I noticed something dangerous on Linkedin the other week. A few of the already talented, experienced, visually literate non-copywriters I know have added “copywriting” to their list of skills and expertise.
This may not seem like a big deal to you. But at the risk of sounding precious, it is a very big deal indeed.
Now, I’ve got an A-level in art. I’ve also completed a Foundation Course in Art & Design. I’ve even spent the best part of two decades sitting opposite, next to, and behind (looking over the shoulders of) some jaw-droppingly brilliant art directors, visualisers, graphic designers, artworkers and typographers (etc.). I could easily make a case for adding “art direction” or “graphic design” to my list of skills. But I won’t.
Because I’m no more qualified to do those jobs than an anaesthetist is to perform brain surgery by virtue of the fact that they’ve stood in the same operating theatre while the procedure has been done.
Copywriting is not just filling in the grey lines on a visual, or turning faux Latin into English and coming up with a few headlines. It’s a craft. Painstakingly – often painfully – learnt. It’s the scalpel end of communications, where each word, phrase and punctuation mark is surgically inserted to elicit a particular response, strengthen a brand, build a relationship, alter a perception, plant a seed or whatever else the brief requires.
I once spent nearly two days working on the first sentence of a letter. Not because I was rubbish – I’d been working as a professional writer for seven years by that point – but because I was looking for the best possible choice of words to convey the best possible idea.
Another time, I saw a proofreader banging her head on her desk in frustration and despair when she got her first copywriting brief.
It’s that hard. If you don’t find it hard – brain-numbingly, shoulder-crampingly difficult – you’re not doing it right. (Or you’re actually a copywriter who’s been doing it for several years.)
Now, I don’t blame my former colleagues for claiming to be copywriters. In their defence, they may have been forced into copywriting by an uncaring agency or ignorant client. When I was working at a major WPP agency in London a few years ago, some writers were asked to work with designers instead of art directors. This was cruel. Cruel to the writer for forcing them to communicate visually as well as verbally. To the designer for having to work with a writer out of their comfort zone. To the client because they ended up with an inferior product for (almost certainly) the same amount of money. And to the end recipient because the finished product would not have been as excellent as it could have been.
Here’s an illustration for the hard of reading. It’s a set of materials (not to scale) I put together for my partner’s recent textile exhibition.
It was created with the word processing package I use and it’s OK. It did the job. But it’s a long way from good. Which is a world away from very good. Which is in a different galaxy to brilliant. And what we should aim for in all things is outstanding.
So, if you’re a client who’s thinking of “writing some copy”, or a suit who might just “trot out a few lines”, or a designer who’s happy to “have a go” at copywriting, think again. Make a call and get a proper writer in.
Because if you go ahead and “bash something out” on the keyboard, there’s a very real risk you will kill whatever it is you’re trying to save. As in the operating theatre, the specialists are there to perform their own vital function. Let them do it.
PS If you’re looking for an art director, graphic designer or typographer, I’d be happy to put you in touch. You should see what those people can do with a blank piece of paper.