checker.
The third remedy: have a trusted friend to whom you show everything you write and whom you ask for unbiased, candid feedback. Which you act on.
The buddy system works really well for business writers. By swapping copy with your buddy you get two things. One, impartial and honest criticism. Two, the chance to tear into somebody else’s copy and get it all off your chest.
The fourth remedy: remind yourself – this is only junk mail/advertising/marketing speak/tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper * delete as appropriate.
However much your client is pleased, however much click-through rates soar, however much sales growth bursts through the sound barrier, we are only writing at all because it’s impractical to talk to all the readers individually.
That should allow us to keep a sense of perspective when it comes to our own writing.
The fifth remedy: start a diary or write a poem.
You remember what I said right at the beginning? About the types of writers who could afford to care just about the writing? Be one of those.
If I feel the urge to have a piece of my writing unscrutinised, unimproved and generally un-messed-about-with, I take a fountain pen and a fresh, creamy page of Moleskine notebook and I just write.
Nobody sees it but me. And I love it.
And I’m telling you this because
One way or another, you and I share a fundamental relationship with our writing. And it’s a commercial one.
We get asked to write copy. We write copy. We get paid. (When the client is happy.)
The copy is deployed. The copy works. We get asked to write copy again.
Falling love with our writing for its own sake can put a kink in that relationship that may never straighten out.
We get a reputation for being difficult. For being hard work. For being prima donnas.
OR, we learn to love the commercial process in which we play a small but important part.
When our client asks for changes, we listen carefully, make notes, and, at the appropriate moment, ask why they want the change and what they feel isn’t working with the copy as is.
And then change it.
If we really feel the suggestion will decrease the asked-for results, we explain why, in the client’s terms, and look for a compromise.
It’s called doing business. Something successful writers have always understood.