My A-level choices were made thusly: Geography (because we got a week’s trip to Poole). Psychology (because I had/have a debilitating Agent Mulder Complex) and English (because I liked books).
In many ways, all three have benefited me as a copywriter (who now also teaches other people to be copywriters). Copywriting is, after all, a combination of all three. Psychology gives us insights, English gives us expression, Geography allows us to choose a place of work safe from the unrelenting threat of coastal erosion.
But, while my English A-level probably did more than any other class to push me towards a career in words, it also did precisely nothing to outline what that career may be.
In the school system of my day, an English A-level was a pathway to an English degree. Beyond that, who knows.
There was some brief discussion about journalism (long hours, we were told, plus the pay is poor) and writing novels (pipe dream, we were told, plus the pay is worse than poor).
There was never any mention of copywriting.
I don’t believe our teachers wilfully concealed the world of copywriting from us. Perhaps they had been bribed by ancient and sinister academic forces to fatten the coffers of university English departments and preserve the dubious legacy of obscure 17th century poets.
More likely: they simply didn’t know it was thing.
Today, from a different vantage point, I see the same problem.
A Creative Advertising course like the one we teach at The University of Lincoln is overwhelming populated by students tilted towards the visual arts.
Art, graphics, illustration, photography are the common further education backgrounds that springboard a student into an advertising degree. An English background is far, far, far rarer.
And yet, creative writing is as* fundamental a part of an advertising department as compelling visuals.
(*I say this for the sake of harmony with our ‘shapes & colours’ brethren — of course words are more important than pictures.)
Still we have a situation in which students are discovering the addictive thrill of writing creatively, in a time and place that is unequipped to steer them towards one of the most viable career paths for this stripe of artistic thinker.
Handily, everything one needs to know about copywriting — in order to pass it on the students who know even less of it than you do — is accessible to all.
For example, a book like Read Me by our very own Gyles Lingwood & Roger Horberry contains ideas and exercises that would serve as an ideal introduction to copywriting in an A-level English setting. The accompanying Read Me blog is perhaps the most comprehensive archive of advertising copy on the planet.
Cynics might say that this article is designed to deflate the swollen reserves of those old English departments in order to divert more fees into our own corduroy pockets.
I can’t argue with that. But my reasons for writing this — and for twisting the leather-patched elbow of every English teacher I meet — is to help ensure a generation of potential copywriters are not sent down a path of yet more academia, purely because a vocational alternative cannot be found.
Teachers aren’t to blame for not knowing what copywriting is — or how to get into it — that responsibility lies with the industry and courses like ours.
Rather, I’m reminded of an essay by the novelist Flannery O’Connor called ‘The Teaching of Literature’. In it she says:
“I do believe that there is still a little common ground between the writer of English and the teacher of it. If you could eliminate the student from your concern, and I could eliminate the reader from mine, I believe that we should be able to find ourselves enjoying a mutual concern which will be a love of the language, and what can be done with it in the interests of dramatic truth.”
O’Connor’s concern was for more teaching around the nature of the novel — mine is for an albeit very different sort of ‘dramatic truth’, but more specifically for a viable future in creative writing that remains defiantly beneath a young person’s radar.
But, if we can form a more natural pipeline between further education courses that unearth and inspire creative writing talent, and higher education ones designed to shape that talent into highly employable copywriters, we create an opportunity to pursue a love of words that has more to do with writing your own that interpreting someone else’s.
This should not be a difficult sell. Advertising, for all its flaws, remains a thrilling and surprising and creatively rewarding business. Copywriting, in my opinion, is the writing career that provides the most scope to make money from your imagination.
Copywriting, too often, is something a person stumbles into it. Too seldom are young creatives aware of this life at the time when their biggest choices are made.
So, English teachers, I implore you to send us your writers. We’re don’t know much about semi-colons, but there’s still plenty we can show them.