It has come to my attention that in my zest and fervor (this came out zert and fesvor the first time. I don’t know what it means, but I’m pretty sure it’s dirty) to start taking some pride and confidence in my work, I have completely overdone it. I have started to brag about stuff that I know to be true, but that you people have no way of verifying. It is, in short, put up or shut up time over here at Rogue Ink.
And so we hereby commence with the practical advice on copywriting.
I’ve been talking a lot about my ability to listen to a client, to understand what they want to say and how they want it to come across so I can produce that in my writing. “Great,” say you, “I suppose you just flap your wings and fart and that magically happens.” Now, this is only true if we have a fairly flexible definition of what ‘that’ indicates, so let’s move on.
When a client hires me, often they’ve had another copywriter in the past. (No consolation prize jokes here. I am very young and my clients tend to be older. They’ve been around, okay? I am a breath of fresh air for them, goddamnit.) The thing they complain about most often with their previous copywriters, and this is very important, is NOT that the writing was bad. Often, the writing was actually quite good.
The problem was that the writing SOUNDED wrong.
Clients, especially small clients, want the writing to sound like them. Or at least their company. Most writers’ writing winds up sounding like the writer, not the client. Having a distinctive writing voice is great if you’re Raymond Carver. It is horrible if you intend to make a living writing business copy. And I have news for everyone. Raymond Carver never wrote business copy. He worked as a night custodian once, but that is as close as he ever got to an equivalent payscale. If you’re going to work as a copywriter, you have to learn to write in the client’s voice. And to do that, you have to listen to your client.
Learn the Vernacular.
There’ll be a guy who hires you (or a gal, whichever). This guy has probably been with the company for awhile. If it’s a small company, he may own it. Either way, the voice of the company has permeated into his language. He’s going to use terms and phrases you’ve never heard before. He’s going to refer to his company’s clients in a certain way and his colleagues in a certain way and his cat in a certain way. Listen to all of that. Write it down if you have to. (You’re taking notes, right? For the love of all that is holy, take notes when you are talking to a prospective client.) He will never know that you are writing down the fact that they refer to their employees as ‘scrubs’ and their clients as ‘pains in the ass.’ You may never quote him directly on this, but the voice is what’s important, and the vocabulary is a huge part of that.
Example: when I was writing for the library, I assumed when I began that they would refer to the people who used the library as ‘patrons.’ Why? Because ‘library patrons’ is a phrase I’m used to. It’s how my library used to refer to me, when I was a wee tot. Get this, though: I was wrong. Brooklyn Public Library was busy marketing themselves as hip and cool and altogether dopesauce. They were modern, they were technology-savvy. And they called their patrons ‘customers.’
The only reason I didn’t completely screw that up in the first round of copy was because I was listening when the marketing department head was talking. And I thought, “Weird. They don’t call them patrons.” And I never mentioned this, but it was one of those little subtle edits that the client never had to make, because I was listening. Because I ‘got’ them. I got that they were hip and cool and savvy and that they had customers.
One word. That’s all. The vocabulary is half of the voice.
Listen Between the Lines.
The frustrating part of being commissioned to write (or design, I have it on good authority) for another person is that they often know exactly what they want. They cannot explain what they want, but they will know it when they see it. That’s all well and good, but given the infinite possibilities of tone and style, hitting the nail on the head first round is going to be damned difficult if you can’t use some intuition.
Yes, I’m a woman, and yes, my intuition works great. I am very sorry if any menfolk out there take umbrage. Suck it up. I can’t pee without dropping trou. We make trade-offs.
Intuition is only a wee bit genuine intuition, actually. Mostly it’s a multiple choice test. Like this:
What sort of tone do you want for your copy?
c) hip and savvy
The client is not going to volunteer any of those options. But you can listen to what they’re saying, and circle the correct box. I was talking to a woman who was one of the first clinical health psychologists in the world. She’s a very smart, matter-of-fact, wry-witted sort of lady, and you might have gone with d) at first blush. When I asked her about her work, though, while she was being smart and matter-of-fact, she was also being intensely caring, somewhere underneath. I asked her if she wanted to have a more medically technical tone or a more personal approach, and she instantly said she wanted a more personal approach.
This was a woman who had no idea what she wanted when I first met her. She did variations on the theme of “I really don’t know. You’re the professional. What do you think would work?” for about an hour. You have to pry a little bit. Get it down to options b) and c) just by listening, feeling the situation out. Then ask her which of those two she wants. She’ll be able to tell you. She’ll know it when she hears it.
If she doesn’t want either, start over. You’ve eliminated two options. You only have infinitely more to go.
Do Not Cheat
I can’t believe how often I say ‘don’t cheat’ on this blog, but apparently it’s what all those other guys do all the time. And I’m the rogue. I should be a cheating fool.
Here’s what I mean. Do not, under any circumstances, assume that you already know what the client wants before you meet them and assess the voice and the content they’re looking for. I got my first big job because they had first hired a huge marketing firm to write their copy. This was New York, so the marketing firm in question banged out some perfectly serviceable copy, professional, eloquent.
Boring as fuck-all.
I mean, really. I can’t even give you an example of how boring it was. My mind simply refused to coalesce to it. It ran through the channels of my brainpan like water off a duck’s back and then sat there, in a stagnant little pool on the ground, and a squirrel came by and peed in it.
When they hired me, they explained what they wanted. And I heard the word ‘inspire’ over and over again. We want to inspire our donors, we want to show that we inspire our clients, inspire would be an awesome name for a building that actually had a giant spire. Over and over. You cannot inspire with generic, normal copy. It is not possible.
Do not cheat. Do not write serviceable copy. Either you wrote it for your client, or you didn’t do your job. End of story.
Really, they do. This is going to be the shortest piece of advice I have, but when a client says, “I want it to sound edgy,” or “young,” or “fresh,” or even something fairly banal like, “professional,” they may very well want that thing, but that is not the only thing they want. And that adjective may, in fact, be the complete opposite of what they actually want. They think the word means something else. They are hoping like mad this cool, amazing, saucy word applies to them. And you are a writer, so you KNOW what the adjective means, and I am sure you can produce it, but it will not be what the client was looking for, because the client thought the adjective meant something else. It had such cool syllables! How could it NOT mean what they wanted it to mean?
Do not listen to the adjective. The adjective lies. The voice never lies.
This trick may only work for me, but it works great. I personify my clients’ companies in my head. There was one client who ran an online learning community for teachers, and she needed her website to have a nurturing sort of overtone, while still being professional and capable. I gave her company the voice of Mrs. Potts, from Beauty and the Beast. Would Mrs. Potts have ever described an online learning community? Nah. But her voice was the important thing. Her voice in my head, reciting the copy I was putting down, softened the edges on things that were coming out a little too corporate. Mrs. Potts wouldn’t say ‘exemplary.’ It comes out of her teapot all wrong. She’s say ‘excellent.’ That sounds warmer. Chip would be all pleased.
Again, this may only work for me. I’ve discovered it works very, very well with one-man shops (just give the company the voice of the person in question) and it is an extraordinary detriment when trying to write one’s own copy. When I try to write my own copy, I automatically start talking in my own voice, and I am not easy to work with. Goes like this:
“Well, what would you say about your work?”
“You just did it again.”
“You know, your voice really isn’t all that professional.”
“I hate you. I have to finish this website copy by Monday and you are not helping.”
“I’m just saying, maybe you should have been a WWF wrestler or something. They get to cuss all the time.”
“I’m not talking to you anymore.”
“Then how will you know what you sound like?”
You see the problem.
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