Think! Goddamit, think! How To Write A Good Copy
“The secret is writing down one simple line after another.”
So let’s talk about copywriting (also known as “business poetry”).
What is it?
Where does it come from?
Why is it called “copy-writing?”
Nobody really knows these things, Minnix. If only there were some way to find out.
But we do know one thing. The difference between regular writers (also known as “writers”) and copywriters (also known as “business poets”) is that while regular writers mostly write to resolve some issues with their fathers, copywriters don’t care about that at all. They just want to convince you. Usually to buy something. Or click something, or vote for somebody, or think something. That’s why copywriting is the perfect career choice for highly manipulative people and sociopaths. (Just kidding here, obviously.)
Copywriting can mean many things. In the old days, copywriters just smoked pipes and wrote print ads for newspapers and magazines. Then came TV and changed everything. Then came the telefax, and didn’t change anything. But then came the internet and things got really weird. (Just look around you.) These days nobody smokes pipes, and “copy” can mean anything from the script for a 10 minute cat video to a single word on a button in an app.
It’s crazy, Minnix.
Oh, and no one wants to be called a copywriter anymore. These days everybody’s a Content Strategist or a Verbal Designer.
According to my research, the difference between good copywriting and bad copywriting is that good copywriting convinces people to do something, while bad copywriting fails to convince anyone of anything.
(But is it still good copywriting if it convinces people to do something that’s bad for them? That, my dear Minnix, is what’s known as “ethically questionable” or even “morally corrupt” copywriting, and I strongly advise you to stay away from it. However, I’m sad to say, if it works, it must be considered good copywriting. This should tell you something about the nature of copywriting, and possibly the state of the world, but let’s ignore all that. Try to practise only copywriting that convinces people to do things that are good for both them and the rest of us. That’s what I do, which is why I sleep so well at night, as my fictional wife will happily confirm.)
Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to your burning question: How can you start writing good copy?
Well, it’s simple, really.
It’s all about what I non-pretentiously call “the three W’s.” Who is trying to convince whom of what? Say it with me: Who, whom, what; who-whom-what, whowhomwhat, whowhomwhat! Got it?
I know, it sounds very technical, but it simply means that first you try to learn as much about your whos, and their whoms and whats. Then you figure out how to convince the whoms to do the whats your whos want them to do.
Like I said. Simple.
By using a technique that I, with a completely straight face, refer to as “The Three T’s.” Namely, talking, thinking and twriting.
First you talk to people. I know it sounds scary, but it’s vital to your success as a copywriter. You may think you know everything about everything, especially if you are a “millennial” or “old,” but you probably don’t. So ask questions. Even stupid questions. But, like, not stupid stupid questions, or, like, really stupid stupid questions. Stick to regular stupid questions.
Also, listen. Often the answer is there, staring you in the ears. And don’t forget to write down the stuff you hear, because, let’s face it, your memory isn’t what it used to be.
After you’ve done all that talking and listening, mix it all together in your head, and think about it.
Think! Goddamit, think!
Now, it may surprise you to learn that there are people who don’t seem to realise that thinking — or more precisely, thinking — doesn’t necessarily happen while you’re sitting at a desk between 9 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon. For some reason many of these people seem to have found gainful employment as “producers.” Like Kyle, for example. Don’t let them scare you.
You see, Minnix, when it comes to thinking, my advice is this: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Let it settle in your brain. Let it percolate. Let it flow. Let it blossom. Let it grow. Take a walk. See a movie. Read a book. Have a martini. Go to Bali for three weeks. Or Sri Lanka, which by the looks of it you’ve already done. To which I say, “bravo, sir or madam.” Well played.
Of course Kyle will want to see some results at some point, so you will be forced to stop thinking and start doing some “writing.” While regrettable, this is also unavoidable.
So here’s my advice: Write a whole bunch of stuff throughout the whole process, and see what sticks.
This, in my experience, never fails to deliver bulletproof results.
I wish you good luck.
But seriously. Here are a few tricks and tips to help you copywrite good.
I highly recommend George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Not only will it make you a better person, it also has the unintended side effect of making you a better copywriter. If you’re too busy and important to read the whole thing, at least read his six rules of writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
I’d also recommend David Ogilvy’s classic Ogilvy on Advertising. In fact, you would probably be better off going straight to that rather than continue reading this silly blog post. Ogilvy is cheerfully straightforward and unembarrassed about the purpose of copywriting (Spoiler: selling stuff.) He is also thoroughly entertaining.
I’d also recommend Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Power of Persuasion, which is all about the surprisingly irrational way people make decisions. And while Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is quite focused on UI/UX, it’s also has good lessons for more conventional copywriting, like keeping things simple, and not getting in your own way. Lessons that I’ve totally ignored in this blog post, obviously.
Then there’s a lot of books about writing, style, and Oxford commas. You’ll find them. You’re smart.
And finally, a couple of things from yours truly :
- Try to not write things you wouldn’t say to somebody face-to-face
- The previous bullet point is inspired by Hugh McLoud, who said “if you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face,” which is also valuable advice
- Always read all the bullet points — sorry, that’s not real advice, just me checking if you’re still paying attention
That’s more or less it.