Tom Albrighton has just nailed up a new blog post, exhorting us to write better, not more.
Amen to that.
But while his conclusion makes me reach for my hat and chuck it skywards, I disagree with the logic that got him there.
Who are you writing for?
Tom kicks off with some doubts about a recent live careers Q&A on the Guardian blog.
(I must declare an interest here. With Tom, I was one of 11 copywriters giving advice on how to break into our industry).
Tom quotes one aspiring copywriter whose head was ‘spinning’ at the sheer volume of information the Q&A generated (it was a record breaker with 385 comments).
He then points to one comment made by copywriter Oliver Wingate.
Although it was Oliver’s only comment, Tom remembered it almost word for word. Less, in this case, was more.
There’s no denying that Oliver’s comment was a cracking one, and that it was memorable (it stuck in my mind because it got me thinking tangentially about one of my favourite books – Brewer’s Dictionary of Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics).
But when Tom goes on to draw parallels between poetry and copywriting, I thoroughly disagree with his conclusion:
Good poetry is not read once and forgotten. It demands attention, and repays it. It hangs around. It becomes part of you. Copy should be like that – something you read and re-read (or replay in your mind), finding more fascination each time.
No it shouldn’t.
At least, it shouldn’t have to. It depends what you’re trying to do.
Let me explain.
Don’t forget who you’re writing for
Returning to Tom’s analysis of the Guardian Q&A, he says:
I realised that I didn’t want to be scrambling and scrolling through the Guardian’s unthreaded blog, blurting out wordy, hasty responses to questions I’d answered in the same event a year earlier. I wanted to make a telling contribution, not a yelling one.
Broad-but-shallow coverage brings search benefits, which is why the Guardian wanted 11 copywriters all banging away at their Q&A: eight more pages of keyword-rich content for their site, and eight more URLs where banner ads could appear.
Now hang on. Let’s think about audiences for a moment.
Firstly, this was a Q&A in which budding copywriters asked lots of questions, hoping to get some advice.
The whole point was to give them some practical help – and even if their heads were spinning at the volume of posts, there was lots of good stuff in nearly all of them.
And because of the format, any aspiring copywriter could go and read the answers later – once their heads had stopped spinning of course.
If the 11 copywriters had sat at their computers, trying to craft copy that would stick in readers’ minds – and that they would possibly get hand printed on vellum – then it would have been a bloody useless Q&A.
And although Tom answered many of the questions the year before, the point is that a new set of people were asking them.
People like to be talked to directly – not referred to similar answers of a year before. The personal touch – speaking the other person’s language – is what helps the advice stick in the mind. Usually more so than the quality of words.
You can say the same about a lot of effective copy.
Similarly, while Tom’s right about the Guardian wanting some nice keyword-rich content to stick adverts on, they also want to create the best careers site out there.
One way they try to do that is to get experts talking at length about what they do well. A barrage of copy to pick and choose from works better than a small collection of industry-specific haiku.
So, everyone was a winner – the Guardian, the aspiring copywriters, the experts.
But it wouldn’t have worked unless the experts had answered a lot of questions.
It’s not just about the writing, it’s what it achieves
You have to ask yourself the same questions when writing copy as you do when taking part in a Q&A – who am I talking to, and why?
Where a copywriter often goes wrong (I’ve done it enough times) is by asking themselves how they can get their personality across in a bit of copy.
And while they probably take comfort in Baudelaire’s remark that while you can live for three days without food but not without poetry, it’s worth remembering that Baudelaire also pointed out that “Fucking is the poetry of the masses”.
You’ve got to speak the language of the other person, first and foremost. Or your copy won’t achieve very much.
David Ogilvy understood this. Rather than being the ‘overbearing, always right uncle of modern advertising’ painted by Tom, he had the humility to always insist that copy achieved what his clients wanted it to achieve – irrespective of what anyone thought of the copy itself.
And here I think is the point where Tom and I converge.
Where Tom says:
“Copy should be like that – something you read and re-read (or replay in your mind), finding more fascination each time.”
I think that’s something that some copy should be like – sometimes.
It makes me think of trying to sell a pair of trousers in a long copy ad. You don’t want people replaying your words in their mind, or admiring your style – you want your words to get them thinking about why these are the best, most economical, most stylish, most hardwearing trousers known to man.
In fact, you want to get your words across, almost without the other person realising he’s read them.
And that is both the skill and quality of what we do, rather than Tom’s desire for:
“…journeying inwards to find a great unexpressed idea”
I think copywriting’s about journeying outwards and using the language of the people you’re talking to – and using it to spark an unexpressed idea in their minds.
For me, that’s real poetry.