The copywriter who stopped writing copy

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At this point, I find the most useful copywriting advice I give is to simply share the dependable counsel offered by other writers.

But while all the most useful instructions for writing better copy have been shared and shared again, ours is a profession that — like a child on an icy path — skids determinedly ahead every time we try to stop.

There are techniques I used as a young writer that I left behind with my dreams of growing a proper beard — and that would catastrophically derail my process were I to dust them off now.

But there are new things that I — several hundred briefs and a few dozen spectacular failures under my belt — am just discovering.

What I have learned in just these past few years is that the most interesting things happen to our writing when we cease trying to produce copy.

One of the many cosmic cruelties of succeeding as a copywriter is that the moment you finally acquire an adequate amount of technique, is also the exact moment you need to start reinventing your process. How many copywriters — those of great skill and courage and enviable craft — drift unknowingly into the narrow confines of ‘headline writing’.

It is easy for copywriters to become enthralled with copywriting — and it probably won’t be the unhealthiest infatuation of your life. But the words we admire shape the words we write, and it’s a desperately slender window of inspiration if new copy, like fine dairy cows, is only ever bred from old copy.

The problem is that we pay too much attention to the spaces we are being asked to fill. If the brief asks for posters, we write for posters. And, already, a universe of thrilling ideas that are not shaped like a poster are cut adrift.

(Preach that the idea comes before the media all you like, but I guarantee most professional copywriters are incapable of meaningfully separating the two.)

Instead, I have begun forcing myself to answer the brief in a way that is unrecognisable as copywriting. I write poems, tiny fictions, strange conversations between peculiar characters, instead of the usual headlines and straplines and everything in between.

I write my thoughts in ways that do not resemble ads, purely because it forces me to stop thinking like an ad-writer. I bundle the brief into the back of a van and drive it deep into the woods.

Of course, these curious meanderings are never what the client gets to see — but they allow me to write from places I’ve never visited before, to send letters back to my complacent, copywriting self from the edges of it all.

It may sound indulgent, and wilfully imprecise, because it is exactly both of those things. It is a reminder that when we attempt to write an advert, an advert is invariably what we write. But when we write in a way where we give ourselves the permission to be surprised, what we produce cannot help but be surprising in return.

Andrew Boulton teaches copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln

Senior Lecturer in Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln & Copywriter