On writing copy

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If you do a search of writing jobs you’ll pretty soon come up with that of copywriter. Sometimes it’ll be called ‘content creator’ or something like that, but it’s all pretty much the same. You’ll be given a topic, maybe some keywords, and told to produce a certain word-count.

It’s quite tempting, really. You’re a writer; you know how words work; you’ve seen a lot of bad writing on the net (where a lot of this copy will end up) and you know you can do better.

Let’s leave aside some seriously dodgy practices that companies use to avoid paying their writers (who are, of course, freelance so they have limited employment rights); let me just come to the point.

Writing copy is incredibly difficult.

This blog is full of copy (and, to be clear, Google tells me copy is ‘text written for the purposes of advertising or marketing’). In this case I’m essentially marketing myself. I’m attempting to ‘build brand awareness’ by creating little essays on the craft and difficulties I’ve found in writing fiction. I’m hoping to build trust in my readership as to my competence and interestingness.

I therefore feel justified in saying in job applications that I’m used to producing copy.
This week I had to write an article for my (former) local newspaper. It’s a little quid-pro-quo: I give them a little piece to fill their pages and in return I get a namecheck. I get the cover of my book in a thumbnail and hopefully (although I’m a little sceptical) a few extra sales.

500 words. That’s all it was. But it was perhaps the most difficult 500 words I’ve ever written.

The is in part because the brief (which unfortunately I don’t think I can share) was dictated to me and contained a few assumptions which weren’t justified and was also quite vague. It was partly that the word count was too big to just toss away but too short to really go into any depth.

I worked damn hard at it. I had two full drafts rejected more or less out of hand by my wife, who acts as emergency consultant on such things. It took me working right up until the eleventh hour on deadline night to get something I was happy(ish) with.

Now I know that this piece of writing doesn’t matter. The paper’s editors don’t care too much about quality – it’ll reflect on me more than it will them. To them it’s a useful little space-filler and, if it really doesn’t work for them, they’re under no obligation to print it.

No, the only person who cares is me.

I should use this as a warning; I should say that you must be wary of accepting commissions that take a disproportionate amount of time or energy or drain your happiness. But let me just say this: no writing is wasted. The article I wrote may be mined for future use. It’s likely that I’ll be asked questions about the article’s subject in the weeks ahead: If nothing else I’ve just had an annoying amount of practice in answering them.

It’s also a good writing exercise. Copywriting is a skill, and, like all skills, it can be learnt and developed. What took me days of struggle this week might be tossed off in a few hours in a year’s time.

Although, given that I still struggle weekly to produce this blog, maybe I’m not the best person to be giving this advice.

Marathon man

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In today’s metaphor writing is like running.

So you want to run a marathon. You’ve been wanting to do it for ages. Now you’re finally resolved – today’s the day. So you clear a few hours, sign yourself up and go out and run – and pull a muscle within a few yards of the start. Heartbroken you limp home and booze away the pain.

You know that such an endurance feat takes training, exercise and, at the last, a proper warm-up. And yet every time you read a novel – especially a bad one – you say to yourself ‘I could do that.’ Could you? Really?

If you’re reading this then you’re probably a writer, and yes, you probably could. You’ve most likely done your training; all the scribbles in your notebooks, all the half-formed attempts that led nowhere but to strained sides and refuge in wine. You’ve built yourself up over the years with the ‘bad’ writing that you won’t show to anyone. You’ve found your coaches – in writers you enjoy and in writing courses – and got motivation from your friends/rivals in your writing groups. This is you building up your muscles and your stamina, watching others fall by the wayside as they decide other tasks are more important.

Eventually, when you’ve got a little practice down, you choose your distance. The poets are the sprinters; the flash-fictioneers are hurdlers. Every step counts. Short-story writers run the 800m or the mile. The novelists are the marathoners. George R. R Martin chose the Ironman challenge.

Your first completed work was likely bloated; you got lost, somewhere, on the way. You trailed in a distant last. You are discouraged. Some give up here, happy they got to the finish line at all. It is, after all, an achievement to be celebrated. But some want to go on, want to make a career out of it. So they go back to their coaches. They memorise the route. They study other athletes, copy their training techniques. They trim the fat, smarten their kit, and run, run, run.

Writing is like any activity: to be good you have to work. You all know this. Yet there is a popular idea that anyone ‘has a great novel in them’; that all they need to do to be published is to get it down on paper. It’s strange how people don’t think this about becoming a rock star or an elite cyclist or any number of other disciplines. There’s an imagination gap.

Anyone can write. But to be good at it takes work, takes practice, takes time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.